Tennessee, Michigan square off Thursday

No. 15 seeded Tennessee (45-13) will face No. 2 Michigan (49-6) in the Ann Arbor Super Regional for a best-of-three game series starting Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPN. The winner heads to Oklahoma City for a chance to compete for a national championship in the Women's College World Series.

To get this far, the Lady Vols swept Ball State, Virginia, and Louisville in the Knoxville Regional this past weekend, but the 3-0 sweep was anything but easy. The games were tough battles – especially the final one – and the Big Orange needed clutch performances from both their upperclassmen and underclassmen to advance.

Against Ball State on Friday, Tennessee scored three runs in the bottom of the first inning to set the tone for the regional. Two consecutive walks by freshmen Raven Chavanne and Kat Dotson followed by a double from sophomore Jessica Spigner scored one run. Dotson was called out as she tried to cross home plate, but freshman Lauren Gibson immediately cleaned up the bases with a two-run blast over the rightfield wall to give Tennessee a quick 3-0 advantage.

Hits by junior Kelly Grieve and seniors Tiffany Huff and Erinn Webb led to two more runs, one in the fourth and fifth innings, for the final score of 5-0.

"Ever since the draw, we've been scheming for Ball State because very honestly they're a really good team," Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said after that game. "They just didn't get on track, and that's partly due to Ivy Renfroe, probably mostly due to Ivy Renfroe.

"They've got a really good team. We worked all week to prepare our kids, and the kids came through."

Renfroe pitched the entire game, only allowing Ball State five base runners while striking out seven.

The Lady Vols then had to wait for their next opponent, the winner of the Virginia vs. Louisville game. Virginia, playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament, managed to beat favored Louisville by a 1-0 margin.

The pitching matchup on Saturday was all freshmen as Virginia's star rookie Melanie Mitchell faced Tennessee's Renfroe.

Fortunately for Renfroe, the bats were red hot for the Big Orange. Every Lady Vol in the starting lineup had at least one hit as Tennessee pounded the Cavaliers 11-2. Raven hit 4-5 with one stolen base, Grieve was nearly as effective at 3-5 with two swiped bags, and Huff hit a solo homerun.

"The first thing I told the Virginia coach is that she's done a tremendous job in two years there at Virginia," Weekly said. "We played them a few years back, and they weren't the team they are now."

Tennessee hosted a regional in 2009 as well, and the Lady Vols were up 2-0 after two days, too. Yet, Jacksonville State managed to beat Tennessee twice in the same day to end the Lady Vols' season. With that in mind, Grieve did not plan on experiencing déjà vu.

"It was very disappointing," said Grieve, a junior outfielder. "We never really expected to go home after regionals. It was kind of a wakeup call, and we know how the regional teams are going to be great teams. We have to bring our A-game. We emphasized that at this regional because we don't want to go home (after regionals) this year."

The next opponent for Tennessee was yet to be determined at that point. Louisville played Ball State in the loser's bracket in a Battle of the Cardinals with the birds from Kentucky coming out on top, 5-1.

Then, Louisville beat Virginia in a rematch, 7-4, shortly after the game with Ball State, to survive and advance to face Tennessee on Sunday.

Louisville, once ranked as high as No. 14 in the USA Today/NFCA Poll, presented a tough challenge for Tennessee, which started sophomore Cat Hosfield in the circle for the first time all weekend.

At the end of the fourth inning, Tennessee had left six runners on base and trailed, 1-0. Louisville junior Chelsea Bemis had hit a solo homerun to leftfield in the second inning for the game's only tally.

"I think it was just an inside fastball," Bemis said. "She left it up, so I just took advantage of it."

In the fifth inning, Tennessee finally got the key hit it needed. With two outs Grieve came up with a clutch single and advanced all the way to third because of two Louisville errors.

"Kelly Grieve is our fireball," said sophomore infielder Jessica Spigner. "Kelly Grieve is feisty, and Kelly Grieve will get things done when we need to get them done. She's a great leader on the field. She's an awesome outfielder, constantly saving plays in outfield. She's just a great leader in the box."

Spigner, who had missed some recent opportunities to knock in runners in scoring position, promptly doubled to tie the game 1-1.

"Well, I was due," Spigner said. "I'd been struggling a little bit. I've been working extra hard to get back on my feet. Cathleen pitched an awesome game. We had two outs, runner on third base, and I wasn't going to leave that runner on base like I had multiple times before.

"Everyone has been working really hard, and I did it for Cathleen today."

Still, Tennessee left a staggering 16 runners on base in the nine-inning contest, a problem that the coaching staff was aware of and tried to correct.

"When I was an Olympic coach, Ralph Raymond, the head coach, said there's only one hitting statistic, and that's RBIs," Weekly said. "We talk to our kids about that all the time, and they're good hitters, and they were going up there trying. We're hitting in the top five in the nation right now, but we just couldn't seem to get that key hit.

"The one thing that happened, there was no panic. It was just next time, next time."

Tennessee squandered an excellent opportunity in the seventh inning. A leadoff single from Dotson was followed by a Grieve bunt-single to put two on with no outs. Spigner then lined out to third base, and Lauren Gibson struck out looking.

Tiffany Huff walked to load the bases, and senior Nicole Kajitani came up with a chance to end the game in regulation; however, she grounded a ball to second base that allowed Louisville to tag out Huff to end the frame.

Tennessee's speed was very effective but its sluggers, not so much.

"A lot of times in key situations we got strikeouts from our pitchers," said Louisville Head Coach Sandy Pearsall. "That's kind of what kept it close. Yes, their speed is getting on, but we were able to handle a lot of that power of theirs, and that was really key."

"We just kept going at them, and they're a good hitting team," said senior Cardinal pitcher Kristen Waldwell. "You know that they're going to get hits. They're fast. You know they're going to get on (base). You just have to keep going at them and hope that they don't utilize and make opportunities happen."

Tennessee squandered chances in the eighth inning, too. After Erinn Webb fouled out, Ashley Andrews walked, and Raven and Dotson singled. Grieve hit into a fielder's choice, and Andrews was out at home. Spigner came up next and gave the ball a ride but flew out to the warning track in leftfield.

In the ninth inning, however, an opportunity presented itself from a Louisville miscue that did not go down in the record books as an error. After Gibson had doubled and Huff struck out swinging, Kajitani came up to bat. She lofted a foul ball behind first base, but two Cardinal players had a miscommunication and let the ball fall in between them.

Given a second chance, Kajitani, who is referred to by the Tennessee faithful as "Peanut" because of her small frame, smacked the next pitch she saw into centerfield to score Whitney Hammond, who had been entered as a pinch runner for Gibson, and put Tennessee up 2-1.

"There was a lot of noise coming from the crowd, and they didn't hear each other real clearly," Pearsall said. "That's kind of what happened."

The blunder seemed to rattle Louisville.

Webb managed to get on first base because of an error, and then another error allowed her to advance to second and let Kajitani score for a 3-1 Lady Vol advantage.

With a two-run lead, Tennessee opted to bring in Renfroe and take out Hosfield despite her quality pitching, something Louisville had suspected might happen in that scenario.

"I felt like sooner or later it was coming," Pearsall said. "I just didn't know when. I think they were kind of holding to see if they could get the lead. They were thinking about the second game (if Louisville beat Tennessee) just as much as we were. I think they were trying to hold Ivy and make sure she was fresh, and then they got the lead, so why not try to shut us down immediately and not take any chances."

Weekly indicated that he was staying with Hosfield as long as he could.

"It was a feel thing," Weekly said. "I just felt like Cat was really strong. I talked to her in the seventh inning, and she said if we get a lead, and this is the unselfishness of Cat, she said if we get a lead, put Ivy in because the fastball will make a difference, and it certainly did. There was no thought of changing unless we got a lead."

Hosfield's pitching was effective, only giving up the one run and limiting Louisville to four hits in eight innings.

"She was moving the ball around," Bemis said. "She threw in a changeup a little bit here and there. She was just keeping us on our toes."

Only needing eight pitches, seven of which were strikes, Renfroe closed out the ninth inning easily and preserved Tennessee's first Super Regional appearance since 2007.

"I am so proud of these kids," Weekly said. "This was a young team from the start. Nobody gave us much of a chance for anything, and a lot of times during the season we started five and even a couple of times six freshmen. The one thing that's been consistent about this team, whether we win or lose, they never quit.

"I also want to congratulate Louisville . They're well coached. They're a fantastic team. They took it to us. They had great pitching, but today was the Lady Vols' day."

The memory of last season's failure to close out the regional seemed to inspire Tennessee,

"It feels great," Spigner said. "We had fire in our bellies because we weren't going to let another team cheer on our field like they did last year. We were completely determined from day one and totally confident in our pitchers, and I am so proud of you, Cathleen (who was sitting right next to her). You did a great job, and our team was behind you one hundred percent of the way."

"We talked about it in the locker room," Hosfield said. "We know what it feels like to be at home next week, and it's the worst feeling ever watching the team that you competed against on TV. We just knew this year was going to be our year that we weren't going to be home next week."

In its three past Super Regionals, Tennessee has advanced to the WCWS each time, but Michigan presents a daunting challenge.

"They've got a brand new stadium, and it's a beautiful stadium," Weekly said. "They have a great fan base, and they have a pep band for every game. We're going to hear their fight song all the time. They've got two first-team All-American pitchers. One's a senior, and one's a junior, so our young guys are going to have to go after them, and I'm sure they will.

"It's a great place to play. They've got a really good team; they're classy. We're going up there hoping that we can win it. It will be a battle. They're very good, or they wouldn't be ranked No. 2 in the nation."

Despite its youth Tennessee feels experienced, and they're ready to go after the Wolverines, according to Hosfield.

"We don't look at our team as young," Hosfield said. "We're all experienced now, and our team chemistry is just really great right in this time of the year. We're just really embracing the challenges that Michigan is going to bring."

"We're going up there to fight," Weekly said. "Knowing they're good, we're going up there to fight."

After Tennessee plays Michigan on Thursday, the two will square off on Friday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern, televised by ESPNU. If necessary, a third game will be played right after the second one, and it is scheduled tentatively for 7 p.m. Eastern. The rubber match would also be televised by ESPNU.

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