"That's why Tennessee is one of the best teams in the nation," said Furman Coach Dana Jenkins, whose Lady Paladins were making their first-ever appearance in NCAA Tournament play. "They know how to come to the ballpark and get it done every single day. It doesn't matter who they're facing on the other end."
Tennessee Coach Ralph Weekly would have preferred a faster start from his hitters, but the pitching left him immensely satisfied.
"We just talked to our kids because we thought we came out flat today and we're not sure why, but you don't last very long in this tournament if you don't come out with all cylinders hitting," said Weekly, the co-head coach along with his wife, Karen Weekly. "The pitching was outstanding, couldn't have asked for anything more, but it took us too long to get our offense going and we made some critical base-running errors early."
Senior lefthander Monica Abbott (42-3) pitched five innings and struck out 13 of the 15 batters she faced. Junior right-hander Megan Rhodes pitched the sixth inning, and retired the side in order to preserve the perfect game of no hits, no walks and no errors.
Ralph Weekly went to Rhodes both to get her some work and to get Abbott some rest.
"Karen told me, ‘You know you just pulled a pitcher that had a perfect game?' " Weekly said with a smile. "I told Karen, ‘Well, I'm more interested in winning a championship.' Who knows what's going to happen in a tournament like this? Megan's a very good pitcher, and we needed to limit (Abbott's) innings."
Abbott worked quickly and had wicked movement on her pitches. She rarely went to anything off-speed because her fastball and riseball were so effective against the Furman hitters, who went down swinging and looking.
Senior leftfielder and leadoff hitter India Chiles said she is happy to have Abbott in her dugout instead of having to face her in the batter's box.
"She's just an awesome competitor," Chiles said. "She likes being on the mound, taking control, being like our quarterback for our team. She loves that responsibility, she handles it well, and she just goes out there expecting nothing less but to dominate every time. So it's a great mindset."
Abbott was nonplused by her performance.
"It's the NCAA Tournament now and just wanted to come out and take care of business and tell my offense to put up some runs," Abbott said. "I just needed to go out there and throw it."
Jenkins, when asked if she could imagine a tougher draw for her team's first tourney game, said, "Absolutely not."
She advised her Lady Paladin hitters to focus on their offensive capabilities instead of Abbott's overpowering pitching style.
"We talked a little bit before the game," Jenkins said. "One, we talk all the time about doing the simple things well, and I think when you're facing such a tough pitcher like Monica Abbott – she's leading in strikeouts; she is right now the best pitcher in college softball and probably will be the best pitcher in college softball ever until someone chases her records down – as a hitter when you go up you really have to think about doing the simple things well.
"She throws a lot of stuff; she has a great riseball that she gets a lot of people out on, so you have to think about, ‘What makes me a good hitter? What are my strengths and let me just focus in on that.' If you start thinking too much about what she does well, you're in trouble. You have to get it back to the basics and keep things simple."
Megan Jaudon, Furman's senior catcher, said the experience of digging in against Abbott was butterfly inducing.
"I knew going in it was going to be really tough," said Jaudon, who struck out twice. "Coach prepared us this week to stay on top of the ball and make sure that we're swinging at good pitches and make sure that we're focusing on what we're good at and not what she's good at. To be in the box against her, to be normal, you have to have butterflies. The most important thing was to kind of stay calm and stay within yourself."
Furman's junior pitcher, Blake Murray, had surrendered only two runs through four innings, but as the Tennessee hitters saw her for a second time through the order they started taking advantage of the familiarity.
"I made a few mistakes; they got a hold of them," Murray said. "A few calls didn't go my way, and they just took advantage. They're a very good team. They know when to put the pressure on, and they did it well."
Furman, (21-35-1), which won three straight games in the Southern Conference Tournament to earn the automatic bid, nonetheless welcomed the experience of facing one of the top seeds in the NCAA tourney.
"It feels really good being here in the first place," Murray said. "You get here, you get on the field, and you have butterflies, but when you start you just get back in the groove of the game that you usually play, and you calm down a bit. You try to go at it as if they're the same batters that we faced all year. They're college girls just like us. But a few times they got the best of what I had, but I tried to keep mixing my pitches."
Furman will next play Winthrop (48-17), which lost to North Carolina (46-19) in the first game Friday. That game is scheduled for 4 p.m., and the loser of that game will be eliminated from postseason.
"I think the biggest thing is we've got to move on from this," Jenkins said. "Anytime you get run-ruled, it's never a good thing. It's kind of a momentum-breaker, if you will, because we just came off of winning conference, and then coming in and having Tennessee as our draw, which we knew going into it things were going to be tough. So right now just trying to keep them relaxed and moving forward. We definitely don't want to re-live this game."
Tennessee (55-5) and North Carolina, a 4-3 winner over Winthrop, start Saturday's action at 1:30 p.m. at Tyson Park. The winner won't have to play again until Sunday at 2 p.m. against the team that emerges from the loser's bracket in the double-elimination regional format. The loser of UT-UNC plays at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against the winner of the Furman-Winthrop game. The loser of that game is also eliminated from postseason.
The Lady Vols want to find their offense quicker on Saturday and eliminate the base-running miscues that cost them some early runs Friday.
"One of them was mine," Weekly said of the base-running blunders.
Furman rightfielder Meredith Mielke had shown her arm strength by throwing home to hold Tennessee's Tiffany Huff on third base after a bloop single to right by Liane Horiuchi. That hit loaded the bases – Huff had doubled to start the second inning, and Anita Manuma walked – and the next batter, pinch hitter Alexia Clay, stroked a ball to rightfield. Huff scored, but Mielke cut down Manuma by several steps.
"The previous throw I had seen the rightfielder fire the ball home, and I started to send her (Manuma) and then tried to stop her, but I wasn't that far down the line so I will take responsibility for that," Weekly said. "The second one, both runners got to third about the same time. There's not much you can do there. I think one of them thought the ball was going to be caught and one of them thought it was not. Both of those costs us some runs, but when you run the speed game, we teach our kids to be aggressive and most of the time you win by aggressiveness, but sometimes you die with it."
Another Tennessee runner, Caitlin Ryan, was thrown out at home in the third inning when she tried to score from third on a ground ball to the shortstop, Stephanie Cushing. Cushing fired to first for the groundout of Shannon Doepking, and the first baseman, Lynn Parmer, fired home to get Ryan for the double play.
But Tennessee erupted for five runs in a wild fifth inning when the aggressiveness on the base paths paid off for the Lady Vols. Sophomore designated player Lillian Hammond was hit by Murray and then senior centerfielder Lindsay Schutzler singled to left. Junior third baseman Tonya Callahan smacked the ball deep into right-center field, but Hammond – thinking the ball might be caught – got a late jump to third. Schutzler didn't and was motoring about three feet behind Hammond on the base paths.
Hammond got just past third base and turned to see Schutzler about two feet away from the same bag. Callahan had coasted into second when the throw from rightfield went home, but saw the logjam at third and headed back to first base, which had been left uncovered. Schutzler also reversed course and headed back to second, but Jaudon – instead of picking off Schutzler, who was in no man's land – tried to get Callahan at first. The Furman first baseman scrambled over but mishandled the throw, and Callahan dove safely back. Meanwhile, Hammond darted home, and Schutzler got to third.
Huff singled to left to get Schutzler safely home for a 4-0 lead. Doepking then hit a towering shot over the leftfield wall for a three-run homer to score Callahan, Huff and Doepking.
"Hammond and Schutzler got to third at about the same time," Weekly said. "The second runner (Schutzler) wasn't watching the runner in front of her. Lindsay with all of her energy was pretty fired up, but I like that."
Callahan ended up saving all the base runners by immediately backtracking to first.
"It was a very smart move," Weekly said. "We were putting it in reverse."
The Lady Vols' small ball approach wasn't clicking Friday with the slap hitters – Murray worked fast between pitches and could have thrown off their timing – but the power hitters came through for Tennessee. The Weeklys had challenged Doepking right before her home run.
"I don't know what it was but our slap game was not as effective today as it usually is," Weekly said. "It's like any other part of ball. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Karen and I both really challenged Doepking, kind of in-your-face type challenge before the last time at bat, and she responded with a great home run."
Huff also had a productive day at the plate, going 3-3 with her eighth double of the season.
"Tiffany is a freshman only in label," Weekly said. "Tiffany has played like a champion all year, and she just means everything to us. She's a kid that I like at bat with the game on the line."
The Furman coach said the Lady Paladins had scouting information on all of UT's hitters, but their depth through the lineup was too much to overcome.
"She had a good day," Jenkins said of Huff. "We had some information on all of their hitters and honestly for us it didn't matter, one through nine, we were really trying to keep them off base. They do a good job, they have a lot of speed in the top half of the order, they have power in the middle and speed in the bottom half, so our biggest thing was just to keep them off the bases, because if you have speed on the bases, then you have your power coming up, and it's going to be an easy run then, and then of course when you have your power hitters up, and they get on base, that's followed by speed, which always puts pressure on the defense. It's not a good combination."
Huff said she was seeking some postseason redemption.
"I struggled through SECs so I think that kind of fired me up," Huff said. "Me and (Abbott) had a talk, and she told me that I needed to step it up a little bit, and I took it as a challenge. I tried all week at practice, and it just came through in the game."
The Lady Vols had a week of practice between Friday's win and the 1-0 loss to Florida in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. The slow start was somewhat aggravating for Tennessee, but the offense eventually came.
"It was a little frustrating at first, because we've had a lot of offensive practices," Chiles said. "It was one of the weeks where we got five good practices in and it was like, ‘Where are all the hits?' We've been working on it all week. It was definitely good to see it finally come around."
NORTH CAROLINA-WINTHROP: The first game of the Knoxville Regional was a 4-3 thriller between North Carolina and Winthrop that featured a home run to rightfield and stellar relief pitching by both teams.
The teams were tied, 1-1, through four innings and then North Carolina got a two-run homer from designated player Casey Testa in the fifth inning that easily cleared the center-right wall. The Eagles came back to tie the game, 3-3, in the top of sixth, but the Tar Heels scored a quick run in the bottom of the inning to reclaim the lead on a pinch hit RBI by Anna Roberts.
North Carolina threatened to break open the game with runners on first and third and nobody out, so Winthrop Coach Mark Cooke summoned Jacqueline "Izzy" Trottier from the bullpen. She struck out the first two batters she faced and induced a groundout to end the inning and keep the Eagles within striking distance.
"That was big," Cooke said. "We had our opportunities, but we just couldn't finish. Take nothing away from North Carolina, though. Their relief pitcher came in and finished us off."
Tar Heel reliever Amber Johnson surrendered just one hit in the top of the seventh to record the save.
"When you come into a regional tournament it is important to get that win in game one," North Carolina Coach Donna J. Papa said. "I thought this was a great win and a very exciting game."
Papa didn't hesitate to summon Roberts, a freshman, to pinch hit in the sixth inning. Roberts fouled off a pitch before hitting a line drive into leftfield.
"When we put her in as a hitter she normally puts the ball in play," Papa said. "She has good energy and a nice swing. She provided the needed run when we needed her."
Roberts said, "Before I go to bat as a pinch hitter I always ask my teammates, ‘What does the pitching style look like? What should I look for?' It is a team effort. They said not to swing on the changeups. I found two (pitches) that I liked and swung."
Cooke liked the effort he saw from his team.
"This team has never quit on me," Cooke said. "They can be down one, two or three runs. No lead is safe. They always go out there and swing the bats."
The Eagles will try to stave off elimination Saturday against Furman. North Carolina takes on Tennessee.
"The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Tennessee is Monica Abbott," Papa said. "She is such a dominant pitcher that when Tennessee scores one run in a game, they have the ability to relax. Most teams don't have that. UT has a great offense with good hitters and excellent pitching. Their lineup is tough to battle. I don't think you can go in there intimidated. You've got to find some way to put the ball in play and make them make defensive plays."
Tennessee Coach Ralph Weekly has faith in his defense.
"Two out of the last three years we've led the nation and the other time we finished third," Weekly said. "We think our defense is a strong point, but if I was going against (Abbott) I'd try to put the ball in play, too."
Sophomore pitcher Lisa Norris (25-12) said squaring off against Abbott will be a challenge.
"I think it motivates me," Norris said. "Anytime we play a top-ranked team it motivates me. If I make one mistake, it could result in a home run. I have to trust my defense, and I do."
North Carolina and Tennessee played three months ago – a 2-1 Lady Vols win in eight innings in the Carolina Classic on Feb. 10.
"I think that our team is a different team now, and I'm sure North Carolina is a different team also," Abbott said when asked if either team gained an advantage from playing earlier.
"Great answer," Weekly added.
Lady Vol senior India Chiles wants to see Tennessee find its offensive stroke Saturday a lot sooner than it did Friday.
"We're going to have to get some offense going," Chiles said. "They have a tough pitcher, as do we, but you don't win without runs on the board. So we're going to go and get prepared for that right now – even more prepared than we are – and we're going to depend on our offense again."
ODDS AND ENDS
FIRST HIT OF THE REGIONAL: By Winthrop's Tessa Thomas, a sophomore outfielder/catcher, who doubled to deep center. She was the regional's first batter, and she hit the first pitch. Thomas also was responsible for the regional's first RBI when she lined a shot up the middle that the Winthrop base runner had to dodge.
FIRST HOMER: That hit by North Carolina's Casey Testa, a junior designated player. She drove an 0-2 pitch over the right-center wall with two out in the fifth inning.
BEST CATCH: That made by Tar Heel rightfielder Emily Troup. She dove for the ball – which was hit to center but kept drifting right on a blustery day with wind gusts at 25 mph – and caught it just as she and centerfielder Ashley Oxendine converged on the play.
Oxendine undercut Troup, who spun and managed to hold onto the ball for the third out. Winthrop had two runners on who were moving on contact so had Troup dropped the ball the Eagles would have scored and taken the lead.
"It doesn't get any closer than that," Tessa Thomas said of the game's ultimate outcome. "We gave it our best shot and played well, but we just couldn't catch the breaks we needed to get the win."
SECOND BEST CATCH: That of Furman's leftfielder Danielle Franklin, who dove to her right to catch a line drive off the bat of Tennessee's Tonya Callahan.
WORST PREDICTOR: The warmup pitches of Tennessee's Monica Abbott in the second inning. She threw high and even over the catcher's head with several balls bouncing off the backstop. One errant pitch clanged off a television camera support pole. She then struck out the side against Furman and recorded 13 strikeouts on the day to raise her career total to 2,316, which is the NCAA's all-time mark.
"The ball just slipped or something," Abbott said with a smile.
BEST QUOTE: That of Furman catcher Megan Jaudon, when she talked about trying to hit Abbott.
"I think the hardest thing for us to do is to track movement," said Jaudon, who added it wasn't the speed of the pitches but their movement that made Abbott un-hittable. "A ball can be coming in 60 miles per hour (what the players usually see) or 70 miles per hour (what Abbott throws). If it jumps three feet that's the problem. It comes out of her hip and we're like, ‘All right, we're touching it. Nope, just kidding, it's at the face."
"That's the problem," Winthrop Coach Dana Jenkins said with a laugh and a shake of her head. "That's what where we got hung up."
BEST ENDORSEMENT: That of North Carolina Coach Donna J. Papa of Tennessee. Papa said she was surprised that the Lady Vols fell to a No. 5 seed.
"Actually I was," said Papa, who added she was "shocked" that Arizona got the tourney's top seed. "I was surprised at that."
Papa noted how long Tennessee had been ranked No. 1 during the season. She also pointed out she voted in the coach's top 25 poll and was aware of the Lady Vols' success.
"It seems like Tennessee week in and week out got it done," Papa said.
BEST ADVICE: That offered by Tennessee leadoff hitter India Chiles to Lillian Hammond, who followed her in the lineup. After Chiles struck out against Blake Murray, she stopped to talk to Hammond in the on-deck circle.
"I was telling her how in my at-bat I was getting quick-pitched a little so I was telling her make sure you're in control of that at-bat," Chiles said. "I was making sure that she knew what the pitcher was trying to do. And that might be that pitcher's routine to just get on the mound and throw quick, and I was just saying you make sure that you're in control, because I didn't feel like I was in control of my at-bat."
It must have helped. Hammond chopped a grounder over the shortstop's head for a single.
BEST MEMORIAL: Those on the batting helmets of the Winthrop softball players.
The left side has a No. 24 sticker in memory of De'Andre Adams, a Winthrop basketball player who died from head injuries May 16 after a weekend car accident. Adams wore No. 24 for the men's team.
The right side of the helmets has a large white oval with Virginia Tech's logo in the center in maroon. A gunman killed 32 students last month in the worst school shooting in United States history.
Winthrop Coach Mark Cooke said the softball coach at Virginia Tech, Scot Thomas, is a good friend, and he wanted to remember his colleague's school.
"We put it on the helmets and on home plate," Cooke said.