SEC softball tourney underway

Kentucky made its first appearance in the SEC softball tourney since 2001 – and the Wildcats got their first-ever win in the event – but perhaps the most-welcome appearance was that of the sun after a soggy week in Knoxville. The Lady Vols did their part to boost attendance at the postseason tourney by holding off LSU in the final matchup of four games played Thursday.

Play on the opening day of the SEC Softball Tournament, which is being held at Lee Stadium in Knoxville – 1,256 people attended Thursday's games – opened under a cloud cover in the morning that slowly lifted to reveal afternoon sunshine not seen in this area for nearly 10 days. Teams that didn't practice before they departed their home fields used Tennessee's indoor football facility for workouts on the day before the tourney because the Knoxville area was drenched by relentless rain on Wednesday.

It was welcomed by everyone involved – the tournament organizers, coaches, players and fans – and especially because four games were scheduled for the first day.

"You hate to come down here and have a rainout," Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson said. "Nobody likes to wait around, so very happy. This is a great facility and the SEC has great fans so I am happy they can appreciate it."

"It's a nice change because in Lexington we have been seeing a lot of rain, too," Kentucky shortstop Molly Johnson said.

"Yesterday it was ugly," Kentucky pitcher Rachel Riley said. "We were wondering if we were going to get to play. We practiced (in Lexington) before we got here, and it was kind of drizzling. We got through the practice and then it started really raining."

No. 6 seed Kentucky got the tourney started with a 2-0 upset of No. 3 seed Georgia. The Wildcats will next face No. 2 seed Alabama, an 8-0 winner over No. 7 seed Arkansas in five innings. No. 1 seed Florida eliminated No. 8 seed Auburn in a 3-0 shutout by SEC Pitcher of the Year Stacey Nelson, and will next face No. 5 Tennessee, a 6-5 winner over No. 4 seed LSU.

The Kentucky-Alabama game starts at 5 p.m. with Florida-Tennessee to follow at 7:30 p.m. in the single-elimination tournament. Both games are being video-streamed for free online at the Lady Vols website: SEC Softball Video Stream.

GAME ONE

Kentucky's only two previous appearances in the SEC tourney were in 2000 and 2001, and the Wildcats bowed out in the then-double elimination format both times without a single win.

"I'm very proud of this team, because they came out and they played like they have all year," Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson said. "You never know what you are going to get when you haven't been in postseason play for a long time and you have so many young players. They played their game, they played well and they hung in there until the end, so I was very proud of them."

Lawson, who is in her second year, oversaw a +14 margin in wins as Kentucky had 17 wins last year and 31 victories this season entering postseason play. Florida's Tim Walton, who was the SEC Coach of the Year, said his vote for the award went to Lawson.

The game was scoreless through four innings with Georgia getting two hits and Kentucky managing just one as the pitchers – Rachel Riley for the Wildcats and Christie Hamilton for the Lady Bulldogs – efficiently dispatched the batters.

Kentucky, 32-20, got its second hit of the game in the top of the fifth inning when Samantha DeMartine singled to leftfield. Annie Rowlands lined out to third, and Destinee Mordecai grounded out to first while DeMartine advanced to second.

Molly Johnson then sent a two-out, 0-2 pitch over the leftfield wall for a two-run homer and the game's final 2-0 margin. It was inside – the junior shortstop was expecting that – and she turned on it quickly.

"They had been keeping it inside on me the entire game," Johnson said. I hadn't seen one single pitch outside so I kind of knew what to expect, so I tried to keep fouling them off until I got something I could work with. (The pitch) was kind of flat so I thought, ‘Why not go for it?' "

The shot energized the Kentucky team, which poured out of the dugout to greet Johnson at the plate.

"It built our confidence," Johnson said. "Every inning that we kept it scoreless kept building our confidence so it was just a matter of time before we pulled something together and scored. I think the runs really helped us finish the game."

Riley watched the at-bat from the dugout and thought to herself that it was the perfect time for a homer.

"It was awesome," Riley said. "Sam got us going, and I was like, ‘It would be so great if Molly could get a home run right now.' She kept battling and battling and I just knew that she was going to come through. Molly is someone that we always count on, and she's a big part of this team."

"That was everything," Lawson said. "We have a good defense, and we are very confident in our pitcher, so it's all a matter of, ‘Can we get the runs to support them?' When that happened, I think that was a big relief and a big weight off our shoulders. We were able to go out and just finish the game."

That was all the offense Riley needed to get the win. She allowed five hits, struck out two and didn't walk any batters in seven innings.

Riley, a freshman from Bowling Green, Ky., has been taking the circle more frequently because freshman ace Chanda Bell has a stress reaction in her left leg and is day-to-day. Bell is expected to be able to pitch Friday, but Riley has adjusted to being ready.

Georgia, 39-10, had swept Kentucky in the regular season, but the Lady Bulldogs left five runners on base, including one stranded after hitting a two-out double in the seventh inning to give Georgia some late life.

"I was just trying to stay calm," Riley said. "I knew we had two outs, and we needed a ground ball. I just tried to keep the ball low and work through it."

Riley was surprised when Georgia's Tess Echols jumped on the first pitch, but she grounded out to third to end the game.

"It was disappointing that we didn't come out and hit the ball like we normally do," Georgia Coach Lu Harris-Champer said. "I thought (Hamilton) pitched outstanding. I thought she pitched well enough to win. This game is about scoring runs and we've got to score more than zero."

Georgia shortstop Kristin Schnake pointed at the pitching performance of Riley and the mindset of the Lady Bulldogs.

"We were just not getting hits like we needed to," Schnake said. "She threw a great game, and you have to tip your hat off to her. We have to come ready to go. We didn't come out and be focused at the plate. I didn't feel like we were very focused. We just needed to get honed in and play our game and not worry about them."

Kentucky will have its gloves full on Friday with Alabama, but the Wildcats have already made program history with the first SEC tourney win.

"I think it is fantastic," Johnson said. "The last time we played Georgia, we were in a rough spell, so to be able to pull off a win against them shows the tenacity of our team. … Rachel Riley did a fantastic job keeping them scoreless through seven, and our defense helped her out. The offense really had no choice but to help our pitcher out and finish what our defense had been starting."

"I felt good today," Riley said. "My pitches were working. They swept us in the season, and we thought we could have played better, so it was another chance to show them what we had. It's exciting. I came in after our number one pitcher got hurt, and I just started pitching and any win is great, but it is exciting."

GAME TWO

Alabama scored in every inning – the Crimson Tide only needed four innings of offensive work – and cruised to an 8-0 win over Arkansas in five innings.

Alabama's Charlotte Morgan, the SEC Player of the Year, helped herself in the circle and at the plate. Morgan pitched four innings and allowed one hit, walked just one and struck out four batters. She also hit third in the order and doubled to left-center to drive in Lauren Parker, who scored one of Alabama's three first-inning runs.

The early lead, especially in a single-elimination format, was comforting for the Crimson Tide.

"Our goal is to score in the first inning and every inning possible and definitely coming out and coming on top it doesn't necessarily relax you but it's like, ‘All right, we've got this,' because you never know with SEC teams," Morgan said. "They can come back. It gives confidence and it builds on for the rest of the game."

"I think it helps a lot," Alabama Coach Patrick Murphy said. "We've kind of struggled a little bit in that first inning so I was really glad when Brittany (Rogers) gets on, she gets in and then Parker gets the RBI, and then Charlotte drives her in. It was just kind of a boom, boom, boom thing. As an offensive coach, that is what you want to see: score quickly and take advantage of the people on base."

Arkansas actually was trying to pitch around Morgan, who ended up with three RBIs for the day.

"Well, we made the statement before the game in our pre-game show that we didn't want to pitch to her," Arkansas Coach Jamie Pinkerton said. "We came into a situation (in the first inning) where we wanted to unintentionally, intentionally walk her, and we left a pitch a little bit too close to her. She's aggressive enough that if you leave anything close to the plate, she's going to drive it. When she drove in the first two runs, we were trying to walk her."

The Crimson Tide added two runs in both the second and third innings and another in the fourth to put the eight-run rule in effect and end the game after Arkansas failed to score in the top of the fifth. Amanda Locke finished the final inning in the circle for Alabama and retired three batters with fly-outs to the outfield.

"I thought our offense was very efficient," Murphy said. "We got the leadoff on every inning, and I think she scored every inning, and played good defense behind her. Get them on and get them in. I thought we were very good picking the right pitches to hit."

Alabama, 46-8, scored five runs off Arkansas' Miranda Dixon – three were earned – and three of Kim Jones, all earned. The eight runs came on seven hits, including a home run by Ashley Holcombe in the third inning that also plated Cassandra Reilly-Boccia, who had singled to rightfield.

Arkansas, 27-27, lost more than just the game. Second baseman Kayla Johnson injured her left shoulder when she covered first base on a bunt and took a high throw that arrived at the same time as the runner in the second inning. Her left arm and shoulder were wrenched in the collision, and she had to leave the game.

"Today was a rough day," Johnson said. "We came out and tried to fight, but it didn't happen for us."

"She's hurt," Pinkerton said. "That's an already surgically repaired shoulder. She's not a vocal leader, but she's an inspirational leader and I kind of could feel the team sink a little bit when she got hurt, but I thought B-Rob (Brittany Robinson) stepped in and did a nice job."

Arkansas managed just one hit and left two runners on base in what has been a brutal stretch of game for the Razorbacks, who are hoping to make the field of 64 for the NCAA Tournament.

"The only thing we've got against us is our finish, but my quote to the committee would be to let everyone else finish with number one, two and five in the RPI and see if they'll lose the games that we lost," Pinkerton said. "At the end of the day it's not my call, but I think we've got a strong case to go. But obviously by not playing well in the last 10 games it's not in our hands.

"Obviously we knew that are hands were full coming in. We've just had a rough stretch the last couple of weeks, dealing with Alabama, Georgia and Florida. We've taken a lot of shots, and things haven't gone our way. Obviously, we wished we had competed better, but a lot of that had to do with how good Alabama is, and we gave them some opportunities. They only had six or seven hits, but you cannot put people on in front of Charlotte Morgan, and you can't put people on in front of their big hitters. They were able to take advantage of what we gave them, whether it was via an error or base on balls. That's why, RPI-wise, they are the No. 2 team in the country."

Arkansas got a postseason nod of approval from Murphy, who said the Razorbacks should make the field. Murphy expected more of a battle from Arkansas, but he also knows that his Alabama team has been very efficient of late.

Alabama was just in Knoxville last weekend to close out the regular season so the venue was both familiar and recent.

"Charlotte kind of picked up where she left off on Saturday when she pitched against Tennessee," Murphy said. "She threw a one-hitter that day and then threw a one-hitter today … so we were familiar with the field. She was used to it. I think she was just excited to get back out there."

Morgan noted the familiarity after the game and also was appreciative of the Alabama fight song on the loudspeakers. Since it's the SEC tourney, all the team's fight songs have been played at various points.

"The park, we are familiar with it, so it's great that we're able to be here," Morgan said. "It's a long bus ride, but it's good to be back. I didn't expect them to be playing our fight song. It kind of gives you a sense of home, and it's always great to have that feeling."

Morgan is wearing a protective boot on her left foot, which will be fully evaluated after the season. She had a stress fracture last year and has had two surgeries, but the discomfort has returned and she described the bone as feeling "dead."

"Every athlete plays with pain and injuries," Morgan said. "I think it makes you better. You've just got to push through."

Morgan said the team's mindset on the field is to stick with what has been working all season.

"We just have to stay within ourselves and keep doing what we've been doing," Morgan said. "Our mentality right now is to stay where we're at. Stay within your swing. Stay within fielding the ball. Stay within pitching. Don't change what doesn't need to be fixed. We'll go over their lineups … sit down, relax, and look at their stats and their team. Get prepared just the same way we do for every team. Stay together and keep doing what we've been doing and get a little better every day."

Alabama's next opponent is Kentucky, which will be seeking its second SEC tourney win in school history. Murphy got career win No. 599 against Arkansas and will have a chance for No. 600 on Friday.

"I'm really lucky that I can do it with Alyson Habetz, my associate head coach who has been with me for every one, and (assistant) Vann (Stuedemann) has probably got close to 500 of her own because this is her ninth year with us, so it's just really neat that the staff can stay together and experience all of those great victories," Murphy said.

He also enters the game with a lot of respect for the opposing coach – Rachel Lawson of Kentucky.

"Rachel was my vote for Coach of the Year," Murphy said. "I think she's done a heck of a job for two years. This morning's game, you've never seen Kentucky play like that – or I haven't – with confidence. They put it away. You've got to give them a lot of credit. It's going to be a great night for them Sunday night when they get in the (NCAA) regionals because I think they're going to go. They're a great team, and we're going to have to play really, really well."

GAME THREE

Florida pitcher Stacey Nelson pitched seven scoreless innings, Aja Paculba hit a solo home run, and the Gators secured a 3-0 win in their opening game over Auburn.

A Florida fan walked into Lee Stadium with a sign that said, "Welcome to the Florida Gator Invitational," a nod to the dominance of Florida, which lost just one SEC game all season – to Alabama – and is ranked number one in the country.

Nelson, the conference's pitcher of the year, allowed two hits, walked one and struck out five to secure the shutout. She has not allowed a home run this season and has an ERA of 0.36. She has struck out 271 batters and walked 36 in 218.1 innings with opponents hitting just .154.

"She's good," Auburn Coach Tina Deese said with a shake of her head. "I mean, look at her numbers. She's good. She's one that you've got to get out and be aggressive. You can't let her get ahead of you. You've got to hit the first couple pitches or she's going to get you. She's got all the pitches. She keeps it low and she keeps you in the park for sure."

It was Florida that jumped out early with two runs in the first inning off Anna Thompson, who entered the game with 248 strikeouts and a 2.11 ERA with opponents hitting just .176 in 182.1 innings.

Paculba walked and made it to second on a wild pitch. Kristina Hilbreth singled to third base and, following a strikeout by Ali Gardiner, both runners advanced a base on another wild pitch. Francesca Enea doubled to left-center, and both Paculba and Hilbreth scored. Paculba added her solo shot to lead off the third inning for the final margin.

"Francesca coming up big in the first inning was huge and then Aja giving us a little bit of insurance," Walton said.

Florida also enjoyed seizing an early lead in the single-elimination format.

"It's huge," Florida Coach Tim Walton said. "That's the nature of our game. You have to get momentum first and then you've got to keep momentum. I thought we did a good job coming out and grabbing the momentum right out of the gate."

"I think it set the tempo for the rest of the game," Paculba said. "We always try to get on top at the beginning, because we can let loose for the rest of the game."

Thompson shook out the first inning and settled down the rest of the way.

"You throw the pitches, and you hope that everything goes the way that you've practiced," Thompson said. "Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn't. I settled down and I really hit a stride after that. The team helped a lot. They calmed me down a lot."

Nelson never got completely comfortable on the mound, but she also didn't allow Auburn to capitalize on its base runners, all four of who were left stranded.

"I guess they never really let me settle in," Nelson said. "Their hitters were making good adjustments and forced me to make adjustments. It was a little bit of a volleyball game out there, going back and forth."

Walton opted to go with his ace pitcher because the Tigers had tested the Gators of late.

"Over the last three years that I've been here, we've played Auburn tight," Walton said. "Anna Thompson is arguably one of the best pitchers in the league and will go down as one of the best pitchers in this year. She's tough, and we've had trouble with her, as have so many other people in this league. We've got to get that first win and then figure out what we need to do.

"I don't expect Stacey to be perfect, whether she walks a player, hits a player, or someone gets a hit. I thought she did a great job making quality pitches when she needed to. She threw about five pitches tonight that were hard and had great, sharp break, so I was very pleased with her. When you've got a pitcher like Stacey and she's throwing strikes and she's getting in on the hands, it makes it pretty hard to get comfortable in the box."

Nelson was able to get comfortable in the circle because of the early cushion on the scoreboard.

"It's very nice, especially when they were getting those runners on base," Nelson said. "Obviously, I wanted to get out of it with no runs, but knowing we had a three-run cushion really made me a lot more comfortable. The top of their lineup is very strong, and I knew that they would be tough all day. When they got on base, I was a little worried, but I knew my defense would pick me up."

Nelson also got a pickup from Paculba, who crushed a line-drive shot over the wall in left-center.

"I was just trying to get on base," Paculba said. "I swung at a pitch that I don't usually swing at and it went, so I was like, ‘OK, get a run out of it.' It was high and outside. I had one strike on me, so and I was like, ‘If it's close just swing at it.' "

Thompson, likely echoing the sentiments of her sister SEC schools, was ready to see someone besides league opponents.

"The caliber of the teams in the SEC right now is ridiculous," Thompson said. "I know it's the best it's been pretty much ever. I'm excited to be able to play against these teams every single day (in the regular season). It's amazing. Going into NCAA Regionals it will be a relief to get there."

Thompson also didn't hesitate to praise the Gators' performance on Thursday.

"The hardest thing is knowing that you're the underdog coming in, knowing they're the No. 1 team in the nation, and they've earned it rightfully," Thompson said. "They're wonderful and my hat's off to them on that win."

Florida will next face another underdog in Tennessee, which will be playing at home.

"We still want to win; that's the goal and that's what we are trying to do," Walton said. "I don't know who we are going to pitch yet. Stacey threw well today and Stephanie (Brombacher) has been throwing great in the bullpen, so I would feel comfortable going to either one of them (Friday).

"I don't know that this is the best that we've played all year long, but I think we're pitching the best we have all year long and that is what wins championships. That really helped us a lot. I think we need to get a little better offensively. I don't want to say that we are tired or make any excuses. I just think we are facing better pitching, and they are bearing down on their hitters a little bit more."

GAME FOUR

Tennessee jumped out to a quick 5-0 lead and then held on for the 6-5 win behind some clutch pitching from freshman Cat Hosfield, who left the game and reentered to preserve the Lady Vols' slim lead.

Tennessee, 38-15-1, had closed the season with a 1-4 record with losses to Georgia and Alabama and had lost its last two one-run ballgames. So the win over LSU, 32-16-1, was one of a confidence booster for a young Lady Vol team.

"We've been talking about the whole season that you've got to come out there and fight to the very last inning," freshman third baseman Jessica Spigner said. "Today we went all out. LSU was right on our heels and we were like, ‘No, we're not losing this game. We refuse to lose.' "

LSU, on the other hand, has seen enough of Tennessee. The Tigers lost two at home to the Lady Vols – LSU is usually uber-stout at home – plus one game ended in a tie, the first knotted game in the 13-year history of SEC softball.

"Four errors, not enough good pitches with two-out situations and not enough timely hitting in what we call ‘prime-time' at-bats," LSU Coach Yvette Girouard said. "To Tennessee's credit, they took advantage every time the situation was in their favor. I don't want to take anything away from Tennessee, but I'll be content to not see another orange team the rest of this season."

Apparently the teams like to set records when they play. They set two new single-game SEC tourney marks – 17 combined hits and six total stolen bases that eclipsed the 14 hits by Auburn and Alabama in 2002 and four stolen bases, which had been done four times, most recently by Georgia and South Carolina in 2002.

Tennessee got on the board early with a 5-0 lead after three innings. But Hosfield yielded some hot shots and was missing her spots so the coaching staff opted to bring Spigner in from third base to pitch. She had pitched shutout innings against Georgia this season and led the pitching hotbed of California high school softball with 29 wins last season.

"(Spigner) has been very successful in keeping the ball down and our three coaches felt that we could put Jessica in and put (Cat Hosfield) back in the bullpen to work on her change, and let her come back with it," Tennessee Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. "It didn't work out tonight but I would do over again. Jess is a really good pitcher; they just got to her. I told the kids, ‘I'll take that.' Coaches make moves and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't."

Spigner entered in the third inning but got hit hard, and LSU scored four runs from a combination of walks, hits and a fielder's choice.

"It's a great experience for me to get better," Spigner said. "Granted, I didn't come through. I'm beating myself up for it, but my team did a good job of (having) my back, made some plays, came back and got a run. The team did a good job of picking me up."

Weekly got Hosfield, who went to the bullpen to work on her changeup, back in the game. With two runners on base, Hosfield struck out pinch hitter Lauren Capello.

"He made a move, which would have been brilliant if it had worked, but it just didn't work," Hosfield said. "I think any coach would have done that. I was missing spots on my pitches. When I came back, I was really fired up and I wanted to win this."

Hosfield looked a little lame in the pitcher's circle when she reentered the game – she has had ankle surgery and wears a brace on the left one – but she said she was OK.

"I tend to favor it, but it's not bothering me at all," Hosfield said.

Weekly pulled Hosfield because her changeup was ineffective, but Spigner's bullpen work didn't translate to the game.

"The big thing was that her changeup didn't work and without a changeup you can't go against LSU," Weekly said. "We checked with Spigner and went down to the bullpen, and her changeup was working beautifully and put her in the game and bam, bam, bam."

Weekly had told Hosfield to be ready to go back in, but he didn't think it would be the same inning.

Tennessee got one run back in the next inning when Lillian Hammond singled up the middle, stole second base and advanced to third on a ground ball by Nicole Kajitani. Hammond scored when Kelly Grieve singled up the middle to give Tennessee a 6-4 lead.

LSU closed the gap to 6-5 in the fifth inning when Rachel Mitchell singled on a short hopper in front of the plate. She got to second on a wild pitch and advanced to third on a groundout to second by Juliana Santos. Mitchell darted home on a ground ball to second and beat the throw to the plate.

Girouard opted to change pitchers in the fifth inning and lifted Cody Trahan for centerfielder Kirsten Shortridge, who pitched two scoreless innings with three strikeouts.

"What a player she is," Girouard said. "I wish I had put her in a little bit sooner. She came in and stopped the bleeding for us and gave us an opportunity to make a comeback and win."

The seventh inning got a lot more interesting than the Tennessee coaches wanted.

"It's going to make me older than I already am," Weekly said.

Mitchell grounded out to second, but then Santos walked. Tennessee got the second out with a force-out of Santos at second with Ashley Applegate reaching first base on the fielder's choice. Santos was out by a half-step at second on a laser throw from Spigner to get the lead runner.

"It was really important to get a (sure) out, but I figured with any kind of hit with a quick runner on second base, a run could score," Spigner said. "I thought to myself, ‘If a quick ball is hit to me, I am going to go two. It was hit kind of in the middle, and I just chucked it and got her out."

That left Tennessee in good shape with two out and a runner on first, but Hosfield hit Anissa Young to move Applegate to second. Ashley Langoni then walked to load the bases.

"She is going to be really good," Weekly said of Hosfield. "She still has to learn that you can't do those kind of things."

That brought pinch hitter Casey Faile to the plate. She hit a 0-1 pitch to Kajitani, who was nearly hit by the base runner and fired the throw to first base for the final out.

"I knew the ball was coming to me," said Kajitani, whose nickname is "Peanut." "I was hoping for it. It's one of those things where you just feel like the ball's going to come to you. And I'm glad it did. I was waiting for her to run into me. That's what I was waiting for. That's what you practice as a second baseman, you're going to stand your territory and if she runs into you, she's out."

Langoni pulled up, and Kajitani made the play at first. There had been two other collisions in the game. A Tennessee runner flattened the LSU first baseman on a popup, and Tennessee shortstop Ashley Andrews wrenched her leg – she turned out to be OK – when an LSU runner broke up a double play.

"I think any game like this is going to be intense," Kajitani said. "I don't think anything was personal. There's so much emotion and intensity going on that things are going to happen sometimes.

"It was so important especially since we didn't get to play that third game down at LSU. When you think about it, this was kind of like our third game. We knew we should have won, and I think tonight we proved it."

Kajitani and Andrews chattered at Hosfield throughout the last inning and especially when the bases were loaded.

"Basically, my shortstop and second baseman were like, ‘You got this, you got this. You're the best. You can do this.' I did not lose a drop of confidence at all," Hosfield said. "I was just trying to throw good pitches. I wasn't going to throw a fat pitch in that seventh inning."

Shortridge said LSU emerged from the game feeling like it has battled.

"We knew it was going to be a good matchup," Shortridge said. "They gave us a hard time in the series (earlier this year), and we wanted to come back with revenge. They played a great game; we played a great game. It went their way tonight. Everyone fought and our goal is to not leave the field with regrets. I hope my teammates didn't do so, I know I didn't. We just have to give 110 percent. Sometimes it doesn't go your way."

Tennessee next faces Florida, which out-scored the Lady Vols 18-1 in three games on the Gators' home field.

"We are really proud to play Florida," Weekly said. "I think Florida is by far the best team in the country, no question about it. It's kind of like playing the New York Yankees. You're just going to go out there and give it our best shot."

Tennessee starts four freshmen and three sophomores, so the youngsters will have to be ready. Two of them also hope to prove the team has improved.

"I feel like I am a smarter, better pitcher now so I am really excited to get another shot at them," Hosfield said. "They are a really great team."

"It's exciting," Spigner said. "We're mentally prepared for it. We're physically prepared for it. We're going to go out there and give it our best shot. We showed tonight that we have the fight and the desire to win.

"We just talked about great momentum for our game (Friday). We couldn't ask for a better, more exciting game. I think it's awesome for our team."

Weekly took a circumspect point of view.

"This is a good learning experience and I know this is going to help them down the road; I just don't know how far down the road," he said.

He was pleased with how his team finished the job Thursday.

"We made it close, which we've done in a lot of games this year," Weekly said. "So, I'm proud of them. They fought."

HEADGEAR: The first- and third-base coaches on the field must now wear helmets, according to a new SEC rule that was enacted this week. Word got to the SEC teams via text and email the day before the SEC tourney started – a few teams had already departed for Knoxville – so teams were scrambling to find headgear for the coaches.

The teams borrowed helmets from their baseball teams – the smaller helmets without the earflaps, unlike the near football helmets worn in softball – went to sporting goods stores in Knoxville or accepted loaners from Tennessee to be ready for Thursday's games.

The general sentiment seemed to be one of puzzlement as to the timing – a few hours notice before postseason – or questioning why the umpires, who are on the field of play and sometimes in harm's way, don't wear them, too.

Minor league baseball leagues have also enacted rules requiring base coaches to wear helmets. It came after Mike Coolbaugh, a coach for the Colorado Rockies AA club, was struck by a line drive and killed in August 2007. But Coolbaugh, who was on the first base side of the field, was struck in the neck, and the helmets worn by minor league coaches and managers won't prevent that type of accident.

Alabama Coach Patrick Murphy was wearing his helmet Thursday when an Arkansas player hit a scorching line drive into the dugout that nearly nailed an assistant coach. Murphy tossed his helmet at his assistant to wear, but he had to put it back on by rule while on the field.

"I don't agree with it, but what are going to say," Murphy said. "I think the football coaches should wear helmets because they are more likely to get a concussion on the sideline than me I think. Umpires should have them on. We were lucky because we had finals yesterday, and we didn't leave until 2:30, and we didn't get the email until noon. Most of the schools were already here and went to sporting good stores, and Tennessee bought a couple. I went to the baseball equipment room and the kid said, ‘I think I've got a couple of extras,' so that's where we got ours."

The players smiled and laughed when asked how their coaches looked in the new headgear.

"They looked great," Alabama's Charlotte Morgan said with a big laugh. "If it's going to keep them safe then might as well do it, but it's definitely something we've got to get used to. It's funny to watch them."

"It's just something that all of us coaches are going to have to get used to," Auburn Coach Tina Deese said. "It really wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. It's something we're going to have to get used to and for me, more so just remembering to get it out. It'll just take some time, and we'll be fine with it."

"It wasn't too big a deal," Florida Coach Tim Walton said. "It's just one more thing you've got to keep track of."

"I hate to talk for all the coaches but I am pretty sure none of us like this," LSU Coach Yvette Girouard said with a laugh. "I called our baseball manager when we got the text, and he ran over. They only had two."

The players seemed to get a kick out of their coaches' latest accessory.

"I love it," Auburn pitcher Anna Thompson said. "They look a little goofy, and we make fun of them, but it's a lot of fun."

"It's fun going up and bopping them a little bit," Florida pitcher Stacey Nelson said.

"They made a rule that we can't make fun of them," Florida second baseman Aja Paculba said, "or each one of us has to wear one in the dugout so we're kind of keeping it to ourselves."

When two Tennessee players were asked for an honest assessment of how the helmets looked, they laughed out loud.

"Silly," third baseman Jessica Spigner said.

Pitcher Cat Hosfield figured Co-Head Coach Karen Weekly would make some fashion changes.

"It looks a little goofy, but I think she'll go back to tonight, look in the mirror and try to make it as cute as possible," Hosfield said. "She'll look good tomorrow."

Ralph Weekly, who remained in the dugout for the game, took the diplomatic route when asked about his wife's new look.

"She looks good to me no matter what she has on. How's that for an answer?" Ralph Weekly said.


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