Tennessee falls to Florida in tourney

Alabama and Florida both played long ball – the Crimson Tide crushed one in extra innings to defeat Kentucky; the Gators hit back-to-back-to-back homers to bury Tennessee – and the two teams will meet today for the SEC Tournament title. The Lady Vols, meanwhile, will file into the film room for the postmortem and await the NCAA postseason brackets on Sunday.

Florida, 54-3, and Alabama, 47-8, will play Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Lee Softball Stadium for the tourney trophy. Kentucky, 32-21, took the Crimson Tide to extra innings before succumbing on a home run by Whitney Larsen that cleared the scoreboard in centerfield with room to spare for the 2-1 win in eight innings. Tennessee's game was over in five innings – though it took 2 hours and 26 minutes to complete – with an 11-3 loss.

Afterwards, Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly vowed that the Lady Vols' young pitchers would get better.

"Everybody that knows Ralph and Karen Weekly will know that this is not going to continue into next year," Weekly said. "I take full responsibility for our pitchers' inability to hit their spots, and I guarantee you I am going to take over that responsibility and get it corrected.

"Here's the key. The game is fast-pitch. That's all there is to it – it's fast pitch. You look at every team that's successful in this game, and they've got a great pitcher. You saw a total difference in that game when they brought (Stacey) Nelson in."

Florida's Stephanie Brombacher started the game, and Tennessee's Nicole Kajitani jumped on the first pitch and sent it past shortstop Megan Bush for an error. By the end of the inning, Tennessee had a 3-0 lead on a team that had surrendered few runs.

"The team comes out all fired up and scores a bunch of runs against a team that's only given up 41 runs all season," Weekly said.

Kelly Grieve moved Kajitani to second on a bunt, and Tiffany Hunt grounded out to second to send Kajitani to third. Jessica Spigner drew a walk and then Jennifer Lapicki singled to third base to score Kajitani and move Spigner to second. Erinn Webb doubled to the wall in left-center to bring both runners home, and a partisan crowd of Tennessee-orange supporters – the majority of the 1,132 in attendance were Lady Vol fans, though Kentucky, Alabama and Florida were well represented – roared its approval.

But Florida's dominance that followed that burst had several of those same Lady Vol fans headed for the parking lot before the game officially ended in the bottom of the fifth, when pinch runner Ami Austin scored on a double by Kelsey Bruder to bring the run rule into play.

"They deserve every last bit of press and fame," Spigner said. "They're the real deal."

Tennessee had an ideal start in the top of the first inning, but Florida answered with four runs of its own that started when leadoff hitter Aja Paculba doubled and came home on a homer over the leftfield wall by Ali Gardiner. Bruder got on base after being hit in the helmet by a pitch and a triple by Corrie Brooks to centerfield sent her home to tie the game. Bush singled to bring home Brooks, and Florida seized the lead, 4-3.

"That was good," Florida Coach Tim Walton said. "We learned something about our team tonight. No matter what the score is, we can come back from it. We did a great job. I thought we fought well. I think Aja actually cracked a smile and fist-pumped for the first time in her career. I really look at it as a positive. We got fired up and answered. We're down three in the first inning in a single-elimination tournament, score four."

Tennessee freshman pitcher Cat Hosfield was replaced in the second inning by sophomore Ashton Ward, who got two quick outs on ground balls. But then Ward issued a walk to Gardiner, and Francesca Enea homered over the centerfield wall. Bruder followed suit over the same wall. Tennessee sent Danielle Pieroni to the pitcher's circle, and Brooks sent a ball sailing deep over the leftfield wall.

After a promising start, Tennessee was down 8-3. Florida put one run on the board in each of the next three innings for the final 11-3 margin. All 11 runs were earned with six on Hosfield's tally sheet, four on Ward's and one on Pieroni's.

Walton opted to lift Brombacher after one inning – none of Tennessee's runs were earned – and put his senior ace, Stacey Nelson, in the circle.

"What I told Stephanie was that we fought so hard to come back like that, that we can't give up another run," Walton said. "We can't give up the momentum that our offense just fought so hard to get back. At that point in time, I felt really handcuffed."

The Gators' intent was to respond to Tennessee's first-inning attack with one of their own.

"That's just kind of what our team is like," Enea said. "They score three, and we just wanted to answer back so that they know they can't hang around with us. It's what we're going to do – we're going to score runs and give our pitchers as much support as possible. That's the type of team we are."

Weekly noted the difference in the circle when Nelson entered and pitched with efficiency.

"We score three on them in the first inning, and then our pitching just gave it away," Weekly said. "Now, I need to make this very clear. I love Cat Hosfield, and I think she's going to be a great young pitcher, but the problem in this game is location. And that's why when Stacey Nelson came in she located that ball exactly where she wanted it.

"The issues with Cat are location, period. She gets revved up. She's a heck of a competitor. She gets revved up, and the ball goes everywhere. It's more of the mental game. She gets revved up and she just starts firing the ball, and she lets the umpire get in her head.

"But Cat Hosfield is tough. Stacey Nelson got beat up here 10-0 her freshman year and now she's the best pitcher I've ever seen in this league, next to Monica (Abbott). I am going to leave Monica up there at the top. What really bothered me tonight is I noticed Spigner's game, Grieve's game, (Ashley) Andrews' game, they are ran parallel to the pitcher's."

To her credit, Hosfield was fully cognizant of the difference between the two teams after the game.

"We fought as long and hard as we could," Hosfield said. "Florida is an amazing team. I tip my hat to them. They fought harder and longer than we did.

"Their hitters are the most disciplined hitters I have ever seen. Maybe that's because I'm a freshman, and I haven't seen these type of hitters, but they do not swing at any balls. They are just very disciplined."

Spigner saw the difference in a senior-laden team such as Florida and a freshman- and sophomore-laden one such as Tennessee. She also saw what she wants her team to become in college.

"Looking at what Florida is and what they've become over the years that is what you aspire to be," Spigner said. You want your ball club to look like that. I have a lot of respect for their team, their coaches. They have a great ball club. They get the job done, and they do it well."

Webb, a junior from Hemet, Calif., is one of the few upperclassmen in the starting lineup, along with Lillian Hammond in leftfield, Kajitani at second and catcher Tiffany Huff, who has a shoulder injury and is "gutting it out," according to Weekly. The rest of the spots – including the key one in the circle – are occupied by first- and second-year players.

It was Webb's hit that catapulted Tennessee to the fast start Friday, and her diving attempt at a line drive tailing away in leftfield nearly snuffed out Florida's big first inning. She felt good about the way the young team started the game, including preparations.

"We had a great pre-game warmup," Webb said. "We had a great attitude at the beginning of the game. We really wanted to give Florida a great game. In the first inning we were like, ‘We've got this. This is going to be a great game. We're going to fight to the very end.' And we made some mistakes and when (that happens) you have to capitalize on them, and that is exactly what Florida did. That's what good hitters do, and every single one of their players in the lineup is a great hitter."

Weekly saw a pattern that he has seen all season.

"What exactly happens is they come out fired out, they score some runs – we've done this all the way down the line – our pitching goes out and gives up eight runs in two innings and all the air goes out of the freshmen and the sophomores and then they start making mistakes," Weekly said.

He mentioned Grieve's miscues in which her usually accurate arm sent one throw into the dugout and another well over the catcher's head on a play at home.

"She's a good young outfielder," Weekly said. "Those are frustration mistakes, and they come from feeling like you don't have a chance."

Weekly did, however, take the time to congratulate Florida.

"Florida is a great team one through nine in the lineup, in the pitching circle, on the field and in the coaching box," Weekly said. "They deserved to win tonight, and they deserve to be ranked No. 1. We certainly wish them the best the rest of the way this season."

But his concern right now is his team and the issues within the circle.

"I don't want this to be a negative at all," Weekly said. "I am proud of the kids, but I'm going to get it fixed. Our pitchers are going to be able to put the ball where they need to put it. Period. And I am going to take on that responsibility myself.

"We've got the kids that can get it done right now. It's just a matter of them maturing and when you come up a juggernaut like them, it can really destroy a lot of confidence. We're not going to go in and thrash them (in the post-game meeting). We're going to go in and tell them we got beat by a better team. I need to get their mindsets right."

There are almost "Groundhog Day" parallels to the Lady Vol softball and basketball teams – two programs with tremendous success, roster depletion of stars and glue players due to graduation, and the entrance of stellar, but inexperienced, freshmen. Pat Summitt and the Weeklys have shared a few conversations.

"There are tremendous parallels," Weekly said. "She's on a bigger stage than us, but she is so gracious. I went to the (1,000) tribute to her and she saw me and she said, ‘You look like you need a hug.' I said, ‘I do.'

"She said, ‘I'll be available to talk when you need to talk.' Pat Summitt is a tremendous resource for all of the coaches at Tennessee. I think we are going to do some things similar to what she did."

That means getting better as soon as possible, such as when Summitt returned her team to the practice court 48 hours after the loss to Ball State in the NCAA tourney. With that in mind the Weeklys will have their team in the film room today.

"We've got a theater in there, and we've got a lot of film to look at," Weekly said of the state-of-the-art facilities for the team at the stadium. "I don't know that I'm mad. I'm just determined."

The basketball team bowed out in the first round of the NCAA tourney. Weekly would like for the softball team to stick around longer, but, like Summitt, he has to take a wait-and-see approach.

"This team is like opening a box of chocolates," Weekly said. "You're not sure what you're going to get."

For the freshmen the surprises are seeing who they will play next and where as Tennessee hopes to host a regional but could be sent on the road. The NCAA brackets will be announced at 10 p.m. Eastern on Sunday with play beginning next week.

"Wherever we're going to be it's going to be a battle and no matter what team we play they're going to be good teams, so we've just got to go out there and fight, fight, fight and give it our best shot," Spigner said.

Spigner, a freshman third baseman from Santa Clarita, Calif., also saw the parallels in the two young teams.

"Young players who haven't been in certain situations tend to struggle a little bit, because it's like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We're here,' " Spigner said. "Freshmen, they're still a little immature, and they don't have enough experience under their belts to know what it feels like, which is why the basketball team wasn't as successful. Because they have the talent for sure. It takes a couple of years to experience to really know the game, be a smarter player and really be effective on the court.

"We're growing, and we're really fighting every game. We're trying to get to the World Series, and we'll battle until we get there."

Webb, the junior, can empathize with being a first-year player.

"I think both programs are very talented, and I think it helps having a year under your belt," Webb said. "It's a learning year for the freshmen, and everyone struggles their freshmen year. I think next year will be a lot better once they get the experience for both teams."

But Webb is also anxious to see how far this year's team can advance, especially in the sometime unpredictable crucible of the postseason.

"Now, we're really playing the best teams out there, because the best teams are going to make the regionals," Webb said. "We've got to get better this next week. I think they (the freshmen) will get pumped up, because we're in postseason. This is the best part of the season. It's the most exciting part. It's what we play all year for is to be in postseason.

"I think that they know that and I think they can get themselves pumped up, and we can help them along because we're all really excited to continue on our season because we don't want to stop."

Kentucky should hear its name Sunday for the first time in program history when the field of 64 is announced.

"Oh, wow. We've come really far," said Kentucky Coach Rachel Lawson, who, in her second year, turned around the Wildcats. "I don't think I could pinpoint one thing. Our defense is obviously very, very good and has come a long way. I feel like at any point, if we keep the ball in the park, we are going to get a big out. Our pitching is night and day different this year than it has been in the past. Offensively, we are getting smarter. We have a little ways to go and we've got to do a better job scoring runs and capitalizing on some opportunities. Our offense is also a lot better, and we have the potential to score in many parts in our lineup.

"We've come a long way. We are not where we want to be, but we've made great steps towards it, and we're just looking forward to regionals."

Lawson took the blame for the home run that ended the game against Alabama when freshman pitcher Rachel Riley was on the mound.

"I think her pitching coach, which is me, made a bad call," said Lawson, who signaled for a drop ball. "I think I called the wrong pitch. I think (Whitney Larsen) was expecting it. I think she did a great job capitalizing on it. I think that's 100 percent my fault."

Larsen sent the offering towering over the scoreboard in centerfield in what may be the farthest ball hit at Lee Stadium.

"The first thing in my head was just ‘get on, get on base, get a leadoff hit so Brit (Rogers) can do her job and so on and so on," Larsen said. "I didn't even see where it went actually."

Alabama Coach Patrick Murphy got career win No. 600, but he wasn't around to see it. Murphy was tossed in the third inning for arguing with the umpire after a run was taken off the board after it was ruled that Larsen had left early from third on a sacrifice fly.

"It was second and third, no outs; it was just a fly ball to centerfield," said Murphy, who was greeted by a large group of fans holding up cardboard "600" numbers at the team bus after the game. "They just thought she left early, and I respect the call and their reasons."

Larsen made sure she only had to circle the bases to get credit for a run scored in the eighth inning.

"She is usually a kid who makes up for mistakes," Murphy said. "She is a just a very competitive person. I thought she would come through."

The Crimson Tide will next get ready to face Florida on Saturday for the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tourney, though both teams should be locks for top seeds already.

"We've seen them, this will be the fourth time, so there's not much more you can do now," Murphy said. "I think we're all kind of tired of seeing each other, and we're ready to see someone else."

Murphy also saluted his team's opponent on Friday.

"You have to give them a ton of credit, too," he said of Kentucky. "I know they're going to have a great night Sunday night when the announcements are made. I can remember our first time when Alabama came up on the screen, and it's going to be the same thing for them when they see Kentucky on the screen. And it never gets old, no matter how many times you've done it.

"The first time, it's just going to be an exciting time for Rachel and her bunch. Congratulations on a great year to them. If you saw them five years ago, you wouldn't believe it's the same program."

In the immediate aftermath of Friday's loss Lawson said her team was disappointed, but she expected her players to eventually put the season in perspective.

"I think at the very moment we are a little bit bummed that we didn't win that game, because we had our chances," Lawson said. "I'm excited, but I don't think it's hit us yet. I don't think it's going to hit us until we are on the field at the NCAA Tournament, because we are a very steady and mature group.

"The nice thing is that they weren't just happy to be here. They wanted to win. They know what they've accomplished, and I think when the season is over or a couple weeks after it's done, they'll sit back and realize and feel really good about what they've done."

Junior shortstop Molly Johnson smiled and said the 10 p.m. release time was "past my bedtime," but she can likely stay up for the unveiling of the brackets.

"It's exciting, because I've never been in this situation before," Johnson said. "My first two years were kind of rough, but I think this year we're finally making the adjustments and our hard work is finally paying off."

Tennessee's Spigner sounded like a child on Christmas Eve trying to wait to open presents.

"The anticipation is killing me," Spigner said. "I am really excited to find out where we play. It's a challenge and you put us in a test and we're going to do our best to fulfill that challenge."

Webb wants the team to remember its start against Florida and build from there.

"It was awesome coming out and attacking," Webb said. "That is what you want to do every game. We've got to take that mindset into postseason. You come out attacking and we've got to take it to every opponent now because we don't want to go home. We want to keep going."

Waiting until late Sunday night won't be easy for any player, even one who has been the process already.

"10 o'clock Sunday night, I hate that, but I'm real excited to see where we're seeded and if we're going to host or not," Webb said. "I'm excited for Sunday night. I can't wait, and I can't wait for next week to start practicing and to start regionals. This is my favorite part of the season."

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