The sequence of events in the 3-1 win over Louisville in extra innings also means the Lady Vols' 2010 softball season is extended, as Tennessee will make its first appearance in a Super Regional since 2007, when All-American Monica Abbott was in the circle for the Big Orange.
The sign behind home plate at Lee Softball Stadium says, "Big Orange Country," and for Tennessee that means postseason success has come to be expected. For the past two years, Tennessee had lost at home in a regional final – in 2008 to Virginia Tech and in 2009 to Jacksonville State, a defeat basically on par with the Lady Vols basketball team bowing out to Ball State in 2009.
Ball State reappeared in the Lady Vols' postseason but this time on the softball field, and Tennessee swept its way to the Super Regional with a 5-0 win over Ball State on Friday, an 11-2 defeat of Virginia on Saturday and the 3-1 battle Sunday with Louisville.
Tennessee doesn't have the star power in the circle on the level of Abbott – an Olympian, the most decorated player in Lady Vol history and the NCAA DI leader in career wins (189), shutouts (112) and strikeouts (2,440) – but two pitchers, sophomore Cat Hosfield and freshman Ivy Renfroe, have combined to lead the Lady Vols to a 45-13 record this season and a spot in a Super Regional next weekend against Michigan in Ann Arbor with Hosfield throwing a masterful mix of movement and off-speed stuff and Renfroe bringing the heat.
For a young team – freshmen and sophomores dot the field and the dugout for Tennessee – advancing to a Super Regional for a chance to play in the Women's College World Series is invaluable postseason experience. The No. 15 seeded Lady Vols won't be favored next week at No.2 seeded Michigan, but they will take the confidence that has carried them all season – different players will step up at critical times.
That time came Sunday when freshman Lauren Gibson smashed a double to the leftfield wall in the ninth inning, a regulation baseball game but in extra innings after the two teams were knotted 1-1 at the end of seven.
Freshman Whitney Hammond, who had sat on the bench for nearly two-and-a-half hours on a day when the sun was baking the crowd of 817, entered as a pinch runner. Senior Nicole "Peanut" Kajitani had been 0-4 on the day with two strikeouts and two ground balls that never left the infield.
But with an extra swing – she had lofted a fly ball into foul territory that fell between two Louisville Cardinals who apparently were confused by crowd noise and thought the other would make the catch – Kajitani ripped a single to right-centerfield, and Hammond bolted from second base. She scored standing up for the 2-1 lead.
"I knew I was going to score," Hammond said. "We're eventually going to make something happen, and Peanut just happened to be the one to do it. I was really excited for her."
Co-Head Coach Karen Weekly lauded the state of readiness of Hammond, a first-year player for the Lady Vols.
"It's tough," Weekly said. "The toughest role on any team is to pinch hit or pinch run and come in and know the winning run depends upon you, and you're involved in it. Whitney has done a great job all year with the role we've put her in. All those kids have. (Freshman) Leah Taylor, she's been in the same role.
"(Hammond) was ready to come in. She knew we needed her speed, and she got the job done. The way that ball was hit I knew she would score."
Weekly also was glad that a senior was at the plate.
"The seniors know what it's all about," Weekly said. "They know 0-4 doesn't mean that your day's shot. That just means you didn't get it done the first four times, you've got another chance, and you've got to keep your head in the game and be prepared, and Peanut was. She got her pitch that she could drive, and she came through with a huge hit for us."
It was a game in which both teams got in to and out of jams with crafty pitching and clutch plays in the field. For Louisville, the real damage came in two innings, the fifth and the ninth, when the Cardinals committed two errors for a game total of four. Still, the Lady Vols managed just one run in the fifth, which tied the game after Louisville's Chelsea Bemis had hammered a solo homer over the leftfield wall in the second inning.
Tennessee managed to tie the game in the fifth inning with two outs after junior Kelly Grieve singled and took off for second base when the leftfielder briefly bobbled the ball. Grieve slid in safely head-first and then took third base after baiting the catcher into a throw down to second, which sailed into centerfield. Grieve scored on a double to rightfield by sophomore Jessica Spigner.
The game remained at 1-1 to begin the ninth inning, where the scoreboard showed Louisville with one run on four hits while Tennessee had pounded out 11 hits but had managed to put just one runner across the plate after leaving 15 runners on base through eight innings.
"I looked on the board I don't know how many times and thought in all my years of coaching I have never seen that on the board – 11 hits and one run," Weekly said. "There were times when I said, ‘Look, our pitcher is throwing a one-hitter (until another hit in the fifth), and we're not winning this game.'
"I challenged our team. I said, ‘Don't let a one-hitter lose this ballgame. She's giving you everything she's got, throwing her heart out, we need to come through with some runs.' "
By the time the top of the ninth inning ended, the Lady Vols had 12 hits and Kajitani had come through in the clutch. Louisville committed two more errors – allowing the third and final run to score when Kajitani scooted home after Erinn Webb got caught in a rundown and then Louisville threw away the ball – and Renfroe shut down the Cardinals in order in the bottom of the ninth with a popup, groundout and flyout to finish the game.
Hosfield, who got the win, faced 30 batters, threw 105 pitches and allowed just four hits and one run by keeping the Cardinals off balance at the plate with an assortment of off-speed and outside pitches that had the batters reaching for the ball. Renfroe, who needed just eight pitches to close out the ninth inning, presented a completely new look for Louisville, 41-19, with her velocity.
"A lot of people might have thought Ivy Renfroe is their ace, but we've told people all along, ‘We've got two aces,' and Cat Hosfield was absolutely phenomenal today," Weekly said.
The performance surely was a confidence boost for the second-year pitcher with a Super Regional looming, and an outcome she needed after keeping the Cardinals in check for eight innings.
"She really did," Weekly said. "Cat has great stuff, and nothing bothered her out there."
Hosfield would sprint in excitement out of the circle after the third out was recorded in each inning, break into a smile and be the first to high-five teammates as they came off the field to the dugout.
"After she gave up that home run she said, ‘Hey, I missed it. It's not going to happen again. Don't worry about it,' " Weekly said. "I just knew that she was right there with her best game today, and she was going to be tough no matter what."
Weekly was on her game, too. The Lady Vols had a chance to score in the sixth inning when Webb doubled to centerfield with two outs. Shelby Burchell entered as a pinch hitter and with a 3-2 count got hit with the ball on the arm and trotted to first base.
The home plate umpire ruled she was out of the box when contact was made and motioned Burchell back to the plate, but Weekly left the dugout and pointed out regardless of the batter's location when struck, it was still ball four.
"I think he lost track that that made it ball four anyway," Weekly said. "I went up and said, ‘Hey, whether you were going to keep her here or not, it was still ball four.' He said, ‘Yeah, you're right.' "
Team effort has been the prevailing theme for Tennessee this season, whether coming from the coaches or the players.
"We carry each other," Hammond said. "We can rely on everybody. We trust everybody with the game on the line. We're really lucky that we have this kind of talent and skill on our team right now.
"We have freshmen that lead us off (Raven Chavanne and Kat Dotson) and then a junior (Grieve, at the top of the batting order)," Hammond said. "We're all mixed in. We don't even think about classes anymore. We just think whoever is up to bat is going to get the job done."
Hammond is from Chattanooga and is well aware of Tennessee's softball tradition. The Lady Vols play in a stadium that is called "The House That Monica Built." The team didn't openly talk about needing to get past the regional level, but the notion did rattle around at times.
"We're all really excited," Hammond said. "We want to live up to our own standards, but it's kind of always in the back of our heads to get to the World Series we're going to have to get past these really good teams. I think we're all just playing it one game at a time. We don't get unfocused looking down the road. We'll look back at the big picture later.
"I have a homey feeling. It's the state school and there are a whole bunch of fans that come here and support us. I am proud that this is my state, my school, and I am really happy to be here."
Weekly said a young team – of 19 players, 15 are either freshmen or sophomores with just one junior and three seniors – will benefit from the pressure cooker of a Super Regional and extended postseason play as one of just 16 teams remaining in the brackets.
"It's huge," Weekly said. "We talked about that as coaches this morning. We're not even thinking about the World Series. We're just thinking about how great it would be to go to Supers and have these young kids experience what that's like. Obviously, we want to win but just to have that experience is going to be invaluable for them."
The Weeklys – Karen and husband Ralph are co-head coaches – were able to briefly meet with the players before attending the post-game press conference and told them "just how proud we were of them, how proud we were of Cat and the way she came through for us today and how tough she was on the mound," Karen Weekly said.
"It's all about resiliency. This team has been tough all year and they were again today."