Tennessee (59-6) will leave Tuesday morning – opening ceremonies are later that day – but the Lady Vols will take some time this weekend to savor the win.
A celebration erupted with the final out – a strikeout by Monica Abbott – as the players hugged each other in front of their dugout. An hour after the game was over, dozens of fans lined up along the fence down the leftfield line to get autographs from the players and take photos.
"The girls are definitely going to enjoy this tonight and all day tomorrow," Co-head Coach Karen Weekly said. "We're giving them a much-needed day of rest (Sunday). Then we'll be working out on Monday and hit the road Tuesday morning. I'm sure the coaching staff will enjoy it for about another hour, and then we'll be watching video."
The Tennessee players wore two leis after the final game – one of orchids that were handmade by the Hawai'i team and presented to the Lady Vols after the game and another with small packages of macadamia nuts offered by the mother of UT outfielder Anita Manuma and Hawai'i shortstop Valana Manuma.
"The first thing I want to say is my heart's overflowing with Aloha," Tennessee co-head Coach Ralph Weekly said. "That may sound corny. We have a lot of friends over there being that we recruit the islands, and I just think both teams played fantastically and both teams left it all on the field, and both teams had a shot of winning it all at some point during the day."
While the writers gathered in the media tent for post-game press conferences, the two teams gathered in the outfield and formed a prayer circle.
"They're warriors, but they're giving," Co-head Coach Ralph Weekly said. "We had a picture out there that you guys probably didn't see. First, we had a prayer together, Tennessee and Hawai'i holding hands, and then we had a picture with both teams together. We're going to put that up in our new locker room. I can tell you it's going to be a beautiful picture."
Saturday's two games were the last at Tyson Park, not just for this season, but for the softball program. The Lady Vols are scheduled to move into a new softball stadium next door to the soccer complex off Neyland Drive next season. After the first game and through the first three innings of the second game Tennessee was in danger of having this season end for good, too.
Hawaii (50-13) jumped on Monica Abbott early in the first game, 2-0, and Ralph Weekly summoned Megan Rhodes from the bullpen. Tennessee came back to tie the game 2-2 in the third inning, but the Wahine added three more runs in the fourth inning and mounted a 9-2 lead.
"Our game plan was if we run into any problems early we're going to make the change," Ralph Weekly said. "We did that because we felt they were going to bring in their infield, which they did, shorten their swings. They were going to make some adjustments to the game. And when they got two runs up really early we thought we'd bring Megan in and see what would happen and then bring Monica back in if we needed to, to win that game. And when we tied it up we started getting Monica warmed up, but then they got three runs again so we just left Megan out there."
Hawai'i, which came into Knoxville with 80 home runs on the season, sent three out of the park with blasts by Kate Robinson, Julie Franklin and Alana Power. Rhodes had nine strikeouts in 5 2/3 innings, but Hawai'i showed why it was one of the most powerful offensive teams in the NCAA draw by pounding out 11 hits.
Robinson, the right-handed pitcher, was cruising at the plate and in the circle until a Rhodes' pitch glanced off her right wrist in the sixth inning – Robinson was 2-3 with three RBI, including the first two that knocked Abbott out of the game – and it seemed to affect her pitching.
The Lady Vols were able to rally in the seventh inning for four runs when Liane Horiuchi led off with a long shot to the fence in rightfield, and Kenora Posey hit an infield chopper to put runners on the corners. The Wahine got two outs on a line drive by Lindsay Schutzler and then a strikeout by Lillian Hammond, but Tiffany Huff extended the inning with a bloop single to left center to score two.
Tonya Callahan then blasted her 11th home run of the season over the wall in left-center to make it 9-6. Shannon Doepking hit a double down the rightfield line, and Coach Bob Coolen went to the bullpen for Courtney Baughman. Alexia Clay hit a line shot to leftfield that was caught to end the game.
"We came in with a game plan, made a little adjustment at the plate, challenged Monica (Abbott) a little bit in the first game by pressing the batter's box," Coolen said. "We encroached on the plate a little bit and wanted to make her come inside. She hit the first batter and then after that we played a little small ball, and then we just got on a roll. He (Weekly) had a quick hook with Monica and brought in Rhodes.
"I thought we did a nice job with being aggressive with her as well. Even though she shut us down a little bit, we still kept the pressure on. Nine-six ballgame, I think that's the most runs in their losses that they've given up. I looked in between games."
Abbott was upset with her performance – her first pitch plunked Tanisha Milca – but she knew she had to be ready to either reenter the game or start the evening one.
"I was really disappointed," Abbott said. "Obviously I didn't come out as ready as I wanted to. You never want to start off the game with a hit batter. I'm a lot better than that so I'm a little disappointed in myself. But I knew I was going to have another opportunity if we came back and got ahead in that game, or I had to be ready for the next game."
It was similar to what Tennessee had to do last season to reach the College World Series against Michigan. Abbott had to come back in the third game to win the series.
"I think I've been in a lot of pressure situations playing at such a big school like the University of Tennessee and such an outstanding conference like the SEC," Abbott said. "Last year against Michigan, defending national champions, was kind of a similar deal. There was a lot of pressure in that second game (Saturday), but I just embraced it."
Abbott surrendered a second inning home run to Brandi Peiler, and Hawai'i took a 1-0 lead.
"I just went to the plate really relaxed," Peiler said. "I told myself there wasn't anything to wait for and to just see it, hit it. I saw a good pitch, and I just let my hands go with the ball. It felt good."
Tennessee only managed one base runner in the first three innings when Anita Manuma drew a walk and advanced to second on a passed ball. Erinn Webb went in as a pinch runner and made it to third on a Posey groundout but Lindsay Schutzler popped up to end the threat.
"Fourth inning before we even got a hit," Karen Weekly said. "Lillian Hammond legged out that infield single and that kind of got things started for us. Tonya Callahan, what can you say about her? She's just been huge all season. The kids were a little uptight early in the game, especially after they hit that home run early, and we just had to get everybody calmed down and relaxed and stick to our process."
The realization that she could be pitching for the last time in her collegiate career did creep into Abbott's thoughts.
"It started to and then I said, ‘No, I'm not going to put in those negative thoughts. I'm going to put a positive spin on everything. I'm going to go out there and leave it all on the field," Abbott said. "I'm not going to have any regrets."
Hawai'i went down in order in the top of the fourth with a groundout sandwiched between two strikeouts, and then the Lady Vols put their bats to use.
Hammond hit a grounder to short and barely beat the throw to first. Tiffany Huff laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to get Hammond to second and then Callahan was pitched to, even with first base open. She entered Saturday's contests hitting .625 in the last eight games and was 1-4 with two RBI in the first game of the day.
"That's the game. You're supposed to pitch to batters," Callahan said. "I mess up just like anybody else does. I can hit pop flies and groundouts just as well as anybody else can."
She didn't in this case. Callahan sent the ball back up the middle, and Hammond scored to tie the game.
"The second game was a 1-0 ballgame for four innings and then we pitched to Callahan, and she hit the ball, and that hurt us," said Coolen, who didn't second-guess the decision to pitch to her. "Not at all. I don't like to intentionally walk people. It sends the wrong message, gives the other team the advantage. It gives the fans too much of a spark. We were trying to pitch her tight, and we made a couple of bad pitches. Well, one. One pitch is all it took, and she hit it hard."
Shannon Doepking flied out to left for the second out and then Alexia Clay singled to left to get Callahan to second. Webb, who had entered as a pinch runner and stayed in the game to play rightfield, doubled by drilling the ball off the leftfield wall to score Callahan and Clay.
"Courtney was a little rattled after that (hit by Callahan), and then we brought Kate in, and Kate wasn't the same as she was in the first game," Coolen said.
Robinson got Horiuchi to strike out looking, but Tennessee had taken the lead, 3-1.
"I was really excited to get in the game because I love being in that moment," said Webb, a freshman from Hemet, California. "I love being in the pressure situations where the game's on the line, and it's my job to come through with a hit. We had worked all week (on mechanics), and we knew that Hawai'i was most likely going to pitch me outside, so I think working all week hitting opposite field really helped out, and it showed in the game."
Peiler, the leftfielder, thought she had a play on the ball.
"It tailed on me at the last second, and then I saw the fence," Peiler said. "Very disappointing because I could have had it. It started to tail, and I wish it went the other way. It was a great hit."
The decision to leave Webb in the game paid off as Tennessee got the lead for good.
"The reason I recruited Erinn I watched her hit a walk-off home run in the semifinals of the gold nationals (in high school), which is the highest you can play," Ralph Weekly said. "She played on a really good team, and she's a great hitter, and she hits a ton in practice.
"This is the first time she's hit the fence in the game, but I think there's going to be a lot more of them. I really trust Erinn. Our problem with our freshmen, quite frankly, is there's about six of them competing for three positions. One of them does really good one day, and the other does really good the next. It's a nice problem to have."
Tennessee wasn't done. The Lady Vols got four runs in the fifth inning. Schutzler started off with a bunt single, and Nicole Kajitani, who had entered the game to play leftfield, singled up the middle. Huff hit a stand-up double to the fence in right-center to score Schutzler and get Kajitani to third.
Then, Callahan singled up the middle again to score Kajitani and Huff. Callahan got to second on Doepking's ground ball out, and Caitlin Ryan entered as a pinch runner. Clay singled down the rightfield line to bring in Ryan. Webb struck out for the third out, but Tennessee had a 7-1 lead.
Hawai'i went down in order in the sixth and seventh innings. Abbott struck out Kathryn Grimes looking, and the celebration erupted.
"With four innings to go, Karen and I called our kids together, we were behind 1-0, and we said you've got four innings to play for a trip to the World Series," said an ebullient Ralph Weekly after the game. "All the practice and everything you've done comes down to four innings. And I couldn't have asked for a better response. You saw what happened. They responded and got it done."
The Lady Vols had to battle through some adversity – both in the last game of the series and the postseason. They felt they deserved a higher seed than No. 5 based on their regular season performance – winner of the SEC and top ranked for most of the year – and then they lost senior outfielder India Chiles to a knee injury in the regional. After downing Hawai'i 9-0 in the first game of the series on Friday night they lost the second game and then went down 1-0 in the deciding match on a solo home run.
"We did go through adversity," Ralph Weekly said. "Coaches say this all the time, but it's a tribute to these girls and especially to our three seniors. I told the seniors when the second game started, ‘I can't jump in every huddle. You have got to lead.' And they did. The seniors led, and I was so proud of them."
Abbott had to shake off the homer and rely on her teammates.
"I was a little disappointed that she hit the home run, but I knew that they hit a lot of balls and I knew that I just had to go out there and continue to fight," Abbott said. "I didn't feel very strong the first three innings, tried to develop my rhythm a little bit. I just stuck with it, but I knew I would keep battling out there and my team was going to put up the runs. We mixed a little bit better in the later innings, threw some different pitches in there. You saw the changeup later in the game. I had to go out there and bear down. Now or never."
She got the last out of the game with a changeup that froze Grimes at the plate.
"My changeup on a good day is probably like 54," Abbott said, when asked if it's difficult for a power pitcher with her speed – she hits the 70s on the radar gun – to throw off speed. "My changeup on a bad day is like 62, which is like most pitchers' fastball. If I'm not throwing my changeup 62, it's a good day for my changeup."
Her catcher, Shannon Doepking, wasn't surprised that the Wahine hitters showed up Saturday with their juggernaut offense. Hawai'i got six hits in the second game Saturday.
"They had all night to adjust to what she's doing," Doepking said. "They adjusted a little bit. That's what we need from her, when she does give up a hit, to just settle down. She knows what she's doing. She knows what she needs to do.
"She's done so much for this program. I'm so proud of her. She kind of struggled a little bit this game. She's not used to giving up that many hits, but she gutted it out. She deserves everything she gets."
What Tennessee wants is a national championship. Thanks to some clutch hitting and a grind-it-out performance this weekend, the Lady Vols will get their shot as one of the eight teams at the WCWS.
"The first one is always special because it's the first time you break through and go to the World Series," Karen Weekly said. "This is special for India's injury, for what Hawai'i brought in here. They just kept coming at us and coming at us. Today was a battle. The kids really fought hard and really had to change their attitude mid-game, and it's always special when you have a team that has the ability to do that."
Abbott didn't make the big show as a freshman. She's grateful for the third trip her senior year.
"You always want to go," Abbott said. "You don't want to lose that feeling. And now that we're going back we definitely have high hopes and goals this whole season. Now it's time to put them into action."
The Lady Vols intended to celebrate the win Saturday and enjoy the day off Sunday, but Doepking said the next opponent is what matters right now.
"We're going to enjoy it the rest of tonight and then we need to start thinking about Texas A&M," Doepking said. "Rest our bodies a little bit, but it's always in the back of our minds, and we need to get focused on that."
The Lady Vols will take a team stocked with players who have been there before and with freshmen who have proven their mettle throughout the season.
"We pretty much have a full lineup that's either played at that high level, meaning our freshman, or we've all been there before," Callahan said. "Now I think we all know what it takes, and that we have to stay together. I think that we can take it."
ODDS AND ENDS
BEST UNIFORM CHANGE: That of Hawai'i for Saturday's afternoon game. The Wahine switched to white pants and jerseys instead of the black uniforms they wore Friday night. Game time temperature at Tyson Park was 87 degrees.
NEXT BEST CHANGE: Both teams for the second game, which started at 6:48 p.m. with the temperature just three degrees cooler. The Wahine went to the clean – and dry – black uniforms. Tennessee switched to white jerseys.
BEST USE OF DUCT TAPE: That deployed by the Rainbow Wahine's radio play-by-play broadcaster. He used a piece of tape to secure a large green tealeaf – used for luck and blessings on the islands – to the railing of the stands where the media sat.
MANUMA TO MANUMA: Anita Manuma had a liner-like lob shot to her sister, Valana Manuma, at shortstop in the second inning of Saturday's first game. Valana jumped for the ball and speared it with her glove. In the third inning, Valana had her shin gashed on a steal when the catcher's throw was high and to the right side of second base. The Tennessee base runner, Kenora Posey, collided with Valana, who managed to spear the ball, but the runner was safe.
Later that inning with the bases loaded, Valana threw the ball into the Tennessee dugout on Tonya Callahan's grounder. Coach Bob Coolen replaced her for the day with Julie Franklin.
"She just made two real interesting plays in that first game," Coolen said.
Manuma's throw to first was wide of the bag and it might have hit Callahan, but she dove into first base. It's likely one of the few times diving into first – a runner usually loses speed by not running through the bag – was the right play.
"I'm kind of glad I did," Callahan said. "I was thinking to myself if I would have stood up if it would've hit me rather than going in the dugout. I don't know if it even helped at all."
It helped at the time as two runs came in, but Hawai'i ultimately re-took the lead.
That was partly due to Franklin, who doubled and hit a three-run blast over right-center that ended up next to the fire truck parked beyond the wall.
"She put a ball up over that fence the other day (at practice) and hit the freeway," Coolen said, referring to U.S. Highway 129 that runs beyond and above leftfield. "I'm like, ‘OK, I've got someone that's hitting the ball, seeing the ball real well. She came out double, home run, single. Sometimes kids wait for this opportunity and seize the moment, and ‘Carpe diem' as they say. And she did."
ROAD WARRIORS: The Wahine seemed to enjoy all their time on the road and were not ready for it to end.
"I think we like being on the road," Kate Robinson said. "We all get to hang out with each other and have fun. … We came into (the first game) and we didn't want to leave here without winning two games. Unfortunately, we could only win the first one. Everybody played so hard, and it's great to play for a team that never gives up until the last out."
This was the program's fourth time to be in a Super Regional without making it to the Women's College World Series.
"We've been in situations like this," Bob Coolen said. "We just need to be the team that's in control, have the swagger. I thought in the first game we had the swagger. In the second game, they just basically after 1-0 for four innings, they came alive."
NO EXCUSES: HHawai'i refused to use its lengthy stay on the road – 18 days – as an excuse for any losses, and pitcher Kate Robinson acknowledged that getting hit by a pitch affected her pitches, but she declined to offer that as an excuse either.
Robinson was struck by Megan Rhodes in the sixth inning of Saturday's first game. She was lifted for another pitcher in the seventh inning after the Lady Vols mounted a comeback that fell short.
"I don't want to blame it on an injury, but it did affect a couple of my pitches (when she would bend her wrist)," Robinson said. "It hit me on the side of my wrist and when I release the ball I hit the side of my wrist. It did affect it a little, but I could have gotten through that."
Robinson was the designated player in Saturday's second game and then had to relieve Courtney Baughman.
"It's tough to come in after sitting and playing the DP (designated player) role and being as effective as a starter," Bob Coolen said. "They made some adjustments and they were aggressive on the pitches."
Robinson is an excellent hitter. She entered Saturday with a .359 average, 13 doubles, 18 home runs, 69 RBI and a slugging percentage of .729, the highest on the team.
"I've always hit and pitched," Robinson said. "I don't see why pitchers don't hit. You help yourself out. I've always done that, and that's just how I play. It's hard for me to just sit on the side and just pitch and not be able to contribute offensively."
Coolen started Baughman in the evening game because Robinson needed some rest and Jessica Morton, another righthander, wasn't healthy enough to pitch.
"We wanted to give Kate a little rest," Coolen said. "Jess is being bothered by a foot ailment that doesn't allow her to drag, and that came about over the last week and a half. She pitched real hard at the UCLA regional and really irritated her tendon in her foot. It really inhibits her from throwing effectively. Once she doesn't drag she doesn't throw well. That's why we decided to go with Courtney, and we thought the same thing – inside, outside, off-speed. She didn't use her off-speed enough, which I think really hurt us."
BEST CHEERING SECTION: That for UT freshman Allison Fulmer, who entered as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning of the afternoon game. Fulmer worked a walk out of Kate Robinson.
Her cheering section included her father, Vol football coach Phillip Fulmer, her mother, two sisters and her grandmother, who were sitting in the stands behind home plate. They all offered vocal support and encouragement and applauded her at-bat.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAY: That made by Liane Horiuchi in the bottom of the sixth inning of the afternoon game. With the score at 9-2, the Wahine needed one more run to run-rule the Lady Vols. With the bases loaded and two out Horiuchi fielded a hot shot up the middle, came to a stop and darted to second base for the force-out.
Had Hawai'i scored a 10th run the Lady Vols would have been run ruled for the first time since an exhibition game Feb. 21, 2004, against the U.S. Olympic team.
BEST CHANT: That of the Tennessee fans when the Lady Vols took the lead in the last game: "We're not done yet!"
A crowd of 1,127 attended Saturday's games.
BEST SHOW OF SPORTSMANSHIP: That on display Friday and Saturday by both teams with the gifts of leis and expressions of love among friends and family on both teams.
"As much as softball is an on-the-field battle, you're battling, and you can't really like each other when you're in between the white lines playing the game but after the game is over we're still people, we still have friends, or in this case family on the other team and friends," Monica Abbott said. "We share the same sport so I think it's a genuine love for that sport."
"I think that just says a lot about who they are as people," Tonya Callahan said. "If you come out and get beat, whether it's a close game or a spread, you usually turn your backs (after the game and handshakes)."
But the Hawai'i team came to Tennessee's side of the field to present the leis and then the teams formed the prayer circle.
"They're very humble and very nice people," Callahan said.
Ralph Weekly spent a few minutes with the parents of Hawai'i rightfielder Tanisha Milca. Her father just returned from Iraq.
"I had been in their house, and Tanisha Milca was a person that we were recruiting," Weekly said. "We ended up taking Horiuchi over Milca. We only had one scholarship to offer. But I love that kid. I think she is a tremendous player. There're some pretty close relationships between our teams."