Tennessee, 40-18-1, dropped both games in the championship slate of Sunday's action – 6-1 and 2-1 – to Jacksonville State, 42-15, which first had to beat Nebraska to even face the Lady Vols. The Gamecocks took out the Huskers, 4-1, in a game that started on Sunday morning and eliminated Tennessee shortly before 8 p.m. at Lee Stadium.
"We had a tough draw, but we should have won this regional and we didn't," Tennessee Coach Ralph Weekly said.
Despite the youth of the Lady Vols – Co-Head Coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly started six freshmen and sophomores in the final game – the doubles losses were difficult for the team to absorb, especially coming at home.
Home is exactly where Jacksonville State senior pitcher Karla Pittman was a week ago after the Gamecocks were upset in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament. They didn't expect an at-large bid – Tennessee-Martin earned the automatic one – and the coaches scheduled a day for all equipment to be turned in to the school. Pittman made the 12-hour drive to North Canton, Ohio, and figured her collegiate career was done. Then, the phone rang.
"I drove, stayed there about a half hour and flew back," Pittman said.
Pittman got the win in the first game against Tennessee and was relieved in the second inning of the second game by sophomore Ashley Eliasson, who got the victory that clinched the regional title. Eliasson pitched seven innings for the win against Nebraska in her team's first game of the day.
"When I woke up this morning, and we went to breakfast as a team, I sat there with the coaching staff, I said ‘Ashley Eliasson is going to be the difference maker today,' " Jacksonville State Coach Jana McGinnis said. "She started the Nebraska game, and I knew if she could win the first game, get the first game for us, Pitt could start the second game for Tennessee. Then, we knew Ashley would be in the third game.
"I'm very proud of both of them. If there was one thing I knew we'd have an advantage in with going through our regular season, we have two pitchers here who could start for any team we've played against."
Tennessee, meanwhile, used a combination of four pitchers – freshman Cat Hosfield, sophomore Ashton Ward, freshman Jessica Spigner and senior Danielle Pieroni – in an attempt to hold off the Gamecocks until the Lady Vols offense could arrive.
But the Lady Vols stranded 11 runners in the first game and seven in the second. Their best shot at securing the needed one win came in the second inning of the second game when Jennifer Lapicki singled to leftfield with two out and Ashley Andrews got hit in the ankle with a pitch. Tennessee already led at that point, 1-0, after Kelly Grieve singled in the first inning, advanced to second on a Lillian Hammond bunt single, stole third and tagged up on a Tiffany Huff fly ball to leftfield.
Eliasson replaced Pittman in the second inning and walked Grieve to load the bases, but Hammond popped up a 2-0 pitch, and the threat to extend the lead was extinguished.
Pieroni entered the game to pitch in the third inning for Hosfield and allowed a single sandwiched between two pop-ups and a flyout. Jacksonville State tied the game in the fourth inning when Mary Beth Ledbetter walked and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt. Chrissy O'Neal doubled to the base of the centerfield wall to bring Ledbetter home.
Pieroni issued two walks to open the fifth inning, and Hosfield returned to the circle. The lead runner, Allie Barker, was out at third on a fielder's choice, and Meredith Sellers was out at second on a fielder's choice. Hosfield got Jackie Jarman to hit another ground ball, but it squirted into rightfield, and Courtney Underwood scored for the final 2-1 margin.
"I'm kind of a free swinger up there," Jarman said. "I'm pretty aggressive, you know what I mean. I was just looking to put the bat on the ball, really, just hit it solid. Just see the ball, hit the ball."
Jacksonville State lit up teams in the Knoxville Regional with lively bats for three days. After pounding 14 hits Saturday against James Madison, the Gamecocks stroked nine against Nebraska and a combined 15 against Tennessee in the two games.
"Today, they were the best team on the field and deserved to advance," Weekly said. "There is no question about it. Our team competed hard and I'm proud of our players, but they were the best team on the field. In game two, they got another timely hit to drive in the run when they needed it. The critical time for us was when we had the bases loaded in the second inning and couldn't push a run across."
The Lady Vols had six hits in the first game and five in the second but could only muster two total runs because they couldn't get key knocks with runners in scoring position.
"I'm not making excuses, because Jacksonville State is a very good team and deserved to win, but we just could not quite seem to get that clutch hit," Weekly said. "That has not been a problem for us. Also, our pitching in game two was pretty darn good. We held them to two runs, but we just didn't hit the ball ourselves. It's kind of been that way all season, but I still believe we are a good team. Sometimes you just have those days."
Tennessee has pitched by committee in postseason games, and the coaches expected that to be the case Sunday as they tried to find a combination of fresh arms. Pieroni was limited Sunday after pitching in extended relief on Saturday. Ward has pitched sparingly this season and also wasn't going to rack up innings, so that left Hosfield to start both games and re-enter the second one in relief.
"We knew right from the start that we were going to pitch by committee most of the way through the tournament," Weekly said. "Like Danielle (Pieroni) told us when she came out, she said she just didn't have it today.
"(Cat Hosfield) did a really good job. She induced a lot of ground balls. Cathleen is going to be a very good pitcher, and already is, having won 28 games. It's tough being a freshman, but this is a big learning experience for our whole team. I told them that I'm not used to seeing the other team celebrate on our field, it hasn't happened a lot here and hopefully won't happen again. They were kind of like a team of destiny today and played really well."
The Gamecock players were understandably giddy after the win and especially the improbable feat of sweeping three games in one day. They may have had an advantage in having already played one game Sunday when they faced Tennessee because the weekend's rain and humid temperatures yielded to chilly weather and cold bursts of wind with most of the 729 fans in attendance bundled in blankets and winter jackets.
"Some people say it's tough to play the first game, but, in our sport which goes pretty quick, they've already played a game, are warmed up and ready to go when we come on the field," Weekly said.
That advantage should be negated by the team's third game of the game – and Tennessee's second – and the coaches felt confident that the Lady Vols were ready.
"I felt good about going into the second game and I really think our kids felt good," Weekly said. "The one thing I told our team in the locker room was that nobody quit. They played hard, but it just seemed like things weren't going right for us today."
"What (Jacksonville State) did today was really great winning three times, but twice in my history as a coach we've done the same thing," he added. "Sometimes the team that wins the three games just gets on a roll."
Jacksonville State was both confident and pressure-free entering the regional. Once a team has said it goodbyes, the second lease on the season becomes a godsend.
"I think that we all learned our lessons last week when we were saying goodbye to all the seniors, crying our eyes out," Eliasson said. "We realized that this was our second chance, and we weren't going lose it. So we gave everything we had.
"I knew that if I held Tennessee that my team would have my back. If I gave it everything I had, it would be fine. You can't really put pressure on yourself, you just gotta play the game because if you put pressure on yourself, you're just going to fail."
"We're living the dream," McGinnis said. "That's been these girls' philosophy since the end of the conference tournament when we thought our season was over and we were getting ready to turn in our equipment, and then found out the NCAA had given us an at-large bid and put us in the tournament. And I know that at least three of these girls, they came up with the philosophy we're living the dream, we're getting to play another day of softball.
"I think if any of you watched our games, you saw the excitement, the energy our team played with and they played like they were living the dream. They had the opportunity to play another day of softball and I couldn't be more proud of this team. They fought hard, they earned every play, they earned every run that they scored. Hey, it's a dream come true."
"Like coach said, we were turning in our stuff and anybody that's ever played college sports, it's your life," Barker said. "You wake up, go to weights, throw some class in there, go to practice and for me, back to the cage, it's all day. It's your life, really, when we lost in the tournament, it was like my life had been taken away, so to speak.
"When we got it back, we were going to make sure we went one step further. That's been our motto since last year, ‘One step further.' I don't know what else to say, we're going one step further."
That step is to Tuscaloosa – 110 miles as the crow flies from Jacksonville, Ala. – where the OVC school will face off against SEC power Alabama.
"I think for me and I think also for the team, we're going to have to keep doing it like Coach said, one game at a time, one pitch at a time, one play at a time," Barker said. "Not worry about the name on the front of the jersey, just worry about our team, and sticking together, and playing as a team. When we play as a team, who knows what we can do."
For the seniors on two teams Sunday – Tennessee and Nebraska – the goodbyes and thank-yous had really arrived.
"I think this is my 14th time of having this press conference and they don't get any easier," said a teary-eyed Nebraska Coach Rhonda Revelle, referring to the final press conference after a loss in NCAA play. "I think, usually, at the end of the year, it's not about the last game that you just played that you really want to remark on, but you want to remark on the contribution of your seniors. That's what we were talking about in the locker room. We had a videotape for this tournament that said, ‘Tradition reborn'.
"I just told this senior class thank you because they did restore tradition in Nebraska softball. We're going to keep building on that and this group was unified and tight and great off the field, great citizens, great students. I'm just really proud of them."
Outfielder Darcy Rutherford, who got the nickname "Dancin' Darcy,' in the regional after entertaining the crowd during rain delays with dances on the tarp, was one of seven seniors for the Huskers, which missed the postseason a year ago.
"We just want the underclassmen to pick up where we left off," said Rutherford, who also was emotional. "I'd hope, I know, that all seven us were great leaders and great role models to this younger class. I just hope they take everything that we taught them and go on from there."
Pieroni and Hammond bid goodbye for Tennessee.
"Obviously it did not end the way I would have liked it too, but I can tell you that I would not have traded these four years for anything," an emotional Pieroni said. "There were ups, there were downs, but my teammates are some of the greatest girls that I have ever met. I am just blessed to have had the opportunity to play on a team that had so much heart and so many girls that care so much about each other."
Junior catcher Tiffany Huff will become a senior leader next season and was subdued after the game.
"I think I'm a little in shock. I think all of us are," Huff said. "It has really been a learning experience being an upperclassman on this team. I've learned a lot from out two seniors and they have passed on a lot of knowledge and wisdom about what it means to be an upperclassman. I think the experience that our team has gained this season will help us out a lot next year."
Hosfield will be a sophomore next season and will have the experience of having survived a freshman season in which she logged 257.1 innings.
"You are going to have tough times, but it's all about how you respond," Hosfield said. "I know our team has had ups and downs and a roller-coaster season, but we tried to respond the best that we could. I feel like I left it all out there and I think the rest of our team did, too."
"The season is over," Weekly said. "All you can do is thank the seniors and look forward to next year."