Tennessee (57-5) takes on Hawaii (49-11) at 8 p.m. Eastern on Friday at Tyson Park. The game will be televised on ESPNU and broadcast on The Sports Animal (99.1/99.3 FM, 990AM). Game two between the Lady Vols and the Wahine is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday with a third game, if necessary at 6:30 p.m. The winner of the three-game series goes to the WCWS in Oklahoma City, Okla., to face the winner of the Florida-Texas A&M Super Regional in an eight-team, double-elimination format that will ultimately crown the national champion.
Tennessee has two players on its roster from Hawai'i – sophomore shortstop Liane Horiuchi and freshman utility player Anita Manuma.
"We played on the same summer league team so when Ralph and Karen came down recruiting they talked to both of us," Horiuchi said. "It's great having someone here with me."
Manuma has two sisters on the Wahine roster, Valana and Malama Manuma, but only Valana, a shortstop, will be in Knoxville. Malama is taking a redshirt year to recover from a shoulder injury.
Co-head Coach Ralph Weekly, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force, was stationed in Hawai'i and became a part of the softball scene there. That connection helped him recruit Horiuchi.
"Ralph knew Liane's travel ball coach, Jake Jicha, from many years ago because Ralph lived in Hawai'i," Karen Weekly said. "He was stationed over there playing and coaching ball. I think Liane was in the eighth grade when her travel ball team played in a national tournament in Salem, Virginia, and Jake brought their whole team down here to Tennessee to see the campus, and it was shortly after we had been hired here.
"That was her first exposure to Tennessee, and Jake kept telling us about the different players he had and how they were progressing. We went over to Hawai'i the summer after her junior year to watch her and some of the other kids play and knew that we wanted her."
Horiuchi was accompanied on a recruiting visit to Knoxville by her mother, Diane Pedro, and they attended the Tennessee-Notre Dame football game and met Lady Vols basketball Coach Pat Summitt.
"I came on my recruiting trip, and I fell in love with the campus and the sports environment," Horiuchi said of her decision to travel from Wahiawa to Tennessee to play college ball. "The community was so supportive, and I knew Tennessee was a great softball team and would have a chance to possibly win the national championship so that is why I came to Tennessee."
She is the starting shortstop for Tennessee – she has started 57 games and played in all 62, one of three players on the roster to see action in every game this season – and has a gaudy .991 fielding percentage with only one error.
"Liane is a tremendous defensive player," Karen Weekly said. "I don't know that I've ever coached a better defensive shortstop than Liane. I think she's only made one or two errors on the season or some crazy number like that. That's just unheard of for a shortstop at this level."
Horiuchi is hitting .222 – a batting percentage that the coaches expect will improve – and she has shown some pop with two home runs. Horiuchi also has some speed on the base paths with 13 swipes in 16 stolen base attempts.
"Her bat is starting to come around," Weekly said. "She has the ability. We see it day in and day out in practice. It's just making that transition into the games and being used to seeing the kind of pitching you see at this level. I think that takes some time because playing in Hawai'i they don't get over to the mainland as much as they would like to get exposed to the different types of pitching. And they have some good pitching in Hawai'i but not as much as they're going to see in the mainland so that's taking a little bit of time. But she's got a lot of power in her bat; she's just a great all-around player."
Horiuchi will be able to showcase her skills this weekend against a team that she knows well.
"It's really exciting," she said of the matchup against Hawai'i. "It's a great opportunity to play people that you knew growing up and basically played with my whole life. I went to high school with a couple of them and I played summer ball with them so I know half of their team and am really close with a lot of them. This is going to be a great opportunity, and I am looking forward to this challenge."
Hawai'i, which has been on the road since the WAC tournament in early May, earned the right to come to Knoxville by knocking off UCLA in its home regional in Los Angeles.
"It's pretty amazing of all the schools that start off playing – and there's only 16 left right now – and the one we do get matched up with is Hawai'i with that connection, because I'm sure nobody else in the country has such an Hawaiian flavor to their team besides us," Weekly said. "It's really neat for these girls, and I know they're excited about it, and there will be a lot of family and friends here this weekend."
Weekly is hoping Tennessee's fans will fill up Tyson Park and provide the Lady Vols with some vocal support.
"It's huge," she said. "We would love for this place to be packed and for people to be really loud, because we know Hawai'i is going to bring maybe a small contingent but a very loud contingent of fans."
For Horiuchi and Manuma the series means even a little bit more. They will return to Hawai'i later and want to go home as winners.
"We all don't want to lose because we're all very good friends," Horiuchi said. "It's very serious. I'm sure there's going to be some joking on the side after it's all said and done, but there are definitely some bragging rights after this series."
The underclassmen also are playing for the seniors, especially after the loss of senior outfielder India Chiles, who injured her right knee – she tore the ACL – last weekend and is out for the Super Regional. She is rehabbing in the hopes of being able to play next weekend, if Tennessee were to advance to the WCWS.
"Our senior class is filled with so much talent and great leadership," Horiuchi said. "I felt this would be a great chance for us to compete for a national championship so this is definitely a big year for us, and we're trying to take advantage of the time we have this year."
The days of practice between the regional and Super Regional were used to get ready for the Wahine and to try to find a steady replacement for Chiles in the lineup. Manuma acquitted herself well last Sunday by starting in rightfield and going 3-4 at the plate.
"I think our practices have been good," Weekly said. "It's a little different when you're just preparing for one opponent. You can put all your focus on that. The key this week is finding out who's going to step up to fill India's shoes, because those are some big shoes to fill, and that was a real key loss for us. But we have a lot of confidence in the depth on this team and that somebody is going to seize that opportunity."
The Weeklys are looking for a complete game on both sides of the ball and feel like this Tennessee team still needs to hit its stride.
"We've had a lot more focused practices, working on pitch selection, just fine tuning," Horiuchi said. "Ralph is definitely always on our butts, but I guess it just shows how much he expects from that. I know that we are capable of fulfilling that challenge."
At least the players have nothing but softball to occupy their time. School ended earlier this month so the time between games and practices doesn't have to be spent studying or going to class.
"It's a whole lot easier, especially being done with finals and school," Horiuchi said. "You have a lot more time to relax and focus on softball. We've had time to watch TV, relax, do some fun things that keep you enjoying our time off but also be sure to focus on softball. We watch film and concentrate on the things we need to work on."
The Lady Vols also have slipped back into the preferred underdog role. They were the circled game on the calendar for opponents most of the season – they have finished third in the country for two straight years and spent many weeks at No. 1 this season – but with the No. 5 national seed and losing the top spot to Alabama before that series, Tennessee settled back into the role of hunter.
"I think all season we were the hunted up until the Alabama series," Karen Weekly said. "We went into that, we were ranked number two, and they were ranked number one. The kids really responded to being the underdog."
Tennessee swept the two-game series and won the program's first regular season SEC title.
"Quite frankly they feel like the underdog again now because after getting the fifth seed and feeling like, ‘Well maybe people don't think we're all that good,' and then India got hurt, and Hawai'i has some very impressive numbers coming in and there's a lot of talk about, ‘Well, Hawai'i is going to pull off an upset,' I think our kids have taken on an underdog mentality right now, and hopefully that will be a good thing," Weekly said.
Hawai'i is one victory away from 50 for the season and has wins over NCAA tourney participants Baylor, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Nebraska, and DePaul. The Wahine have hammered an eye-popping 80 home runs – seventh in the country – and are ninth in scoring at 6.08 runs per game. Hawai'i has out-scored its opponents by 237 runs.
Hawai'i is led by all-purpose junior Kate Robinson who has not only led the offense with a team-best 18 HRs and 69 RBI, but also has contributed in the circle as the WAC Pitcher of the Year with a 16-1 record, 1.71 ERA and 95 Ks in 127 frames. Senior Tyleen Tausaga, the WAC player of the year, leads the team in batting average at .410 and has 15 homers and 51 RBI.
Tennessee also is crossing the plate at a considerable clip with 332 runs on the season and has out-scored its opponents by 285 runs. The Lady Vols average 5.35 runs per game and have not been scored on in NCAA postseason play. Tennessee has hit 37 home runs on the season.
For the Lady Vols this weekend is another step to their stated preseason goal – get back to Oklahoma City and finish on top this time. That means distilling the game down to its basics.
"We definitely have a lot of expectations, but I think we're just trying to focus on our game," Horiuchi said. "I feel that as long as we focus on what we need to do and like everybody says, ‘One pitch at a time,' and focus on playing the Tennessee way then we'll be fine."
Tennessee is one of five SEC schools remaining in the field of 16 – the others are Alabama, Florida, LSU and South Carolina – so the conference has already made quite a statement for itself on the national scene. The SEC teams felt disrespected by the low seeding when the brackets were announced two weeks ago.
"Very proud of the conference," Karen Weekly said. "I think we showed them that we're a lot stronger than they gave us credit for with the seedings. It's unfortunate that because of those seedings four of the five that are still alive have to play on the road this weekend.
"But a lot of those schools played on the road last weekend and did very well. So hopefully we can keep it going another week."