The Lady Vols and Huskers will play today at 1:30 p.m. with the winner advancing to Sunday's title game. James Madison and Jacksonville State follow at 4 p.m. in the double-elimination format with the loser being eliminated from NCAA play. The winner of that game will play the loser of the Tennessee-Nebraska game at 6:30 p.m. in another elimination game. The winner of that game advances to Sunday's final day of regional play.
James Madison is playing in the program's first NCAA tourney, and Jacksonville State became the first at-large bid from the Ohio Valley Conference in a selection that was so surprising the starting pitcher had to be summoned from home to return to school.
Head Coach Jana McGinnis was so certain her team would be left out – despite its hard-earned RPI because no OVC team had ever received an at-large bid – that she didn't even watch the selection show last Sunday. McGinnis' sister-in-law called to ask if the Jacksonville State team being talked about on television was her team.
When Jacksonville State lost in the OVC tourney to Tennessee-Martin, which earned the conference's automatic bid, the Gamecocks figured their season was over. Players said their good byes, and the coaches set last Monday as the day to turn in equipment. Pitcher Karla Pittman had already returned to North Canton, Ohio, and was watching the movie "Marley and Me" with her niece and nephew when she got the phone call to return to the Alabama campus for practice.
"These girls know what it's about saying goodbye, they know what it's about to put your glove up because we are probably one of the only teams in the national tournament that had said their goodbyes and had planned on turning in equipment," McGinnis said. "They know that feeling, they know how down they were (last weekend) knowing that, ‘Hey, my career is over.' They now know what it feels like. They've felt that. I think it's going to be a totally different team (Saturday) coming out fighting; they don't want to feel that yet."
Jacksonville State took the lead, 1-0, in the first inning when Allie Barker scored from first base on a double by Courtney Underwood. Nebraska, which missed last year's NCAA tourney after earning 14 consecutive bids, answered in the second inning when Heidi Foland scored on an infield single by Meghan Mullin.
Both teams were getting runners on base – Nebraska left 10 for the game, and Jacksonville State stranded five – but the game remained tied until the sixth inning when Underwood scored from second on a throwing error by the Gamecocks. But Jacksonville State answered in its half of the inning when Barker hit a solo shot off the centerfield scoreboard to tie the game, 2-2.
Barker accounted for both of the Gamecocks' runs and she got to home plate in a hurry both times.
"The home run, you just try to hit it solid like coach has been telling us all week," Barker said. "You don't go up there trying to hit home runs; you just try to hit it solid and good things will happen. I didn't even know it was out because (it caromed from the scoreboard onto the field). I just saw the ball on the ground, so I was just running.
"The score from first, it was a 3-2 count with two outs and you're running on that, so I was just running because that's what you do. I was already going and I saw coach waving, so all you can do is duck your head and give it all you have."
With lightning in the area around Lee Stadium the game was halted at 5:20 p.m. in the bottom of the seventh inning with Jacksonville State at bat. Play resumed three hours and eight minutes later at 8:28 p.m.
"You never like to have a rain delay but we really tried to use it to our advantage," Nebraska Coach Rhonda Revelle said. "We felt like (Jacksonville State) actually had a little momentum when the game got delayed. Even though the score was tied, I really felt like they had a little swing in the momentum. So we really tried to regroup and come back out with a different mentality. I've got to hand it to our team, Molly (Hill) pitched a great game, and I thought our hitters did a nice job adjusting there in the last couple of innings."
The pitcher used the down time to consume "two big stuffed fajitas," Hill said, prompting Revelle to joke she hoped her pitcher digested food quickly.
"I was a little worried about how much she did eat," Revelle said with a laugh after the game.
It didn't seem to bother Hill. She got two groundouts to finish the seventh inning and got Barker, who had done all the damage for the Gamecocks, to pop up in the eighth inning with a runner on first.
Nebraska went ahead in the ninth when Haley Long scored on an infield single by Darcy Rutherford, who got to second on a throw home that nailed Mullin at the plate. Rutherford scored when Amanda Duran singled to left field to give the Huskers a 4-2 lead. Hill retired the side in the bottom of the ninth with a groundout, foul out and flyout to secure the win.
The go-ahead run came when Rutherford hit a liner to the pitcher that Pittman, who said she was 5'2.5, nearly snared.
"If I only had the height of my family, I would've had it," Pittman said with a laugh.
"I was just really trying to overemphasize hitting on top of the ball because throughout the whole game, I'd been missing underneath," Rutherford said. "I think it was a changeup that she threw me. I was really trying to stay back and make sure it was on the ground. I think I got out a little ahead of it and lunged out for it but I got pretty lucky and (she) missed it."
Jacksonville State won't dwell on the loss – the Gamecocks know what it means to get a second chance – and were instead turning their attention to the second game.
"Of course, we're very disappointed with the loss, and I am very proud of our girls to battle," McGinnis said. "The fact the showed the energy they showed to the last pitch, they believed they could win and I'm very proud of that. … Pitt (Karla Pittman) came out and pitched the way we've seen her pitch through her 15 wins she's gotten us this year. Allie stepped up with a big hit.
"Both of these are seniors and they were just anxious to get back out on the field and play. We're disappointed with the loss, but we're going to fight back. We're happy to be here and we're proud to have another game in front of us, so we're going to come back and fight even harder."
The Gamecocks had to wait awhile to find out who they would play next. Tennessee managed to take an early lead on Nebraska, lost it late and then came back to win with some clutch hitting in the final two innings.
"I think this game was a microcosm of our entire season," Tennessee Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. "We get a lead, give it up via a late home run and fight back. Sometimes we win, and sometimes we lose. I would definitely like to commend (pitcher) Meredith Felts and James Madison. I thought she was fantastic. They are for real and are a really good team."
James Madison played at Lee Stadium earlier this season and lost 3-1 to Tennessee. Jacksonville State played in the same tournament and defeated James Madison, 6-0, so three of the four teams in the Knoxville Regional are familiar with the venue. Nebraska got a tour of the Tennessee sports facilities on Thursday that included the football stadium, Pratt Pavilion and a trip to Pat Summitt's office. Revelle smiled and noted that several players touched the doorknob of Summitt's office – the coach had a speaking engagement and wasn't in – just to say that they had done so.
"When we saw that we were coming here, I don't know if the players knew, but I know from knowing (Ralph and Karen Weekly)and from looking at the website, that it's a brand new facility and a very festive environment," Revelle said. "So, I thought it would be a great experience for our players. We were able to tour the facilities and that was wonderful, so we've had a really warm welcome. But now we're in competition."
To face Nebraska in the winner's bracket Tennessee had to first get past a solid pitcher in Felts, who allowed two early runs to Tennessee but without the ball leaving the infield.
Kelly Grieve singled to third – Dukes third baseman Amber Kirk went up for the ball and crumpled to the dirt as her right ankle twisted inward; she left the game and was on crutches afterward – and stole second. Grieve got to third on a groundout to short by Lillian Hammond. Tiffany Huff, a power hitter, put down a perfect bunt on the suicide squeeze, and Grieve crossed the plate before a fielder even touched the ball.
Tennessee got its second run to take a 2-0 lead in the second inning when Nicole Kajitani walked, advanced to second on an Erinn Webb groundout and stole third. She scored on a groundout to second by Danielle Pieroni.
That is where the score remained until the sixth inning when James Madison made its comeback bid. Tennessee pitcher Cat Hosfield retired the first two batters on a groundout and flyout, but then Ashley Burnham doubled to left center. Julia Dominguez followed with a homer to leftfield. The dinger had plenty of distance; the only question was would it stay fair. It did by at least a foot, and the game was tied at two.
"We knew it was gone as soon as it was hit," said Felts, who was at the end of the visitor's dugout and had a direct view of the ball's path.
"I stayed in the batter's box pretty much the entire time (watching to see if the ball would stay fair)," Dominguez said.
With first base open Tennessee hadn't planned to give Dominguez a decent pitch to hit.
"I was thinking they weren't going to pitch to Julia," James Madison Coach Katie Flynn said. "In the regular season they didn't pitch to Julia. They walked her two or three times. I was surprised they pitched to her, but I'm sure glad they did. They had first base open and we had our career home run leader up, who is a senior and playing really well. Julia battled all game long, got a pitch to drive and made the most of it."
Weekly, who said he should have walked Dominguez, smiled and noted the pitch was a screwball that was "up and in and out."
After two walks following the home run, the senior Pieroni replaced the freshman Hosfield in the circle. Pieroni yielded a single to Casey Mansfield that scored Kaitlyn Wernsing, and the Dukes had a 3-2 lead on the host team.
"Our mood in the dugout never changed from our warmup to our very last pitch," said Flynn, whose team waited for the delayed start of the game in the adjacent soccer stadium lounge where they played video games and charades. "Our kids are very loud, excited and very gregarious. They have a great time, and they dance, sing and yell. Did we go up one octave when we tied it? Probably, maybe 10. We played with a lot of confidence, offensively and defensively."
The Lady Vols summoned an answer in the bottom of the sixth when Huff walked and was out at second on a fielder's choice that put Jessica Spigner at first. Pinch runner Natalie Weissinger ran for Spigner, and she advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Kajitani. That brought Webb to the plate, and she smashed a 1-2 pitch to centerfield to tie the game.
"Ever since we've been here, Erinn has been really clutch in the postseason," Weekly said. "We played for that. We put in a pinch runner, bunted her over, put it in Erinn's hands, and she tied it up. JMU was hot, they are good and they pushed us to the limit. We had to get that run in to even stay in the game."
Webb was apprised of the plan – sacrifice an out to get a runner in scoring position – and her mindset at the plate was to hit the ball hard.
"I just wanted to come through for my team," Webb said. "I love the postseason and being in that pressure situation."
Pieroni returned to pitch in the seventh inning and faced four batters – she recorded a walk, two strikeouts and a groundout to preserve the tie.
"I thought she did a really good job," Weekly said. "James Madison just attacked the ball. They were like a piranha in the water, and they were just coming after us. My hat's off to them. They just took it to us."
Freshman Ashley Andrews got Tennessee's half of the seventh inning started with a single through the left side of the infield. She moved to second on Grieve's infield single to third base, and Hammond moved both runners with a sacrifice bunt. With first base open Huff was intentionally walked and that brought up another freshman, Jessica Spigner.
"Anytime the batter in front of you is intentionally walked, it's almost an insult, but if I was the pitcher I would have done the same thing," Spigner said. "I just wanted to capitalize on the one mistake she made."
Spigner lined a shot to rightfield that could have cleared the bases but Tennessee only needed one run so when Andrews scored the ballgame was over.
It was the first NCAA postseason win for a young Lady Vol squad that starts freshmen in the circle and at shortstop and third base with sophomores at first base and centerfield. Hammond is the only senior in the starting lineup.
Spigner, one of the first-year players, had been 0-3 at the plate until her late game-winning RBI.
"I think I came out a little too amped up today," Spigner said. "I'm really excited for the postseason and it's finally here, but I think I was a little too overanxious, got off my game a little and wasn't attacking at the plate. I just needed to refocus and do my job like I know how."
There were some pre-game jitters for James Madison, too, which is in its eighth year in program history – Flynn has been the school's only head coach – and was making its NCAA debut.
"It's your program's first trip to the NCAA Tournament and you're expecting the team to have some jitters and a little bit of nervousness, but I have five seniors and an incredibly confident team from one to nine," Flynn said. "We're not just happy to be here; we want to keep playing softball."
The Lady Vols departed the stadium complex after 1 a.m. and were due back less than 12 hours later to get ready for today's 1:30 game. James Madison faces the elimination game at 4 p.m. with Jacksonville State.
"We played very well in all aspects of the game," Felts said. "Even though we were down for five innings, we were never mentally down that whole game. We still have momentum going into the next game. We are playing our best softball. We are the team no one wants to play now. I'm excited to go out and play another game."
"Katie is a good coach, and we have a lot of respect for those guys," Weekly said. "We played them earlier in the season and it was a tough, 3-1, ballgame. I knew coming in that they were a very good team, but I'm not sure everyone else around here knew that. They know it now."
Tennessee will face a loose team in Nebraska, which entertained the crowd during the rain delay by performing on the tarp with Macarena, Chicken and YMCA dances. The crowd joined in, especially the fans in orange who had arrived expecting the Tennessee game only to find the first game still not completed.
Revelle noted the two schools share storied athletics tradition and both towns – Lincoln and Knoxville – are centered on college sports.
"What was cool is the red and orange were dancing together," Revelle said. "I thought it was only fitting."