Jacksonville State, 40-14, survived its first elimination game with a 6-0 win over James Madison, 35-16, on Saturday and was set to face Nebraska, 35-18, when a band of storms moved in from the west and then stalled over the area. That prompted a three-hour delay and then a decision at 10 p.m., with rain still falling and just a sprinkling of fans remaining at Lee Stadium, to move the game to 11:30 a.m. Sunday.
The loser of that game will be eliminated, and the winner will face the Lady Vols at 2 p.m. with a second game, if necessary, at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Since NCAA play is double-elimination, a second game would be played if Tennessee lost the first one. The survivor of the Knoxville regional will next face the winner of the Tuscaloosa Regional in a Super Regional.
The first team to bow out of Knoxville was James Madison, which was playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament. After putting a scare into Tennessee on Friday – the Dukes led 3-2 in the sixth inning – James Madison surrendered 14 hits to Jacksonville State and was no-hit for five innings before finally touching Gamecock pitcher Karla Pittman for three hits. The 6-0 final was the same score as when the two teams met earlier in the season at Lee Stadium for the Tennessee Classic, but the Dukes held off the Gamecocks longer in the rematch.
"We've got to give credit where credit is due and Jacksonville State is the best hitting team we've seen all year," James Madison Coach Katie Flynn said. "That's two games, both 6-0. I give their coaching staff and their hitting coach a tremendous amount of credit. I don't think our kids pitched badly; I think their team hit well.
"We kind of joked that it seemed their team had orangutan arms, and their arms were just longer and they got their bats on everything, and that's a credit to a good hitting team. "
James Madison did manage some base runners – six were left aboard – but Pittman struck out six and never let a run score. The senior's primary pitches are off-speed – and it's the only thing she does slowly – as Pittman sprints out of the dugout to retrieve the bats when her team is hitting and keeps the players energized between innings and even between pitches.
"Change. Change. Change," Flynn said of the style of Pittman, who is expected to be in the circle against Nebraska this morning. "It was very effective. I think the changeup has been a bit of a nemesis to us all year long. I give her a lot of credit, because she went nine innings late (Friday), then threw another seven innings (Saturday), and she threw well. Great credit to their pitcher."
James Madison, which is in its eighth year of softball, won the program's first Colonial Athletic Association conference tournament to earn its first NCAA bid.
"Eight years ago seems like a long time ago, and yet it seems like yesterday," Flynn said. "It's been a lot of fun. When we recruited this class, we were finally starting to get kids from the best programs, not only from Virginia but the best programs from across our region. We were able to recruit the upper-level tier kid who could come in and play and help us out right away. We're just a totally different team than we were in 2002. Incredibly competitive, and we can come in here and play with the nation's elite."
Senior pitcher Jenny Clohan started the game and was relieved by fellow senior Meredith Felts for the Dukes on their final day of competition this season.
"Without a doubt they put us on the map, not just regionally but across the nation," Flynn said of the two seniors. "So much of that is Jenny and Meredith's hard work, their talent, certainly their composure, their confidence. I could say that about our entire senior class. Just an outstanding effort athletically, and in terms of their leadership."
"I think a lot of it has to do with the team clicking at the right time," said Clohan, whose little sister, Michelle Clohan, is a freshman infielder for James Madison. "I know we (she and Felts) both have always been the 1-2 punch for us all four years. I think everyone coming together really brought us together with the freshman."
"This year was no doubt the best team we've had in our four years," Felts said. "We started off kind of shaky and we were talking in the dugout, I mean, from day one, this has been a completely different team than when we started, we've grown so much and we got on a run at the end of the season. We had fun and played hard … it stings a little bit, but we had a great season."
Jacksonville State and Nebraska hope to extend their seasons another game and earn the right to play in the championship portion of Sunday's slate. Nebraska will send its senior pitcher, Molly Hill, to the circle.
"I just keep playing because I want to keep pitching," Hill said after Saturday's loss to Tennessee. "I think our offense is going to score a little bit more and we have been playing great defense, so I just have to give it my all. I worked hard all season and have been throwing a lot, so there is no reason that I shouldn't be able to keep throwing."
Weekly isn't sure yet who he will put in the pitcher's circle Sunday – it will be a game-day decision – but it is likely to be freshman Cat Hosfield, who was able to get some rest Saturday. Weekly also could opt to start senior Danielle Pieroni, who relieved Hosfield early in Saturday's game and allowed just two hits in 5.2 innings.
A third pitcher, Ashton Ward, has made some spot appearances and proved valuable Saturday as a pinch hitter when she broke a 1-1 tie against Nebraska with a bases-clearing double in the second inning after being summoned from the bullpen, where she was warming up, to the batter's box. Ward, a sophomore from Charlotte, N.C, was an excellent hitter in high school and in 14 at bats for Tennessee this season prior to Saturday she had hit three doubles.
"I called on Ashton with the bases loaded because I know she's a great changeup hitter," Weekly said. "She's a good hitter on other pitches, too, but she hits the changeup really, really well. She gave us three big runs there. That was huge and was the turning point."
Nebraska struck first in the bottom of the first inning when Meghan Mullin singled to leftfield, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt by Darcy Rutherford and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Mullin scored when Amanda Duran singled up the middle, and the Huskers led, 1-0.
But junior outfielder Erinn Webb picked up where she left off Friday night with a smash to centerfield for a double. Sophomore first baseman Jennifer Lapicki drew a walk, and both runners moved up a base when freshman designated player Shelby Burchell got an infield single. With the bases full, freshman shortstop Ashley Andrews drew a walk, and Webb walked home. Sophomore outfielder Kelly Grieve hit a liner to the pitcher for the first out, and Weekly inserted Ward to hit in place of senior Lillian Hammond.
Ward laced an off-speed offering to left-center to empty the bases and give Tennessee a 4-1 lead that it never surrendered.
"Ralph tells us before the game our roles," Ward said. "He told me to be ready to pinch hit, so I knew that it could happen and I was just staying loose in the bullpen, too. I wasn't surprised. I was ready to hit. I kind of keep an eye on the game when I'm throwing, too, so I knew the bases were loaded. I was excited to get that opportunity. I was glad that I could score those runs for my team. We had worked on hitting the changeup a lot this week, so that was really helpful to be able to practice for it this week and be ready for it when it came to the game."
Ward was tagged out at third when she tried to advance on Tiffany Huff's ground ball to short, but Ward got a huge ovation from the orange-clad crowd – which knew the value of the runs for the Lady Vols – as she crossed the infield to the dugout.
"I love to pitch, but I love to hit, too," Ward said. "We have a great hitting team, so it's just good to go in when we need a pinch hitter or need a big stick up there instead of maybe a quick slapper, so whatever I can do to help."
The flurry of runs was important for the Lady Vols as it swung momentum solidly in their direction.
"Definitely," Webb said. "We needed to show them that we were a threat, too, because we didn't score in the first inning. They came out attacking and on fire and we needed to respond in the exact way."
Ward stayed in the game as the designated player so Burchell moved to rightfield, and Webb swung over to leftfield, thus setting up her outstanding catch later in the game.
Hosfield got a groundout from Nebraska to start the second inning, but then Haley Long doubled to left center, and Weekly summoned Pieroni from the bullpen. After Friday's game, Weekly second-guessed himself and said he should have lifted Hosfield sooner instead of waiting until the sixth inning. He didn't hesitate Saturday, especially with Hosfield returning to the circle on short rest after the lengthy rain delays Friday evening.
"I knew that Cat was tired," Weekly said. "She told us in between innings, ‘I'm just tired,' so I went to Danielle in the second inning. I just told Karen (Weekly), ‘It's time to go right now.' And (Pieroni) pitched really well and brought us home, much like she did against Oregon State earlier in the year."
Pieroni got Whitney Barrett to strike out looking and Mullin to pop up to end the threat. She then pitched four complete shutout innings and didn't allow a hit until the seventh inning when Julie Brechtel singled up the middle. Pieroni looked annoyed that she had surrendered even that.
"As a pitcher, that should be your mentality: No hits. I'm not letting anybody get on," Pieroni said.
"I thought it was a very good coaching move," Nebraska Coach Rhonda Revelle said. "She is a left-handed pitcher and we have a lot of left-handed hitters in our lineup, so that lefty-lefty matchup presented some problems. She did a very good job of competing and mixing her speeds. Anytime a pitcher can mix speeds with spin it can present some difficulties to a team and it did. They compete well and with an expectation to win."
Weekly was content to leave Pieroni in the circle to close out the game.
"I was not going to make a change in the seventh inning," Weekly said. "I didn't care if they loaded it up, I believed she would get us out of it."
Nebraska came close to doing so. After Brechtel reached safely, Pieroni got a foul ball out to first and a groundout to the circle that allowed Brechtel to get to second. Jamie Gay got a pinch hit single to left-center to push Brechtel across the plate and make the score, 5-2. Kirby Wright drew a walk to put two runners on, but Mullin grounded out to short to end the game.
"As a pitcher you always want to go out there and throw your best game for your teammates because everybody is out there busting it," Pieroni said. "You've got people flying into the fence like Erinn and Ashton coming up with a big hit."
Webb, whose double jump-started the second inning, smashed a two-out double in the fifth inning off the top of the left-center wall that just missed leaving the park. Huff had walked in the inning, and scored on the hit to give the Lady Vols their fifth run.
In the sixth inning, Pieroni got two quick groundouts and then Crystal Carwile lifted a ball into foul territory in leftfield. Webb caught the ball without breaking stride and crashed hip first into the fence. She fell onto the field, and third baseman Jessica Spigner, who had also tracked the ball, immediately summoned for help. But Webb was sitting up a few minutes later – her teammates were already laughing – and she was able to jog off the field on her own.
"I'm a clumsy person so I fall a lot," Webb said. "They were trying to make jokes. I was fine."
Self-effacing humor aside, it was a highlight-reel catch.
"Erinn, what can I say?" Weekly said. "Not only did she get a great hit, but that catch against the wall was one of the best I've ever seen."
The win meant Tennessee could rest for the rest of the day and wait for its next opponent to survive the loser's bracket. With the wet weather saturating East Tennessee of late it also meant the Lady Vols had avoided a repeat of Friday's marathon session. It was the best-case scenario for Tennessee.
"Absolutely, because as I said, the other three teams are very good teams," Weekly said. "I want to make sure that we give credit to Nebraska because they are a very good team and are very well coached. They are very solid, good defense. Everybody we are going to play is going to be a challenge, and I don't want to be wrapped up in a bunch of rain delays (Saturday night), so it helps to win."
That rain did arrive – Weekly had originally intended for his players to stay and watch the last game of the evening for scouting purposes – and the importance of winning Saturday's first game had been discussed before the first pitch.
"It's really important, especially when you have young pitching and you have a young team, and we told them that before the game," Weekly said. "They are really a young team, they responded, and it's really key. Now we can rest and be ready to play (today).
"Our work is not done and we know it. That's the message I'm going to give to them. We know we've got to fight if we want to get out of here."
Weekly does not think his team will be complacent – Tennessee would have to lose two games at home Sunday to lose the regional – because of how many close calls and losses the Lady Vols have survived or endured this season.
"I don't think this team will get complacent," Weekly said. "One of the things that I think will keep us from getting complacent is they will remember that we've lost five or six games in the seventh inning this year. You just have to come out and bring it every day. I do not believe this team will get complacent. If we get beat, I believe it will be just because we got beat."
The early test from James Madison also served as a postseason wakeup call when Tennessee trailed late in its first game.
"I'm sure it did, but we've been on the ropes a lot this year and we've fought our way out of it," Weekly said. "We are just a young team. We're starting a freshman pitcher; they're starting a senior pitcher. We were able to bring in our senior pitcher and that kind of evened things up, and she's got to be ready to go (Sunday), too, and I'm sure she will be."
Revelle wants to see the Huskers fight early in their next game the way they did in the seventh inning against Tennessee.
"With great programs like Tennessee, especially on their home turf, we needed to be able to counter and come back out and fight," Revelle said. "Probably the thing we are most disappointed with is that it took us until the seventh inning to get that fight from our offense with some key pinch hits. The game is one where you can have 6-5 ballgames in this day in age, so although we gave up a four spot in the second, we have to realize that there are a lot of innings left.
"It's the postseason and every team in it is going to fight. They are all winners. If they get behind they are not going to quit and if they get ahead they are not going to quit, so we have to fight pitch for pitch. We can't take pitches off, we don't frustrated, we don't quit on a pitch, we don't get down. At the end of the year, when 63 teams finish with a loss and one has a victory in their last game, if we are one of the teams with a loss somewhere down the line, we have to make sure that someone beat us and not because we gave it to them."
Tennessee got key contributions Saturday from two upperclassmen, Webb and Pieroni, and a clutch hit from a sophomore, Ward. Pieroni's ability to pitch, hit and play in the field make her a vital component for the Lady Vols in the postseason, and, as a senior, she will have a sense of urgency that is not present yet in the youngsters.
"Danielle is a warrior," Weekly said. "The thing about it is, as I've said many times before, because of her triple-threat ability – she's a good outfielder, she's a good hitter – we have confidence in her."
Pieroni and the other upperclassmen made it a point to take some of the pressure off of the younger players.
"We try to talk to the freshmen and sophomores about postseason – the sophomores were there last year – and I think our freshmen have handled it really well," Pieroni said. "They've gone in there and tried to get the job done, and always giving 100 percent and not letting their nerves get to them and not thinking about the whole postseason and trying to take it one game at a time."