Softball team rallies for 10-7 win over alums

An exhibition game against alumni is usually for fun but with Ralph and Karen Weekly coaching on opposite sides, it became a competitive match to the final out Sunday.

Tennessee mounted a late comeback against the former Lady Vols and prevailed 10-7 in a three-hour game.

The first clue for the alumni that the Weeklys were taking the game seriously likely came Saturday when they scheduled a practice. Alumni players practicing for an exhibition game is basically unheard of.

"Tell me about it," Tonya Callahan said with a laugh. "It was fun. We were having a good time. I think they took it a little too seriously over here (in the ‘home' dugout), but the competitive person he is that's the way it was taken. It was fun, though."

That doesn't mean the alumni didn't use the practice session as a social one.

"At practice, we were kind of, ‘Hey, how are you? Who wants to take ball? OK, who wants to hit?" said India Chiles – who completed her eligibility in 2007 and played pro ball this summer for the Akron Racers in Ohio – indicating the Saturday workout was more voluntary than mandatory.

"We wanted to win but at the same time this was a social event," said Chiles, who is enrolled at Tennessee to complete her nursing degree and will graduate in May 2009. "We haven't seen some of these girls for a long time. A lot of them have families and kids now and haven't touched a bat. We said we definitely wanted to compete. We did a lot better than we thought we were going to do."

Karen Weekly coached the alumni, while Ralph Weekly handled the current squad.

The second clue for the alumni came when Ralph Weekly had pitcher Danielle Pieroni intentionally walk Callahan to get to Shannon Doepking in the third inning with the game tied 1-1. The catcher had made opposing teams pay for that strategy last season and Doepking pounced on the first offering with a bases-loaded double that plated three runs.

"I was so glad that she did that. That's what she does," said Callahan, who seemed a little peeved but not the least surprised that Weekly ordered her walked.

It might have been better to take his chances with Callahan, who played pro ball this summer with the Rockford Thunder in Illinois but wasn't up to speed with her bat since that season ended two months ago. Callahan is enrolled at Tennessee this fall to finish her child and family studies degree and complete her internship at Children's Hospital near campus. She will graduate this December.

"I felt really out of whack," said Callahan, who hopes to be a graduate assistant for the Lady Vols next fall. "I felt like a little robot up there – herky and jerky and not being fluid. I've been done (with pro ball) for a couple months now."

Ralph Weekly regretted the move as soon as he saw the first pitch on its way to Doepking.

"When I walked Callahan, usually Karen calls pitches, and I just assumed that the catcher would not call a changeup in that situation and that's my fault," Ralph Weekly said. "I just assumed and you know what happens when you assume. Doepking last year beat LSU on a changeup and beat Florida on a changeup. I saw that thing floating in there and I said, ‘Oh no!' It went off the fence.

"Doepking hasn't played for four months or so and if we throw fastballs at her, we've got a good chance of getting her. But the thing I'm proud of is we coached most of those athletes and as I watched them out there performing and how fundamentally strong they were I thought, ‘They're so far ahead of our kids because they've been through the program for four years.' "

The alumni team batted first and got on the scoreboard in the first inning. Kenora Posey bounced a single over rookie pitcher Cat Hosfield for a single, stole second and got to third on a wild pitch. Callahan picked up an RBI with a groundout to the shortstop that allowed Posey to score.

Lady Vol legend Monica Abbott struck out the side in the first inning, but the home team manufactured a run in the bottom of the second thanks to the speed of freshman Adrena Anderson, who entered as a pinch runner after freshman designated player Dee Dee Fryer drew a walk.

Anderson swiped three consecutive bases, including home, as Doepking couldn't hold on to the throw back to the plate. Abbott had just gotten strike two on the batter and as Doepking threw the ball back to the circle Anderson bolted for home. Abbott fired quickly back to Doepking in a close play, but Anderson was safe when the ball squirted free.

Abbott helped herself in the top of third with a single up the middle.

"She doesn't hit too often, but she does know how to swing a bat," Chiles said. "We weren't really surprised, but the fans liked it a lot."

The fans cheered for Abbott at the introductions before the game and really let loose with her hit.

Abbott noted it was a solid single and she also pointed out that "I have a collegiate home run." That happened in 2005 when Abbott, Doepking and Lindsey Schutzler went back to back to back against Nebraska.

Megan Rhodes, who couldn't pitch because of a sore shoulder, ran for Abbott and advanced on an infield single by Chiles. That led to the intentional walk of Callahan, which was booed by the crowd.

"That's a darned if you do, darned if you don't situation," Karen Weekly said. "They're both great hitters so it's like pick your poison. I can't say I would disagree with his move other than I turned to him and said, ‘It's an alumni game. Let's just let her hit.' "

"There's no coach in the country that would have let her bat with runners on second and third at the time the game is 1-1," Ralph Weekly said in his defense. "The people were yelling (at me). I wanted to win."

The remarks were made in good-natured fashion with some rolls of the eyes from the alumni and current players about Ralph Weekly's exuberance.

"I feel like it was for fun for us but on the other side … I felt like it was a little bit more competitive," Callahan said with a smile and a shake of her head.

"I was super proud of the alumni and this is a thing we're going to continue. The benefit is letting them see great players like this one," said Ralph Weekly, as he turned to thank Callahan.

"I think for the alumni it's good to be back together and reminisce a little bit and have a good time," Abbott said. "If we put some hits together, great. If we score, even better. If we don't, no big deal. We actually didn't even thing we were going to score."

The alumni didn't have any trouble scoring in the fourth inning. Ellisha Humphrey reached safely and stole second, and Jenny Steele walked. Lady Vol Ashton Ward came on in relief to face Rhodes, who in her first at-bat wearing orange – even if it was alumni orange – tattooed a shot off Jennifer Lapicki's glove at first for a single to load the bases.

Chiles singled up the middle to score two and give her side a 6-1 lead. Posey was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Callahan stepped in with no place to put her this time. She hit a hard bouncer that Ward fielded and threw home for the force. A groundout to third ended the inning.

The Lady Vols got one run back in the bottom of the fourth inning after freshman Jessica Spigner laced a single to right-center. Sophomore Kelsey Stander entered as a pinch runner, stole second, got to third on a passed ball and scored on a bouncer to second by Tiffany Huff. That made it 6-2.

Ralph Weekly invoked motivational one-liners in the dugout.

"I told our kids in the fourth inning, tough times never last, tough people do," he said. "That's an old quote, but that's what I told them. I said, ‘We're going to win this. We have to go seven innings.' "

Kelly Grieve hustled down the line for a lead-off single in the fifth inning, but that was followed by two groundouts. However, Spigner and Fryer drew consecutive walks off Stephanie Humphrey-Sayne to load the bases for Huff, who also drew a walk to make the score 6-3. Karen Weekly brought in reliever Jackie Beavers, who fired a pitch to the backstop, but Spigner was tagged out trying to score.

The alumni got another run in the sixth inning as Chiles singled and got to second on a throwing error. Callahan singled up the middle against Hosfield, who reentered the game to pitch, to bring Chiles home to pad the lead to 7-3.

But the Lady Vols unloaded in the bottom half of the sixth inning and put seven runs on the scoreboard.

Lapicki legged out an infield single and then freshman Shelby Burchell and sophomore Chandra Mogan drew consecutive walks off Beavers to load the bases. Grieve also coaxed a walk to force in a run. Stander chopped a ball just past Carissa Roustan at third to bring the Lady Vols closer at 7-5.

Abbott thought her day was done, but Karen Weekly retrieved her from the bullpen with the bases still loaded and nobody out.

Ralph Weekly was shouting, ‘No! No!' as soon as he saw his wife summon Abbott. He laughed after the game when he was asked about it.

"I wanted to win," he said again.

Abbott struck out consecutive batters but then hit Fryer with a pitch that may have hit her bat handle first before rolling up her arm and striking her helmet.

"I think I hit the bat," Abbott said.

Abbott argued her case, but Fryer was awarded first base and another runner scored to bring the Lady Vols to within one run, 7-6.

Huff hit a scorching liner to leftfield that Chiles got a glove on – and that would have preserved the lead with the third out – but the ball landed just inside the chalk and two runs scored to make it 8-7.

"I just dropped it," Chiles said.

Lapicki lined a double down the right field line to bring two more runners home and a 10-7 lead.

The alumni tried to rally but opened the top of the seventh with two groundouts. Then, consecutive singles by Katherine Card and Ellisha Humphrey put two runners on base. But a third groundout ended the game, which lasted just over three hours.

"We were going to play until midnight if we had to," Ralph Weekly said.

The crowd had dwindled by the late innings, but those who stayed were rewarded with the reentry of Abbott, who was cheered when she came back to pitch again. Karen Weekly would have preferred to let her rest.

"None of our pitchers were in shape," she said. "Monica wasn't at the top of her game by any means. The other two haven't picked up a ball competitively in five years for Stephanie and eight years for Jackie.

"When I brought Monica back in it wasn't really with the idea of trying to save the game it was more because Jackie and Stephanie just didn't have anything left. I would have loved to have Megan. If we'd have had another pitcher who could give us an inning or two I think we would've won that game."

Abbott retreated to a training table after the game to get some ice for her arm.

"I think if they'd had equal pitching all the way or if Monica was at (full strength) – and I want to stress this, Monica told us at the start, ‘I'm at about 50 percent.' But 50 percent of Monica is pretty darn good – I think if they'd had more pitching they would have beat us," Ralph Weekly said. "They out-hit us, 13-8."

Abbott put her effectiveness even lower and her pitches were about 10 to 15 mph slower than when she's in form.

"I am on vacation right now," Abbott said. "I haven't pitched since the Olympics. I didn't want to go back in. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. My arm is hurting right now.' "

Abbott has had some time to put in perspective the disappointing loss to Japan in Beijing in the gold medal game.

"For the team perspective we're disappointed that we didn't win it because we were the best team, but that's how athletics are," said Abbott, who posted a 3-0 record in Beijing and didn't give up an earned run. "I play a team sport, and it takes the whole team to win. I feel like I was completely prepared and did everything that I could have possibly done."

The Lee Softball Stadium has been called "The House that Monica Built" because Abbott helped propel the program onto the national stage and led Tennessee to three consecutive College World Series, twice finishing No. 3 in the country and once at No. 2 from 2005 to 2007.

That means players like Spigner, the Gatorade player of the year in the softball hotbed of California, will make the trek to Knoxville because Tennessee softball success has become a tradition. For Spigner the highlight of the afternoon was settling into the batter's box to face the NCAA's all-time strikeout leader.

"For me it's an honor because she is the best at what she does," Spigner said. "To actually be on the same field as her is like, ‘Wow.' She's the best."

For Hosfield, the national high school player for the year from Murfreesboro, Tenn., the game meant another chance to move forward in her career. She humbly dismissed the accolades of her past.

"I would like to turn the page on the high school book," Hosfield said. "I want to get past that and make a new chapter here in college. We were all good high school players."

Abbott said essentially the same thing when asked to compare the pressure on her when she arrived at Tennessee to that on Hosfield, a pitcher expected to lead the Lady Vols from the circle.

"I don't think there's pressure in that aspect," Abbott said. "There is always pressure when you play, but the program is built now. She needs to go out there and be a leader in the circle and go at them. Don't mess around because she has the team to back her."

Ralph Weekly noted a comparison of Abbott to anyone wasn't fair to either pitcher. He was encouraged by what he saw from his freshman.

"I thought she performed well, not as well as she's capable of, but (we) saw some glimpses of brilliance, the good quick riseball," he said. "She is still recovering from her injury. (Hosfield broke her left ankle in her senior year of high school.) You can't compare anybody to Abbott. Nobody. People tell us all the time, ‘You don't have an Abbott.' "

Weekly's standard response is, "Neither do you."

Hosfield acknowledged she was a little nervous when the game began.

"Of course, but I tried to calm myself down and I talked to my teammates, especially Jess, and think about the pitches I'm going to throw and it didn't matter who they were to," Hosfield said.

The Weeklys said the game was a chance to get the youngsters into an atmosphere of collegiate softball and to learn in a game that may not have counted but could provide a measuring stick.

"I thought Cat did really well," Karen Weekly said. "I love Cat's demeanor. I think the bigger the situation, the more focused she gets, the tougher she is. We saw that in the tournament last week. She got roughed up in the first inning of her last game, they scored a couple of runs and then she slowed them down after that. That's what I really like about her, how she responds to adversity."

Both Spigner and Hosfield noted the speed of the game at this level, especially on the infield hits and slap bunts.

"I've never seen speed that fast," Hosfield said. "They were booking it."

Spigner realized she couldn't play back as far at third as she did in high school.

"For me it really shows what I need to work on," Spigner said. "I got beat by a bunt. It shows that I need to be up closer. This game was really informative. You focus on the little things that you need to learn."

Ralph Weekly noted all six freshmen, Spigner, Hosfield, Fryer, Anderson, Burchell and starting shortstop Ashley Andrews, played in the game.

"They're not going to get any better experience than this," he said.

"He really wanted to win this game," Hosfield said. "He was focused on us playing to our potential and us working on the stuff that we needed to be working on and not go out there and forget everything they taught us.

"He likes us to win and most important is working on what he's telling us to do and us playing to our best. He doesn't like slacking off. He wants us to work on being a disciplined hitter and fielder and for me placing the ball for pitches."

He earned some bragging rights in the Weekly household for the week with the win over his wife's squad.

"I'll probably talk smack," he teased.

Karen Weekly laughed about his intentions but she said the game turned out for the best for several reasons – the alumni acquitted themselves well despite the layoff and the current team got a healthy dose of competition,

"Any time you have the opportunity to compete we wanted our (current) team to go in and play hard and play to win," she said. "The alumni they're just competitors even though a lot of those girls haven't picked up a ball in years. You never stop being a competitor so when they got out there they were taking it seriously but having fun at the same time."

Weekly was without the services of speedster Sarah Fekete, who gave birth to a baby girl just four weeks ago. Fekete was honored before the game with the other alumni.

The afternoon also brought perfect weather for a crowd that easily exceeded 1,000 people.

"We were very happy with the crowd, especially since it's the first time we've had an event like this," Karen Weekly said. "I thought it added a nice touch having Mickey come out and try to hit."

Mickey Dearstone, the voice of the Lady Vols and a host on The Sports Animal, has been saying for two years on the radio that he could hit Abbott. So Dearstone, age 54 and a minor league baseball player back in the day, agreed to try Sunday before the game.

Abbott warmly up wildly on purpose, throwing balls in the dirt, wide of the catcher and over her head. She told the crowd and Dearstone that she hadn't pitched in weeks, her control was spotty and she was prone to hitting batters.

He took strike one and got a called strike two that appeared to be outside. He took a ball a foot off the plate and then Abbott fired a fastball down the middle. Dearstone swung and missed, and Abbott got the strikeout.

"I would never let him get a hit," Abbott said. "I was not about to let that happen."

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