But Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly, although disappointed in the outcome, made it a point to congratulate Oklahoma State (40-17), which forced the action all weekend by getting runners on base and putting pressure on the defense.
It was two throwing errors by Tennessee (49-12) in the sixth inning that turned a 4-3 lead for the Lady Vols into a 6-4 deficit, setting up the second comeback in the seventh inning that fell short.
"All the credit goes to Oklahoma State," Weekly said. "Our kids played hard, fought hard all the way. They just got some clutch hits, and sometimes we didn't. For the series we out-hit them, but some of those hits didn't come at timely times. …
"Our kids went up swinging the bat pretty well. This stuff just happens in playoff softball. Let's give credit to them, and we need to move on and get ready for next year."
Tennessee loses just one senior in Kelly Grieve on a team that fell one game short of 50 wins, but it is a significant loss. Weekly made it a point before the post-game press conference ended to emphasize what Grieve meant to the Lady Vols softball program.
"The one thing I want to say is that the legacy of Kelly is amazing to both Karen (Weekly) and me," Ralph Weekly said.
"When I think of her, I think of her diving into the runner at Michigan last year in the playoffs. I think of how she led us by herself this year, which is a tremendously hard thing to do when you are one senior. We had some help from the juniors, but I'm really going to miss her, and I know Karen especially is going to miss her. She has just done everything you could ask of a Lady Vol. A very special player in every aspect."
Grieve was a key piece of the comeback in the seventh inning as she reached on a single to short after Raven Chavanne walked to give Tennessee two on with no out. Kat Dotson grounded out to move up both runners and Jessica Spigner – after just missing on a scorcher down the third base line that would have scored both runners – lofted a fly ball into centerfield to bring home Chavanne and cut the lead to 6-5.
That left Grieve on second – she couldn't advance to third on a fly out to short center – with two out and Lauren Gibson at the plate. Gibson sent a line drive into leftfield, and Grieve, one of the fastest to ever play at Tennessee, headed home. The throw beat Grieve to the plate, but a television replay showed she got under the tag to score. When the umpire punched her out, Grieve was stunned, as was the capacity crowd of 1,649.
"I'm not too happy about it," Grieve said. "That's how it goes. It is a game of inches."
"An ending like that, you can't believe it almost," said junior first baseman Shelby Burchell, whose solo home run ignited the fifth inning rally.
Oklahoma State struck first in the first inning when leadoff hitter Mariah Gearhart was hit by a pitch, something that happens with considerable frequency for the senior third baseman. Her father used a pitching machine to condition her not to bail out on inside pitches and to instead absorb the contact as outlined in The Oklahoman newspaper.
Gearhart would alertly score after a groundout chopped down the first base line that sent Tennessee catcher Ashley Andrews nearly halfway to first to field the ball. Gearhart had stolen second and when Alysia Hamilton bounced the ball towards first, Gearhart circled third and scooted to the uncovered plate for the Cowgirls' first run.
Oklahoma State increased the lead to 3-0 in the third inning when Kelsey Anchors walked and Gearhart singled to the pitcher. They moved up a base on a sacrifice bunt by Ari Morrison, and Anchors scored on a sacrifice fly to centerfield that was deep enough to move Gearhart to third. Julie Ward sent a line shot into leftfield that scored Gearhart and Ellen Renfroe replaced her sister, Ivy Renfroe, in the circle to secure the third out.
Tennessee got on the scoreboard in the fourth inning after Kat Dotson singled and then moved to second on a fly ball in foul territory by Jessica Spigner. Madison Shipman doubled down the leftfield line to bring home Dotson.
The Lady Vols took the lead in the fifth inning. Burchell belted a solo shot over the centerfield wall to trim the lead to 3-2, and Sarah Odom replaced Kat Espinosa in the circle for Oklahoma State.
Tennessee's Melissa Davin walked, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Andrews and was lifted for a pinch runner in Whitney Hammond. Raven Chavanne singled, and Hammond moved to third. Dotson singled to centerfield to bring home both runners – Chavanne had stolen second – and Tennessee took a 4-3 lead that energized the crowd.
Ellen Renfroe got a strikeout and two groundouts after a walk for an uneventful fifth inning, but Oklahoma State reclaimed the lead in the sixth.
Chelsea Garcia singled to centerfield, and Tamara Brown hit a come-backer to Renfroe, who turned to get the lead runner and bounced the throw to the left of second base. Grieve hustled to the ball and kept the runners at first and second.
Ashley Boyd chopped a ball in the dirt down the third base line and reached first safely to load the bases with no outs, but Renfroe struck out the next batter, and then got to 0-2 on pinch hitter Tarah Ettinger before the count ran full, and Ettinger laced a ball to right-center that emptied the bases, aided by a throwing error on Lauren Gibson to allow the third runner to cross the plate.
"I was hoping to get one of the first pitches she was throwing, because I knew that was probably going to be one of the best ones I saw," Ettinger said. "I just tried to stay relaxed during the whole at-bat and watch the pitches up and try and hit a pitch down. I just stayed in there until I got the one I wanted."
Tennessee entered the top of the seventh behind 6-5 but mounted the comeback that ended with Grieve called out at home.
"I thought we had her, but I didn't have the best of views," said Brown, who launched the throw from leftfield. "I knew she was fast from second, and I knew I had to get rid of it fast and make a perfect throw. It just happened to be that way."
Oklahoma State advances to the Super Regional, which the Cowgirls will host in Stillwater against Houston, which won the Austin Regional.
"I just first want to say thank you to Tennessee and to Knoxville for putting on a great regional here," OSU Coach Rich Wieligman said. "I thought everything was first class. The fans were awesome. Everything about this whole regional was just number one in my book. It was a good time."
Tennessee out-hit Oklahoma State in both losses in the regional – nine hits to eight in Saturday's 6-1 loss, and eight hits to seven in Sunday's 6-5 defeat – but the Cowgirls were 2-0 in those games.
"The big thing in this game of softball, to me, is being able to get that hit, and Ralph and I both were talking after the game," Wieligman said. "He goes, ‘It seems every time you guys got somebody on second you clutched up and got the hit.'
"That's the big difference in these games a lot of times, just getting the right hit at the right time."
Coach Rich Wieligman, Tarah Ettinger, Sarah Odom, Tamara Brown of Oklahoma State
Kelly Grieve, Coach Ralph Weekly, Ellen Renfroe, Shelby Burchell of Tennessee