"I think it can give us a lot of confidence, and we did some things today that we've been preaching as coaches all year," Co-Head Coach Karen Weekly said. "Our kids finally stepped up and did some of those things we need to do in order to be successful down the stretch. I couldn't be prouder of the way they performed today."
A sell-out crowd of 1,622 turned out at Lee Stadium on a warm but windy Saturday to watch as the U.S. Olympic team made another stop on the college circuit as part of the "Bound 4 Beijing" tour.
The Olympians have tattooed some college teams – including a 16-0 pasting of NCAA champion Arizona in February – and have stumbled just once on the tour with a 1-0 no-hit loss to Virginia Tech in a double-header March 26 after defeating DePaul, 23-0, in the first game. They followed that loss with a 21-0 win over New Mexico State.
Lady Vol senior hurler Megan Rhodes took the mound for Tennessee and after giving up a leadoff double she eventually got out of the inning with two fly-outs and a strikeout. Rhodes faced five batters in the first inning and four in the second without surrendering a run.
"Megan did great," Weekly said. "To go through their lineup completely one time and not having allowed a run is fantastic. One of the reasons we took her out when we did was we wanted her to end it on a high note. It was great to see her throw the ball like she can."
The offense came from Tennessee in the first two innings as both Tonya Callahan, a senior third baseman, and Jennifer Lapicki, a freshman first baseman, hit solo home runs. Callahan hit a 3-2 pitch that easily cleared the centerfield wall, which is 220 feet from home plate.
"I feel like it barely cleared it," Callahan said. "I was just hoping that the wind wouldn't pull it back in."
There was no chance of that as the shot also sailed over the flagpoles behind the double wall in center.
Callahan had worked the count full after laying off two inside pitches. She also stayed away from two low ones, which were called strikes but looked out of the zone.
"They threw me two drop balls, and he called a strike on me," Callahan said. "I was really surprised I got the up pitch. I had to swing at anything close (at 3-2). I went up there and was just wanting to be patient. I knew from playing with her for three years that sometimes she'll miss it and bring it the right spot if you wait long enough. You've got to be patient with her.
"I was pretty much sitting off that (low ball) until I got one I liked. I guess I picked the right time. My plan was to choke up and to just poke at it. I guess I got a good little poke."
Abbott hugged each former teammate after the game and had some playful words for her friend.
"I can't remember what she said, something like, ‘You got me' or something like that," Callahan said.
"I told her that I hate her, but that she had a good hit," Abbott said. "(Tonya) is a really good friend of mine. We're going to know each other for the rest of our lives and be good friends. I'm glad for her but next time she can do it off someone else."
Lapicki also took Abbott deep with a line-drive shot over the centerfield wall after getting some tips from Callahan, who told her to choke up on the bat and shorten her swing.
"She threw me some nasty drops inside," Lapicki said. "She was throwing nasty the whole at-bat. I got one pitch so I just went with it.
"I talked to Tonya after her at-bat. They definitely gave me some little pointers so it was good."
"I told her to go up there, be patient, choke up and just poke at it," Callahan said. "That's what I told all of our hitters. Because on a pitcher like this, as good as these guys are, you can't go up there hacking. You have to see the ball and poke it somewhere, and you'll get what you want."
Although Saturday's stats won't count because this was an exhibition game, Callahan is making a case for SEC Player of the Year with her production. She leads the league in slugging percentage at .844, on-base percentage at .589 and total bases at 103. She is tied for first with 12 homers and is second both in batting average at .451 and RBIs at 47.
"Tonya is the most complete player I have ever coached," Weekly said. "Tonya Callahan maximizes her potential. She never takes a play off, practice or games. She brings it every day. I think that (homer) in the first inning gave our team the confidence that, ‘Hey, we can hang here. We can play with them. We've just got to be smart at the plate.' "
Lapicki's homer was just as impressive both because of how quickly the ball left the yard and how young she is.
"That was pretty special to see," Weekly said. "The upperclassmen have the advantage of having seen Monica. But Jen not ever having hit against Monica I thinks that's just going to be a confidence builder for her. She's a great player, and she's a lot like Callahan mentally, and she's going to get better and better each year."
The national team put some pop in their bats to start the third inning when Caitlin Lowe doubled to center and Natasha Watley singled through the left side of the infield. Danielle Pieroni replaced Rhodes in the circle for Tennessee, and Lowe scored on a sacrifice fly by Jessica Mendoza to cut the lead to 2-1.
"After they got through the lineup once they were getting better hits," Rhodes said. "It kind of threw them all a little bit (to face Pieroni); they always had to be adjusting."
Pieroni kept the hitters off balance in the fourth inning with an array of off-speed pitchers and a wicked changeup.
"Danielle has a real good change of speeds," Weekly said. "You saw the changeup and that's the key with her. We felt like Danielle could be successful against them giving them a completely different look. She has the stuff; it's just a matter of being consistent with her pitches each time out."
In the fifth inning Watley singled up the middle and Mendoza sent a 1-1 offering over the rightfield wall to put the USA team up 3-2. Kelly Kretschman homered to centerfield to add an insurance run, 4-2.
Freshman Ashton Ward came on in relief of Pieroni and got Andrea Duran to pop up to end the inning.
"It was great to have all three pitchers throw," Rhodes said. "Everyone threw well. I think that's great for the program and great for everyone's confidence."
Ward faced seven batters and didn't allow a hit. She also recorded a strikeout and showed some fielding skills when she stabbed a sharp bouncer by Lovieanne Jung and threw to first for the out.
"If I saw it, it was barely," Ward said. "I reacted fast to that so that was good. I knew if I wouldn't have got it, Kenora (Posey) would have."
"Ashton threw the ball better today than she probably has in the last three or four weeks," Weekly said. "And that was great to see. When you talk about confidence that kind of a performance hopefully will propel her to pitch like she can the rest of the way out."
Ward stayed composed on the mound and if she was nervous, she didn't let it show.
"There's always a little bit of nerves every time I play, but I'm really working on trying to relax and breathe and just throw," Ward said. "I'm working on my expression and acting tough even if I don't always feel it."
Tennessee went down in order in the fifth and sixth innings but mounted one last charge in the seventh inning. Callahan hit a ground ball to third but was hustling down the line on the play and reached second when the first baseman misjudged the throw, and the ball got away. Catcher Shannon Doepking hit a line shot but it was snared by the rightfielder. A strikeout by Natalie Weissinger and a groundout by Lapicki ended the game.
All 18 players in uniform for Tennessee played in the game, which was the plan by the coaches from the start.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for these kids," Weekly said. "Who knows what's going to happen with the Olympics if it will ever have softball again. We certainly wanted everybody to get an at-bat or get some mound time and say, ‘Hey, I played against the Olympic team.' "
"I thought the pitchers pitched very well. I thought they moved the ball well, hit their spots. The thing we did at the plate that was key was pitch selection. We stayed in the zone for the most part. We had a couple of at-bats where we chased a little but, but the majority of our at-bats were really good at-bats. We were swinging in the zone, and we were letting the balls go. I think that's a real key for us offensively down the stretch."
Confidence was the buzzword of the Tennessee players after the game. The Lady Vols, coming off three consecutive College World Series appearances and a runner-up national finish in 2007, are ranked No. 10/11 and have a record of 40-7 overall and 10-6 in the SEC, which is second behind Florida at 15-1 in the Eastern Division.
The showing against the USA team convinced the team that it could play with anyone.
"I think it helps with confidence," Rhodes said. "I think for all three of the pitchers today it lets us know that if we just go out with a no-worries mindset, just go right at them and throw the ball like we can then there's nobody that we can't take care of. Even when they did hit the ball we have a great defense behind us. Watching our defense work really gives you a lot of confidence as well."
"It shows us that we can do it," Callahan said. "We've kind of had our ups and down this season. I told our players, ‘If we can do this, why can't we beat the other teams?' It just shows that we have the potential to do what we are capable of doing. If we come out here and have fun and play carefree, it's going to happen. If you keep this in the back of your mind, just remember this game, that just builds your confidence."
Tennessee basketball Coach Pat Summitt spoke to both teams before the game. Summitt, who won the Wooden Award on Friday night in Los Angeles, made it back to Knoxville in time for the official opening of Lee Stadium and to throw out the first pitch shortly before 3 p.m. Saturday.
Summitt took some underhanded warmup tosses with Tiffany Huff before the game and then delivered an inside strike – with a generous zone – to a standing ovation from the crowd. Summitt did an in-game interview with ESPN – the game will be shown on tape delay May 14 at 7 p.m. – and said she was more nervous in the circle than at the Final Four.
Summitt also was given a standing ovation as she walked across the field to talk to the Olympic team, which quickly encircled the coach when they saw her coming to their dugout. Summitt then crossed the field to talk to the Lady Vols.
"She was telling us what an honor it is to play in a game like this and not a lot of people can say they played the Olympic team so to just enjoy it and have fun and stay together and be a team," Ward said. "So that's what we did."
For Ward, a freshman from Charlotte, N.C., shaking hands with the Olympians after the game was an honor. She also used the opportunity to get better as a pitcher.
"I went out there and knew I had nothing to lose," Ward said. "Every pitch I stayed smooth and just breathed and did my same old thing. It's an honor to play in this game and against these guys and to shake hands with them at the end of the game. It was a lot of fun. It definitely helps to know that if I go out there and throw like I know how to, then I can do it against anyone."
The U.S. team was introduced one by one after the Lady Vols had been introduced, and Abbott was the last one. She walked to the first base line to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from the crowd.
"It's means a huge amount," Abbott said. "Tennessee has the best fans in the world. I definitely was very overwhelmed and thrilled. It was an awesome experience."
Abbott didn't let the 2-0 deficit on the two home runs – those were the only hits Tennessee got – affect her approach in the circle afterwards. She did remind herself to quit thinking so much about the fact that the batters knew her so well.
"I don't think I ever felt out of control of the game," Abbott said. "Obviously I didn't want to give up the home runs. I knew that they knew me very well, and I was thinking a lot about all the different situations and just needed to go out there and throw my game. If I throw my best pitches it shouldn't matter who's up to the plate."
Rhodes said the familiarity of the hitters with Abbott was both a plus and a minus.
"They've seen her in practice so they kind of knew what they were getting but then they also knew what they were getting," Rhodes said with an emphasis on the second knew. "I think all of us had trouble not cheering for her in the dugout. She'd missed a pitch and I'd want to try to pick her up. It was hard to pretend that she was not on my team."
Rhodes wasn't at all surprised by Callahan's blast over the wall, which gave Tennessee the early lead.
"I think we knew we would hold onto it as long as we can," Rhodes said. "It made this game a little more fun to know we were actually in it. It's Tonya. I think Tonya's the best hitter in the nation. We expect that out of her every day."
Abbott gave a nod to Rhodes for how she handled herself to open the game.
"Megan did a great job," Abbott said. "I think she came out ready to go and just laid it all out there. They had nothing to lose and that's how Tennessee always plays best. They can just put it all on the table and not hold anything back, and that's what they did."
Abbott referred to her former teammates as "they," but it was clear from her choked-up voice and her tears when she hugged Karen Weekly that playing at the stadium – the house that Abbott built, as Ralph Weekly has said, even though it wasn't completed in time for her to play there in orange – meant a lot to her.
"It meant so much," Abbott said. "I feel like I have invested so much of myself and my heart into this program and to what the Lady Vols have been able to do. Even though I had never played in this stadium I felt like so much of it is me. I feel so much a part of them in so many ways. It's kind of hard to come out and play against them, but it's a game when you step in between those lines."
"Today was a special day," Karen Weekly said. "Monica has done so much for this program. You can't say enough about that. I have to admit after Callahan hit that ball out I was elated for Callahan and I immediately had some feelings for Monica, because I know she wanted to come out here and perform really well for the fans here in Tennessee because I think she really does consider them home."
The USA team will next play Sunday in Johnson City, Tenn., against Milligan College in a game that was also sold out in advance. The college tour will include stops in Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan and Los Angeles and then games against ASA regional All-Stars and China and Canada in Oklahoma City. Olympic competition begins Aug. 12 at Fengtai Softball Field in Beijing.
Tennessee next has home stands against Ole Miss and LSU beginning on April 16. The Lady Vols hope to use Saturday's performance to propel them through the SEC season.
"It depends on how they take it," Abbott said. "I hope they take it as a good experience and learn from it. I wish them the best of luck. I hope that they can use this to catapult them. They had good things happen for them, and I hope that they continue to play well."
It sounds like the freshmen got the message already.
"I think it shows all of us it's proof that if we go out there and play like we know how to play then we can hang in there and beat anybody," Ward said. "There are days that we don't bring it to the field, but the days that we do we can play hard with anyone. It shows us all we have it, and we're all capable of doing it."
"Now we can go on the rest of the season knowing if we go at every game with the same mentality, the same intensity that we can do what we did here with the USA team," Lapicki said. "Everyone did well. Our pitchers were amazing. So carry this fight and this intensity to every game."