Tennessee (56-5) can advance with a single win over Winthrop on Sunday with first pitch set for 2 p.m. If the Eagles beat the Lady Vols in that game, a second game would follow at approximately 4:30 p.m. The victor advances to the Super Regional next weekend and will face the survivor of the Los Angeles Regional – either Hawaii or Loyola Marymount.
The Lady Vols made their path easier by beating North Carolina, 2-0, in the first game Saturday and then taking the rest of the day off while Furman, Winthrop and North Carolina battled for the second spot in the regional final. Tennessee got two runs in the first inning and got out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning to keep its NCAA postseason record perfect.
Senior pitcher Monica Abbott (43-3) turned in another stellar performance with 17 strikeouts. She pitched a complete game, faced 27 batters and allowed only six hits. On two occasions, the first and fifth innings, the Tar Heels singled to get the leadoff batter on base, and both times Abbott answered by striking out the side.
North Carolina did manage a rally in the seventh inning by loading the bases with just one out, but Abbott snuffed out the Tar Heels' chances by striking out the last two batters.
"I thought that was a really good game between two good teams," North Carolina Coach Donna J. Papa said. "Tennessee took the lead early in the first inning, but I felt like we never gave up the whole game, and we battled to our last at-bat. I thought (pitcher Danielle Spaulding) did a great job on the mound because I think Tennessee has an outstanding hitting team. They have great team speed.
"Also to get six hits off Monica Abbott and especially I think we strung three in a row together at the end, I was really proud of my team with their battling up at the plate. I think we battled all game, and I don't think we were intimidated."
Such is the dominance of Abbott, though, that she can alter game strategy. The Tar Heels loaded the bases in the last inning on singles by Emily Troup, Jennifer Jacobs and Anna Roberts, but instead of opting for a pinch hitter for Spaulding, who had struck out twice against Abbott, Papa let her hit. Spaulding went down swinging for the second out, as did Whitney Gelin for the final out of the game.
"I think at that point if you haven't been in the game when you're facing somebody like Abbott, it's really difficult, and this was their third at-bat," Papa said. "They were able to see her twice and then they got the opportunity again, and they put it in play. I think it's hard in this kind of a game to put a pinch hitter in and for them to be successful. Against other pitchers it's probably a little bit easier but not against her."
After the game co-head Coach Ralph Weekly was happy to remain in the winner's bracket, but he was disappointed with his team's offensive execution.
"That was the worst game that Tennessee's played in the last 25 games," Weekly said. "That's taking nothing away from North Carolina; we just didn't even challenge them. They were a good team. Their pitcher Spaulding was really good, but I'm talking about us not playing well. I'm talking about not being able to get bunts down, not being able to steal bases, not being able to execute the very basics. I don't know what else to say, except that's not like us, and hopefully we'll come back and play more competitively (Sunday).
Tennessee had two bunters called out in the game – one for a double-hit on the ball and another for getting hit by the bouncing ball in fair territory.
"I'd like to give credit to Carolina for taking us out of our game," Weekly said. "I think Carolina and Spaulding were taking us out of our game. I just don't want it to come across like we played poorly and that's why it was close. They had to be a big factor in taking us out of our game."
Tennessee appeared to be on its game early. India Chiles bunted safely to reach first, and Lindsay Schutzler singled up the middle. Chiles' speed allowed her to get to third on the play, and then Schutzler stole second. That brought power hitter Tonya Callahan to the plate, where she surprised the Tar Heel infield with a squeeze bunt. Chiles scored easily, Callahan was safe at first, and Schutzler advanced to third.
Tiffany Huff reached first on a fielder's choice as her ground ball back to the circle was thrown home, but Schutzler had stayed put at third base. Shannon Doepking then lofted a ball into short left center, and Schutzler scored on the sacrifice fly by running over the catcher, Whitney Gelin, who was blocking the plate and dropped the ball.
The odds were in Tennessee's favor at that point since the Lady Vols are 46-1 this season when scoring first and 24-1 when notching a run in the first inning.
But Chiles, who reached in the second inning after being hit by a pitch, went down on the next play while trying to avoid the tag on a ground ball to second. Chiles twisted her right knee when she planted her foot and tried to spin away from the second baseman, who tagged her and fired to first to complete the double play. Chiles had to be helped from the field to the dugout. She was replaced in leftfield by Erinn Webb.
The injury seemed to deflate Tennessee, as Weekly noted in his post-game remarks.
"I think what happened is when the team found out that India Chiles (was hurt), all the air kind of went out of them," Weekly said. "I felt that was a very significant factor. North Carolina found out the same thing about their centerfielder and leadoff hitter, Breanna Brown, a couple of days ago. We both lost really key players. And I'm sure when it first happened there's a lot of disappointment over there, and there's a lot of disappointment here."
Brown was hurt in practice the day before the regional started and was not able to play. The initial fear about Chiles is that she also was done for postseason, but the Lady Vols' medical staff said after the game that the early diagnosis is a knee sprain, pending further diagnostic tests Monday. Chiles' prognosis, should Tennessee advance, won't be known until after additional medical evaluation.
The Lady Vols had to proceed Saturday without Chiles and will also be without her for Sunday's game.
"This is a very good team," Weekly said. "We've won 56 games on the year. We have the weapons to compete at any level. We just have to have the mindset. I think that's the best way to say it."
Spaulding settled down after the first inning when the Lady Vols got all of their runs and three of their five hits.
"They played short ball on us, which kind of got us out of our rhythm," Spaulding said. "But I knew that my defense was there behind me and so I just pitched my game."
Callahan, who was 3-3 in the game, accounted for Tennessee's two other hits with a double to left field in the third and a single to left center in the fifth. That ball was hit so hard that it got to the fence too fast for Callahan to get to second since the outfielders were playing her deep.
"She has a lot power so I tried to mix it up on her and tried to switch my speeds up," Spaulding said of her approach to pitching to Callahan.
"I just think I was seeing the ball real well today," Callahan said after Saturday's game. "I tried to make some adjustments at the plate from (Friday)."
Outside of Callahan's performance, neither team could generate offense after the first inning, but the Tar Heels did make the game interesting in the seventh inning.
"They had been swinging all day, and they got some good hits together at the end of that last inning," Abbott said. "I just had to come out strong for my team at that point."
The Lady Vols called timeout with the bases loaded for a quick meeting in the pitcher's circle.
"We just had everyone take a deep breath, Callahan said. "Let's stay within ourselves, take this one pitch at a time and take care of business."
Abbott retired the last two batters on strikeouts – she now has 2,333 for her career – and the Lady Vols had the rest of the day to regroup and get ready for Sunday's regional final against Winthrop (50-17), which won the Big South Conference tourney to earn its entry into NCAA postseason play.
"Our kids can do it," Weekly said. "I think (North Carolina) played really well; we just didn't play well. I'm hoping it's just one of those kind of games. I think some of the credit of that has to go to North Carolina."
ELIMINATION GAMES: Furman (21-36-1) was the first team to bow out of the regional after an 11-1 loss to Winthrop in five innings. The game was tied, 1-1, after the first inning, but then the Eagles erupted for seven runs in the second inning, and the Paladins weren't able to mount a challenge.
"Well, it's not how we wanted to go out," Furman Coach Dana Jenkins said. "We wanted to give Winthrop a little bit more of a fight. I feel like we made too many errors (four). We didn't hit the ball like we could, and we didn't make the adjustments we needed to make on the mound."
The Lady Paladins got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first when a hard-hit ball glanced off the glove of the pitcher, Lana Mackey, and went to the shortstop, Stephanie Cushing, who stepped on second for the third out. But in the second inning the Eagles came out hitting and chased two pitchers, Mackey and Vanessa Williams. Jenkins had to go to Blake Murray, who had pitched against Tennessee on Friday.
It was Furman's first-ever appearance in NCAA tourney play, and the Lady Paladins from Greenville, S.C, fully absorbed the experience.
"It was incredible," Jenkins said. "It's one of those things where you think that it's great to be here, you soak it all in, and you let the kids take in what they can and just enjoy the experience. But now that it's over it's one of those situations where we want our team to fight to get back here."
Said sophomore centerfielder Amber Kiser, "It was just awesome to make history, making it for the first time in school history. It was fun to be famous on campus. We were celebrating, and it was great to be here. It was an amazing experience."
Added sophomore shortstop Stephanie Cushing, "To know that we were one of the 64 teams in the nation left playing was amazing. I was just really excited, and I couldn't ask for anything more, except a couple of wins. But we'll be back."
Winthrop pounded out 10 hits in the game against Furman and then picked up where it left off against North Carolina. The Eagles got 12 hits against the Tar Heels and eliminated North Carolina (46-21) from postseason play with a 6-3 win. The second elimination game was a rematch of Friday's contest between the Tar Heels and the Eagles. North Carolina had prevailed that time, 4-3.
After North Carolina lost to Tennessee on Saturday, Coach Donna J. Papa said the team's goal was to get to Sunday's game.
"Right now you've got to try to survive," Papa said. "Our goal is to get into the championship game and then go at it again. We've played well this tournament so far, so I feel like we should have some confidence. I feel like we've hit well, I feel like our pitchers have done a nice job so I feel like we have good confidence going into that game. We just keep it simple. We go one game at a time."
After the loss to Winthrop, Papa said both teams hit the ball well and had their chances to win, but the Eagles played better.
"It's disappointing when you end your season," Papa said. "I felt like we were playing well enough to advance, but Winthrop hit the ball well. Our pitching coach said our pitchers were hitting their spots, but they were just hitting everything. They got 12 hits and scored six runs. We got 10 hits and scored three runs. I thought we hit the ball hard. They made some nice defensive plays up the middle. Winthrop really hit the ball. They did a good job."
Winthrop Coach Mark Cooke saw his Eagles get hot at the plate in the first game of the day and stay that way.
"The first game, we were hot with our bats, but that last game was just a tremendous ballgame," Cooke said. "We scored five on North Carolina. They came back and put a three spot up. When you see teams that play and compete at that level, it's fun to be here."
Cooke said the two games against North Carolina were similar, but this time Winthrop came up with the clutch hits.
"We swung the bats well (Friday) in the loss," Cooke said. "We left a lot of runners on. We had a lot of hits, but we just didn't score them. This team has always been explosive hitting the ball. We got on Furman early and just kept swinging and swinging. And yeah, it did carry over into this game.
"And, quite frankly, North Carolina might have been a little down. They played a great game against Tennessee and came out on the short end. We may have caught them a little flat early, and we got on top and then we maintained."
Winthrop also benefited from a pitching plan that actually played out just the way the coaches intended. When a team is battling out of the loser's bracket, spacing out the pitchers' innings is paramount to survival.
"The first game, we went with Cari Wooldridge, the freshman, and we expected to get on top and relieve her some," Cooke said. "Then we brought in Izzy (Trottier). She finished the game. Megan Evans has carried us all year, 25 wins up till this weekend. She just has been struggling a bit lately. We told her we needed four innings out of her today, and she went almost four innings.
"Then Izzy came in and got us into a situation to where we could get Cari back in. All three pitchers did their job today like we asked them to do. We had planned prior to the game on what we were going to do. Megan was going to throw four, Izzy was going to throw one and Cari was going to throw the last two. Our plans usually don't work out that way."
Winthrop got out to a 5-0 lead in the second inning. First baseman Hilary Peacock singled to left, and third baseman Mallory Hogan knocked a ball back up the middle to put runners at first and second with one out. A fielder's choice took out the lead runner for the second out. Leftfielder Lauren Blaser then tripled to right-center to score two. Centerfield Tessa Thomas walked and then rightfielder Lisa Kingsmore doubled to get Blaser home. Shortstop Stephanie Reid singled, and Thomas and Kingsmore scored.
North Carolina answered with three runs in the fourth inning, but Winthrop was able to hold off North Carolina's rallies in the other innings. The Tar Heels got the lead batter on in the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings but could only push runners across the plate in the fourth.
The Tar Heels had an excellent shot at scoring in the third inning when shortstop Anna Evans started off with a double. Third baseman Stephanie Murad singled to move Evans to third. But she was cut down at home, with nobody out, trying to score on a sacrifice fly.
"I'd still send her because she's one of the fastest players on our team, and they had to make a perfect throw," Papa said. "I thought it was hit well enough where we could score. She's our best base runner. She made a good throw from centerfield, and it was on. I'm more aggressive that way than I am on stealing bases. I would send her again in a minute."
Winthrop added an insurance run in the sixth inning when Thomas, who had reached on a fielder's choice and advanced to second on a walk, scored on a single by Reid.
"We played well this weekend," said the senior Evans. "We played Tennessee really tough, and we played a great ballgame this afternoon. All but one team has to go home a loser. Unfortunately it was our time."
"It's tough saying goodbye to six seniors," added junior Tar Heel second baseman Cassie Palmer. "Like Anna said we didn't play bad; the other team just played a little better than we did."
The Eagles surrendered a single to the Tar Heels to start the seventh, but got two ground outs and a fly out to snuff out the threat and put Winthrop in the regional championship against Tennessee.
"I can't begin to tell you," Cooke said when asked what it meant to his team. "I've been there 18 years. This is my first regional. Our first win was against Furman and then our second one was against North Carolina, which is a storied program. Donna Papa always has a great team. We're real happy to be in this situation."
Facing the Lady Vols on their home field will be a formidable task for a first-time team, but the Eagles first wanted to enjoy Saturday's accomplishments before turning their thoughts to Tennessee.
"Quite frankly, we just started thinking about Tennessee about three minutes ago," Cooke said in his post-game press conference. "We were concerned about Furman earlier, then North Carolina. We'll start thinking about Tennessee. We know everything in the world about Tennessee. They are a great ball club. They've got a great pitcher. They've got speed, they've got power, they've got a great defense.
"We'll start thinking about them in the next few minutes, right after supper."
INJURY UPDATE: Tennessee's senior leadoff hitter, India Chiles, won't play Sunday because her injured right knee will need further diagnostic tests to determine the severity of the injury. What was initially thought to be an ACL tear might be a knee sprain, but a timetable for her return is unknown at this time. She has not been ruled out for the postseason, but she can't be ruled in at this point either.
Tennessee now must find someone to take her place in the lineup. Karen Weekly said the injury – the team didn't know exactly what was wrong with Chiles, but it seemed serious – rattled the players, but they now have time to adjust.
"I think the key for that is now we have some time to digest it until we have to play again," Weekly said after Saturday's game. "I think when it happened … we all felt like we'd been kicked in the stomach because India is kind of the glue on this team. She's such an emotional leader for us. But we've got some time now to digest it and realize that we can't control it. Injuries happen. They're part of the game. Everybody suffers them, and we've got to find a way to regroup. Somebody on the team has got to decide they're going to fill that void."
North Carolina Coach Donna J. Papa, who lost her centerfielder to injury right before the regional, expressed sympathy for Chiles and said her presence in the game puts pressure on the other team.
"She's a great player," Papa said. "She's got great speed. She's a threat when she gets on stolen-base wise. So every time she gets on you know that she's going to go, or there's a chance she's going to go, and she's going to make something happen. I think she's a key player for them and that's tough for them to lose her and especially at this time of year. I hate to see great players or any player go down."
Fellow senior Monica Abbott said the team was upset but then had to regroup.
"We all love India very much, but there was nothing we could do at the time," Abbott said. "No matter what's going on with her – we have a good staff here, and they would take care of her – we have to go out there and finish business on the field."
Junior Tonya Callahan said the injury means another player has to seize the proverbial moment.
"I think it gives our teammates a chance to step up and take her role," Callahan said. "It's going to be big shoes to fill. We'll see who's up to the challenge."
Tennessee does have the option of moving Schutzler, also a senior, to Chiles' leadoff spot.
"The great thing there is we have an excellent leadoff hitter in Lindsay," Karen Weekly said. "We moved her to the three spot because of her RBI production. We've played her in the two spot to try to bunch our best hitters together up there. But Lindsay's been the leadoff hitter for us the majority of her career.
"That will be taken care of, but it's trying to find that person to fill that spot that India's going to leave in the lineup. Someone is going to have to step up, and we'll have to spend some time tonight (Saturday) figuring out what the best option is."
ODDS AND ENDS
FIRST HIT OF THE DAY: Once again the first hit came on the first pitch to the first batter. North Carolina's Cassie Palmer stroked a single in the hole between third and shortstop for an infield hit on Monica Abbott's first offering of the day.
BEST STRIKEOUTS: The three by Monica Abbott that followed that first hit. All three batters went down swinging. The most important one may have been that of Tar Heel Casey Testa, who had crushed the ball on Friday against Winthrop.
BEST CATCH: That of "Voice of the Lady Vols" Mickey Dearstone, who was broadcasting Tennessee's game on "The Sports Animal." He made a one-handed grab of a foul ball that cleared the net and came down right on press row. Dearstone didn't miss a beat of his radio play-by-play and got a round of applause from the crowd of 615.
"Put that in the notes," Dearstone said to the press box and official scorer.
WORST CALL: The one against Lady Vol Lillian Hammond, who was called out at first on a ground ball with the bases loaded in the first inning. She appeared to be safe, and Tennessee would have scored again, but it was the third out of the inning.
BEST BUNT: The one deadened by leadoff hitter India Chiles in front of the plate in the first inning. Even with the Tar Heel infield pulled way in, Chiles was easily safe at first.
BEST SURPRISE: The squeeze bunt dropped by power hitter Tonya Callahan with the Tar Heel infield playing way back. Callahan was safe, and Chiles scored easily.
"I was just focused on getting that bunt down," Callahan said. "I kind of had some problems earlier in the season with that play, but I really felt good, and I was just trying to see it down."
It was the perfect call because North Carolina was not expecting Callahan, who can hit the ball 200-plus feet, to leave it two feet in front of the plate.
"Tonya's a great bunter, and people don't expect it because she's also a great power hitter so they're playing her back," Co-head Coach Karen Weekly said. "We saw they were playing back and giving us that, and we got everything we wanted out of it. We scored the run, and Tonya got a base hit off of it. We couldn't have asked for more. It's a great weapon to have with somebody who can hit with her power."
BEST MOVE: Karen Weekly to third base coach from first base. Assistant Coach Marty McDaniel went to first, and Ralph Weekly called plays from the dugout.
"Karen basically runs the speed game," Ralph Weekly said. "I just wanted to put her out there. We share third; that happens a lot. One of us will coach third some times, and the other will coach third the other time. I just had a feel that she might be able to make something happen with the speed game so that's why we switched. And we'll probably switch back (Sunday)."
Both coaches smiled when asked about the switch. Karen Weekly said winning and losing streaks can sometimes mean a change to try to shift momentum.
"He calls the game still," Karen Weekly said. "There's nothing really I do at third different than what he'd do. I think it was just a little change of pace. I was on third a lot this year. We kind of got on a win streak, and it's been more of a joke than anything that if we keep winning I coach third. We lost a couple so he went back on there. I think it's really just an interchangeable thing that doesn't make a whole lot of difference."
BEST TOUGHNESS: That shown by Lady Vols senior centerfielder Lindsay Schutzler when she was sent home from third on a short fly ball to left-center. The ball beat her to the plate so Schutzler plowed over the catcher to knock the ball loose and score.
"It was huge," Karen Weekly said. "We knew we were taking a chance with a pretty shallow ball, but we wanted to go ahead and test them. Lindsay's got great speed, and she's great at going into the plate. She read that the catcher was blocking the plate, and she had no shot but just to go right for the plate, and she did what she needed to do."
Schutzler also showed her arm strength in the seventh inning when North Carolina's Anna Roberts singled up the middle. The runner at second got to third but had to hold up there when Schutzler threw the ball on a rope to home plate. Had the runner scored it would have be 2-1 with one out, and another runner in scoring position. North Carolina never scored.
BEST IMPROVISED UPPER DECK: That of two people in a pickup truck who stopped alongside U.S. Highway 129 and watched the Tennessee-UNC game. The southbound lanes of the highway overpass, which has a wide shoulder, run close to the field above the outfield. The truck's occupants stayed put for a couple of innings and then drove away.
BEST DEFENSIVE DUO: That of Winthrop shortstop Stephanie Reid and second baseman Sarah Magee. The two have combined for several web gems with stops up the middle and range to their left and right.
"We lived and died by our defense," Winthrop Coach Mark Cooke said. "This year, these two guys have been great defense up the middle. We believe in what they do, and they make great plays. Their effort really shows off."
The two credit their on-field synergy to having played together in Canada since they were kids.
"I think part of it has to do with that we've been playing middle infield together since we were 12 years old," Magee said. "We just get used to having each other around. I know if I'm going for a ball up the middle that she's going to be right there backing me up. I think a lot of it is coming from playing together so long. We grew up playing summer ball in Ontario together and then came down here to Winthrop."
Added Reid, "A lot of it is us playing together for a long time and just having fun with it. We always have fun with it at practice, turning cool different plays and just rolling with each other, having an imagination and creativity with our infield. We really take pride in our infield. It's something that we strive to get – a tight defense up the middle especially."
Magee also had a productive day at the plate. She was a combined 5-6 in the two Saturday games.
"Every time I go up to bat, it's a new at-bat, and I kind of forget about what I did last time," Magee said, by way of explaining her approach. "I struggled last weekend in our conference tournament, so I just came out here this weekend with a fresh mind. It's Monica Abbott on the mound tomorrow, but it's still just a ball coming in. It doesn't really matter who's pitching."
BEST QUOTE: That of Mark Cooke explaining how he got two players from Canada to come to Rock Hill, S.C., to play softball.
"I don't have two; I have 12," Cooke said. "I met a coach up there, and I got the first three, which are three of our four seniors. They were such great kids, and we kept going back. It's just like going fishing. Wherever you catch fish you keep going back."