Thomas was speaking a few minutes after Virginia Tech, 45-15, secured its win with a walk-off homer by Misty Hall in the 10th inning for a 1-0 victory over Louisville, 30-22, and right before Tennessee and Winthrop squared off in the second game.
Tennessee, 48-14, dispatched Winthrop, 36-18, thanks to a long ball by Shannon Doepking to end a scoreless tie in the sixth inning to keep the Lady Vols in the winner's bracket with a 3-0 victory.
Lady Vol senior pitcher Megan Rhodes got the win after coming on in relief of freshman Ashton Ward in the third inning. Rhodes had been warming up since the first inning – Lady Vol Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said that was by design to keep his pitchers ready – and was summoned by Co-Head Coach Karen Weekly after Ward struggled with her control.
"I take my keys from Karen there, because Karen calls pitches," Ralph Weekly said. "The thing with Ashton she just wasn't hitting her spots from the start on. If we called it inside, it was going outside. Sometimes that happens with young pitchers, so we knew that it would be disastrous to continue on that path. Both pitchers were warmed up and that's the way it's going to be in the playoffs. Both of them will be ready to go (today)."
Ralph Weekly declined to reveal who he intended to start against Virginia Tech, which is expected to throw the sensational senior Angela Tincher at the Lady Vols. Louisville managed just one hit against Tincher – she no-hit the U.S. Olympic team in an exhibition game earlier this season – and of the 157 pitches she threw Friday, 117 were for strikes.
"My riseball was working pretty well," said Tincher, who struck out 19 Cardinal batters. "Later in the game, they had seen a lot of pitches so I was trying to keep them off balance, make sure my pitches were still moving and switch things up so they didn't see the same thing every time."
The Hokies got seven hits off Louisville pitcher Kristen Wadwell but left 12 runners on base before Hall settled matters with a shot over the rightfield wall that had room to spare.
"It was an outside pitch," said Hall, who was just trying to put the ball in play. "She kept coming inside on me on first pitches, so I figured she might change it up and I was just sitting on an outside pitch. I guess it was good."
"It was real good," Thomas said.
The Hokies had to battle through the frustration of getting runners on – they loaded the bases at one point – but not getting anyone across the plate.
"It's frustrating," Thomas said. "There is no doubt about it. It's not like we weren't getting runners on; we just weren't getting the key hit. I think the biggest thing is to keep building on it and to be confident about it going into (today's) game."
The opponent will be Tennessee thanks to some clutch pitching by Rhodes, who had to get out of her own bases-loaded jam in the sixth inning.
With two outs, Stephanie Reid drew a walk and stole second with cleanup hitter Mallory Hogan up to bat and a 1-2 count. With first base now open Ralph Weekly opted to walk Mallory – he cited her 49 RBI and 10 HRs – and instead face Jo-Lynn Smith, who had 22 RBI and four homers. Smith drew a walk to load the bases, but Rhodes struck out Lenny Stoddart on three straight pitches, including a knee-bender on the inside, and the gamble paid off.
"Sometimes you make decisions, and I looked down there (and compared RBIs), and we're in a zero-zero ball game," Weekly said. "Those kind of things sometimes they work out and sometimes they don't. But I would do it again. I wouldn't hesitate again. She's the best RBI person on their team, first base is open, and the fastest kid on the team is on second."
The frustration for Winthrop was hard to quantify, Coach Mark Cooke said.
"I don't know if I can give you a measurement on that," Cooke said. "When you play a top team like Tennessee on their home field in the NCAA Regionals and you don't score, it's pretty hard. And that, to me, was the difference in the game. We came out on defense flat and frustrated, and they had the momentum."
Cooke opted to intentionally walk Tonya Callahan to start the inning after she drilled a shot off the rightfield wall in the fourth inning – it missed going out by inches – and caromed in so quickly that outfielder Lisa Kingsmore threw Callahan out at second.
The slugger has 55 walks on the season – most of them intentional – but even she was surprised by the free pass in a scoreless game to lead off the sixth inning.
"I wasn't expecting that at all," Callahan said. "I went in there ready to hit, and I saw the catcher standing up so I wasn't expecting it for that reason, but I'll take it because I have total confidence in Shannon behind me. That's why I don't mind it because I have faith that she's going to get it done, whatever it takes."
Doepking drilled a 1-2 pitch by Cari Wooldridge over the centerfield wall that scored her and Kelly Grieve, who had entered as a pinch runner for Callahan and promptly stole second base to put pressure on the pitcher.
"It was a riseball, up and in," Doepking said. "I actually wasn't even expecting to get anything up. All game long I'd been getting outside pitches, so I was really just looking to make solid contact. I got a riseball that I hacked at for my first strike and I wasn't expecting to see another inside pitch, but she gave me one."
Tennessee got another run after Tiffany Huff walked, Jennifer Lapicki reached on a fielder's choice, and Erinn Webb laced a double to rightfield. Danielle Pieroni reached first on a throw that eluded the first baseman, and Lapicki scored to make it 3-0.
"We said Callahan wasn't going to beat us this weekend and she didn't," Cooke said. "We hung a pitch and (Doepking) hit it, and we made a mistake at first. Other than that, I thought it was a great ball game. I thought the game was lost the inning before when we left the bases loaded. It gave them the momentum back. You can't give them the momentum when it's zero to zero. I'm proud of the effort of our players."
Tennessee and Virginia Tech open Saturday's three-game slate at noon (ESPN2) with Pam Ward and Cindy Bristow on the call. The winner advances to Sunday's Regional championship game with a berth in the Super Regional on the line.
Winthrop and Louisville play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, and the loser is eliminated from postseason. The winner of that game plays the loser of the Tennessee-Virginia Tech game at 5 p.m. for the right to claim the other spot in Sunday's final.
Tennessee has made three straight appearances in the Women's College World Series – with a runner-up finish last year – but has navigated the 2008 season without ace Monica Abbott, who is now an Olympian.
The performance by Rhodes was uplifting for the Lady Vols.
"I think it's really wonderful," Ralph Weekly said. "It makes us feel better as a staff; I'm sure it makes the team feel better. I told her after the game she exorcised some demons today, some situations she really came up big in. Megan's a great pitcher. There are no ifs, ands or buts. She just needs to know what a great pitcher she is and I think that makes all the difference in the world."
Rhodes said she had tinkered with her windup this week, but she declined to elaborate.
"I really kind of stuck with what I've been working with all week, and that was what I needed to do in the game," Rhodes said. "Basically a windup technique. It was a technical change that helped the mental approach."
Rhodes struck out 10 of the 17 batters she faced, and of her 86 pitches, 57 were strikes.
Weekly was impressed with how Rhodes got out of the sixth inning.
"I think that she just really bore down, and she was really tough," Weekly said.
He also noted that Rhodes got the first three batters in the seventh inning – a popup to first, flyout to left and strikeout – to snuff out any Winthrop hope of a late rally.
"She was tough in the seventh inning," he said. "I know we had the bottom of the order, but we've had those kind of problems before and she just put them down one, two, three. I thought she was tough all day."
The Tennessee hitters will have to be tough Saturday against Tincher, who rarely needs much run support to earn the victory and has a miniscule ERA of 0.57. Opponents are hitting just .104 against her.
"I think what we need to do as batters is what we've been working on and staying in the strike zone," Callahan said. "Just hit balls that are strikes. That's the goal we should have from here on out."
"We know she's a great pitcher going into it so we're not expecting to go out there and kill the ball at the plate," Doepking said. "We do expect to stay in the strike zone, we do expect to get hits off her and if we stay with our game plan, I think that we should be successful."
Weekly noted Tincher's 2,041 career strikeouts entering the postseason, a number that earned Tennessee's respect.
"We didn't talk too much about her, because we wanted to get by Winthrop, but the key to hitting against her is staying in the strike zone," Weekly said. "If you swing at every thing she throws – and she's got a ton of movement – you're going to have a problem."
Does Tennessee expect Tincher to pitch to Callahan?
"She's a great pitcher, and I don't know what to expect. That will be up to her and her coaching staff," Weekly said. "I don't think she'll back down from any challenge."
Callahan said the key for the hitters is to stay relaxed, even if the offense is slow to arrive, such as against Winthrop.
"We have total confidence in our batting," Callahan said. "You've got to stay with it, and you can't get uptight about it. You've just got to stay loose. That's what we did, and I think that's important as you go through the postseason."