Lady Vols bound for College World Series

Tennessee used solid defense and stellar pitching to secure a 2-1 win over Florida State in a Super Regional that went three games to determine which team would claim a berth in the Women’s College World Series. Go inside with InsideTennessee for coverage.

Tennessee (47-15) eliminated Florida State (49-14) from postseason and accomplished a feat of overachievement to keep its 2015 season alive. The Lady Vols did it in rare fashion by playing with a lead in postseason and also did it in the usual way by keeping fans on edge until the end.

The Lady Vols opened the Super Regional with a 3-2 come-from-behind win on Thursday and then lost the first game on Friday, 6-1. Pitcher Erin Gabriel exited the circle after two innings, and co-head coach Ralph Weekly said in the post-game press conference that she was bothered with hip issues.

Cheyanne Tarango was tagged with three runs, so Weekly went to Gretchen Aucoin in relief and opted to save Rainey Gaffin for the clinching game Friday evening.

That was a wise decision. Gaffin went the distance for the win, including two strikeouts in the seventh inning that sent her running to the plate in celebration. When the third out was recorded at first with a groundout following an infield single, Gaffin erupted with her teammates.

Pitchers often aren’t the most demonstrative players on the team, but Gaffin sets the tone from the circle with her intensity. She seems to pitch even better when runners are on base.

Megan Geer, whose double to right center drove Gaffin home for the first run of the game in the first inning, said: “It’s great for our energy. I’d rather have to tell a pitcher she needs to calm down than try to get her fired up.”

Gaffin also proved her resilience. She took a line drive to her forearm – her pitching arm – and still tracked down the ball to try to throw out the runner in the fourth inning. In the third inning, she caught a smoked ball from Jessica Warren for the third out and roared as she left the field.

But the liner from the bat of Ellie Cooper caught Gaffin flush in the forearm, and the ball caromed to the first base line. Gaffin tossed a few test pitches, nodded that she was OK and stayed in the circle.

“My mama always taught me never let them see you cry,” said Gaffin, who vowed to finish the game.

Before the third game of the Super Regional started, Gaffin and Gabriel walked and talked on the warning track.

Gaffin said Gabriel told her, “Take the game one pitch at a time.”

Gaffin scattered five hits, struck out four, walked just two and allowed only one run.

“Before the game, I told the girls, “I’ve got your back,’ ” Gaffin said.

Tennessee squandered several opportunities to score, especially in the fourth inning when just one run crossed the plate. The Lady Vols added that second, and ultimately decisive run, without benefit of a base hit or a ball leaving the infield.

“It’s just softball sometimes,” Florida coach Lonni Alameda said. “You practice taking care of the ball. I think we rushed a little bit.”

Tarango walked to open the inning, and CJ McClain entered as a pinch runner and moved to second on a wild pitch. Taylor Koenig was hit by a pitch, and Hannah Devotie was inserted as a pinch runner. McClain stole third and scored on a throwing error home after a ground ball by Shaliyah Geathers.

“It was her steal of third base that set up that run,” Weekly said.

It ended up being the winning run. Tennessee would load the bases that inning with one out but would not score. Gaffin didn’t get rattled by the lack of run support.

“I told them I was going to hold them,” Gaffin said. “I love my defense.”

The Lady Vols entered the game relying on the long ball and faltering at times on defense. In the Super Regional, Tennessee didn’t make an error in the field and never left the yard.

Weekly noted the wind blew in a lot over the two days, and the team used a good portion of the week between games to work on defense, especially the infielders.

The result was a team that overachieved and worked hard throughout the season, Weekly said.

“I am just proud of our team,” he said. “I told them day one they could go to the World Series, and day one I don’t know if they believed it. But they got better and better.”

After the Lady Vols lost to Florida State in Friday's first game, the teams switched dugouts, and Tennessee returned to its home side for the decisive tilt. The Seminoles were still gathering gear and exiting when the Lady Vols arrived.

Weekly said he heard the Florida State players saying, “Just one more. I let our kids listen to that.”

Both teams are relatively young, and it showed in two half-innings. With the Lady Vols clinging to the 2-1 lead, they inexplicably swung at first pitches in the bottom of the fifth and were back on the field fast.

Then, Florida State, down to its last six outs, did the same thing in the top of the sixth, and the Lady Vols were quickly back in the dugout.

It was the softball version of last call as if the house lights were going to come on, or the stadium lights go out, as it were, and everyone had to go home.

“You wish you could be in the kids’ heads sometimes,” Alameda said.

Gaffin sealed the win in the seventh inning, and another sellout crowd of 1,688 let loose – after holding its collective breath for three games – while the players encircled each other in the infield. Tennessee will be one of eight teams still battling in 2015.

“I came here because I want a chance at a national championship,” Gaffin said.

Weekly is ecstatic to be taking this team to Oklahoma City. Tennessee will depart Tuesday and awaits the winner of the Kentucky-Florida Super Regional.

“I want to go out there and win some games,” Weekly said. “It’s a beautiful place if you can dodge the tornadoes.”

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