Lady Vols ready to 'roar' at WCWS

When the Helen Reddy feminist classic "I Am Woman," was recorded in 1971, the majority of the players on the Lady Vols softball team were still 20 years away from making their debut on Earth. Still, when the song was featured in a current chick flick, three of them were belting it out in a movie theater in Knoxville.

The players knew the lyrics because Ralph and Karen Weekly, Tennessee's co-head coaches who were relative youngsters when the song went to No. 1 on Billboard, recently shared the song with the team.

A sign taped in the Lady Vols' dugout that said "I am woman, hear me roar" – hand-scribbled by Ralph Weekly – was picked up by ESPN's cameras during Tennessee's victory over Michigan in the Super Regional in Ann Arbor last week.

That two-game sweep propelled the Lady Vols to the Women's College World Series, the eight-team finale to the 2010 softball season in Oklahoma City.

No. 15 seed Tennessee, 47-13, will take on No. 10 seed Arizona, 48-11, at 7 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2) on Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

The victor of that matchup stays in the winner's bracket to face either Georgia or Washington with the defeated teams dropping into the loser's bracket in the double elimination format.

"We've been the underdog all the way, and we've preached that line, and really we're still the underdog," Ralph Weekly said. "We're a 15 initial seed, and Arizona is a 10. We told them you've got nothing to lose, just go out there and be loose and enjoy the trip. There are only eight teams left playing, and you're one of them.

"Just have a ball. That's going to be our theme and theory going in there."

Tennessee is one of three SEC teams in the WCWS, along with Georgia and Florida. The Pac 10 placed three teams in Arizona, UCLA and Washington. Missouri (Big 12) and Hawai'i (WAC) round out the field.

"I thought we were going to have four," Weekly said. "I was really surprised at what happened to Alabama. Hawai'i is obviously the real deal. The league is very strong. Right now the Pac 10 still has the premier team in Washington, and Arizona is Arizona, an eight-time national champion and they've got the greatest coach in the world in Mike Candrea.

"Anything can happen. The SEC is really pressing them. One of the things a lot of people don't realize is SEC football being as strong as it is really propels all of the SEC sports, because it's all money, and it's all support, and it's all facilities."

The Lady Vols won a regional at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium by taking out Ball State, Virginia and Louisville and then had to travel to Ann Arbor to take on No. 2 seeded Michigan at home.

The Wolverines were heavily favored – they had not lost at home in two years – but Tennessee won 5-0 behind a two-hitter from freshman pitcher Ivy Renfroe and then 4-3 behind the power hitting of seniors Erinn Webb and Nicole Kajitani. Webb's second solo homer turned out to be the difference in the game.

"I've always loved Erinn Webb's swing," Weekly said. "It's a beautiful left-handed swing. Erinn is a money player. Every year in playoffs she's come through for us. People have asked me before, ‘Hey, she's only hitting .210. Why are you playing her?' I just believe in her."

That faith paid off as Webb's offense propelled Tennessee to Oklahoma City.

"I think maybe more focused in," Webb said of her postseason success. "I don't want to go home. I want to step up for my teammates. I play every game like there is no tomorrow because there is no tomorrow in postseason."

It's a place Webb went as a freshman in 2007 with All-American Monica Abbott in the circle and Tennessee one key hit against Arizona from winning a national title.

"We're excited to play them again," Webb said. "I haven't seen them since my freshman year. It still hurts. It still hurts today. I can't watch the championship game without tearing up. I don't think that will ever go away."

Renfroe was in high school in Jackson, Tenn., and watched that championship series on television.

"It's kind of cool we're playing them in that first game," Renfroe said. "You can't take anything for granted that we'll be here again, just enjoy it and enjoy the experience."

That's a lesson imparted from Webb, who thought she would be back at the Women College World Series with another shot at a title in her second college season.

"I did," Webb said. "I took it for granted. I just assumed this is a great program; we're going to make it every year. This time, my senior year, it's my last time. I am going to embrace everything there, take it in and really enjoy it.

"Last time we had a dominating pitcher, and (now) we're a young team. We have three seniors and one junior and the rest are underclassmen, so I think to have such a young team and make it to the World Series is a big accomplishment."

For players like Renfroe and sophomore third baseman Jessica Spigner the WCWS is something they dreamed about being a part of once they got to college.

"This is what you play for," Spigner said. "This is what you dream about when you're a little girl. This is probably one of the most amazing experiences that we're going to go through in our lives. We've just got to make the most of it.

"It's a little bit surreal. You look up to them and now you're going to compete with other great players and great teams. It's just so surreal to me."

Renfroe added, "I always watched it. It's going to be an awesome feeling when we're on the field and at the World Series.

"I don't know how to explain it. It's just really cool. I've talked to people about it. I still can't believe I'm going and we're going to be playing on that field. It's unexplainable. It's really cool."

Renfroe is a big reason why Tennessee is making the trip west. She combined with sophomore pitcher Cat Hosfield to win the second game against Michigan and got out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh inning to preserve the 4-3 win after sophomore shortstop Ashley Andrews snared a line drive to end the game.

"I just tried to keep my composure and stay calm," Renfroe said. "My shortstop helped me, too. She was nervous, too. It was kind of funny. She said, ‘I also need to breathe, but I couldn't breathe.' I had to tell myself that."

Renfroe's teammates don't hesitate to approach her in the circle with some calm words or a joke, including during the first game against Michigan in which she took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. At one moment in the game, ESPN cameras showed Renfroe break into a smile after a teammate spoke to her.

"They always make me smile, make me laugh in the huddle," Renfroe said. "I laugh and smile at everything so it probably wasn't really that funny. I just try to relax and not be so serious and tense."

One of the players in the huddle with Renfroe is the senior Webb.

"Trying to keep her relaxed," Webb said. "She's a freshman and in these situations you can get anxious. We just want to make sure she's relaxed and ready to pitch because she's an amazing pitcher, and she's a key to our team."

The sweep of Michigan was unexpected, to say the least, with very few people outside of the team's dugout predicting it would be Tennessee that would advance.

"All 20 of our fans (in Ann Arbor) thought we could win, too," Spigner said. "None of us had any doubt whatsoever. We were coming out of there winners."

Tennessee is likely a year ahead of schedule. With 15 of the 19 players either freshmen or sophomores and the No. 1 rated recruiting class on the way, it was presumed that the Lady Vols were a year away from Oklahoma City.

"We are definitely ahead of the game getting to the World Series," Weekly said. "These kids have been fantastic. They never quit, and that's been the history the whole season. I've never had a team like this. They fight all the way. They're mature for their age.

"The freshmen are playing like upperclassmen, and I just feel really good about this team. What I feel really good about is this trip to Oklahoma City is really going to help prepare the younger kids for the years coming."

The experience at that level of softball – the equivalent of the Final Four in basketball – for a young team is invaluable.

"Couldn't be better," Weekly said. "We told the kids we're still unsatisfied. We don't want to go in there like, ‘OK, we made the final eight. Now, let's just roll over.' If we get beat there it will just be because we got beat. All eight teams there are really good and all of them are more experienced than our kids, except maybe Hawai'i."

Spigner added, "It helps us learn for the future. It helps us young people grow as we go grade to grade. It helps us tell the girls that are coming in what it feels like and how awesome it is to say, ‘I went to a World Series.' It's just a learning experience."

The freshman Renfroe hasn't yet got her mind wrapped around what the team has done to date, but she wants to keep it going.

"Not really. I don't know when I'll really get how we did this," Renfroe said. "It's really awesome how we stepped up. Our confidence is high and we really think we can take on anybody since we beat them because they're so good."

The team met with the coaches after the sweep, digested the results and began preparations for the next step.

"We talked about our accomplishments, and we were really happy with what with did," Webb said. "Now, that's in the past, we're moving on, and we're looking forward to the World Series.

"It was a big deal. They were a great opponent. We really had nothing to lose. We want to stay relaxed. We want to stay focused."

The 15 underclassmen are playing now for the three seniors – Webb, infielder Kajitani and catcher Tiffany Huff.

"Our seniors have talked about it since the fall," Spigner said. "They wanted to get back there so bad. They put it in our minds early on. We have worked for this moment this whole year, and I am really happy to do it for our seniors.

"I think what makes us loose is we're one team. We have one heart. We have one goal."

A few of those hearts may be racing before the first pitch on Thursday evening.

"I am definitely always nervous before any game," Renfroe said. "It doesn't matter who I'm playing. It will definitely be a different feeling than any normal game.

"There is a possibility of getting overwhelmed with the crowd and being there but just see it as a softball game and see it as what we've always done: Play softball."

This will be the Tennessee program's fourth overall trip to the Women's College World Series after the NCAA runner-up finish in 2007 and the third spot in both 2005 and 2006. The Lady Vols have an overall record of 10-6 record at the WCWS.

Play in the 2010 WCWS begins at 1 p.m. Eastern with Hawai'i facing Missouri (ESPN) followed by UCLA and Florida at 3:30 p.m. (ESPN). Tennessee and Arizona are scheduled for 7 p.m. (ESPN2) followed by Georgia and Washington at 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2).

The Lady Vols will depart Tuesday afternoon for Oklahoma City with Wednesday being a day for a practice session and press conferences.

"We think it's going to be a good game," Weekly said. "We hope it's going to be a good game. We hope if the kids have butterflies down in Oklahoma City they've got them flying in formation."

Weekly also can break out his female power lyrics or play the classic Helen Reddy song.

"I remember years ago when Helen Reddy sang that song, and we started playing it and now they love it and it's their theme song," Weekly said. "They are women, and I want to hear them roar, so what the heck."

Three teammates recently went to a screening of Sex and the City 2 and heard their new theme song as part of a karaoke segment.

"I had never heard it (before this season), but I love it now," Webb said. "Great song. We play it a lot lately. It was in the movie. They karaoke it. Me, Kelly (Grieve) and Kat Dotson we were singing it in the movie theater. It was really funny.

"The day we got back from Michigan we went and saw it that night. We were like, ‘Oh, my God. This is a sign!' "


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