Lady Vol softball seniors say good-bye

The Lady Vol softball team rolled back into Knoxville on Monday afternoon after a third-place finish at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City that may have surprised softball cognoscenti but fell short of the team's goal of winning a national title.

Outfielder Kelly Grieve will be the lone senior on what is expected to be a young but experienced and stacked squad next season, and she is already looking forward to taking the role of team leader.

"I think it will be fun," said Grieve, who has a fiery personality and should adapt naturally to a leadership position. "I love all the freshmen and the sophomores that will be juniors, and I already know some of the girls coming in. I think it will be fun."

For the three seniors, Nicole Kajitani, Erinn Webb and Tiffany Huff, it was a time to say good-bye.

"It didn't hit me until a friend of mine, her parent came up to me and said, ‘Great career,' and then I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it's over,' " Webb said. "That's when I started crying. I tried to keep my composure while the game ended but afterwards we talked to teammates, and that's when it got more emotional."

Tennessee finished the season with a record of 49-15 and turned a fifth place finish in the SEC in the regular season into a third place national finish after a postseason run that seemed surprising to all but those in the Lady Vols' dugout.

"No matter where you lost it still hurts as bad," Kajitani said. "I thought we could have gone all the way. We should be in that championship game today. I don't think I'll ever say, ‘Hey, we made it a lot farther than we thought,' because we (wanted) to go all the way.

"Sometimes it just doesn't go your way. The first game (Sunday) we didn't play our game at all. The second game we did really well and sometimes the ball just doesn't fall your way."

Tennessee started 2-0 in Women's College World Series play with wins over Arizona and Georgia and needed just one win Sunday over Arizona, which survived a climb through the loser's bracket on Saturday, to advance to the championship series against UCLA. But the Lady Vols fell 8-0 in the first rematch and then 5-2 in the second game, putting the Wildcats into the national title series and the Lady Vols on a plane back to Knoxville.

"Arizona is a great team," Grieve said Monday. "I think we just kind of got tired, and then some calls didn't go our way and some balls didn't fall the way we wanted them to. … We were actually pretty relaxed until we got down. We came out with more of a fighting mentality the second game, but it just didn't go our way."

During his post-game press conference Sunday evening, Tennessee Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly saluted both teams.

"First of all, congratulations to Arizona," Weekly said. "They beat us. They beat us in every phase today, and they deserve the wins. Our kids fought and I never saw them lay down. I wasn't disappointed in them at all. Arizona was better and that's what happened.

"I am tremendously proud and I just told our kids I don't think anybody expected us finishing fifth in the SEC to get to this position. But what I am more proud of is this team never gave us any problems the entire season – absolutely none. They were great students and they're just great student-athletes. I told them that they were the best group, as a whole, that me and Karen Weekly have ever coached.

"And (I) care about each and every one of them. I know they're hurting now, especially the seniors, but that's what softball is all about. To finish third in the country, or tied for third, is not what we wanted, but it was more than we thought we'd get three or four weeks ago."

Those three seniors picked up their bags outside the team bus Monday afternoon at the soccer/softball stadiums complex and loaded them in their cars for the last time as Lady Vol players.

"I think it was right away it hit me," Kajitani said. "My career is completely over. I will never get to play with these girls again."

"I am still upset about it," Webb said. "It's for real that my career is over with now and I'm not really sure what to do about that yet. But it was a fun year, a fun career here. I had a blast and making it to the World Series was a perfect way to end it."

"You remember you finished third but the thing that you really remember is the girls, the relationships you built and the fun times that you had," Huff said. "That's all the stories that you'll ever talk about it."

All three seniors are from the state of California – fertile recruiting ground for college softball prospects – but their stay is Tennessee will be extended by choice.

Kajitani, who is from San Bernardino, will graduate in August and then pursue a coaching career in softball.

"I have a coaching job back home (at a Division II school), but I would rather stay out here for a little while," Kajitani said. "I am going to wait and see what goes on."

Webb, who is from Hemet, will graduate in December and then intends to enroll in graduate school to study journalism to prepare for a career in broadcast and sports commentary.

Huff, who is from Saugus, will take one course in the second summer term to complete her bachelor's degree and then start an internship in the fall in her field of special education. She also intends to pursue a master's degree and work with the softball team.

Huff has another milestone to prepare for besides college graduation. She has a wedding to plan with former UT football player Xavier Mitchell after a lengthy engagement.

"I am giving myself a few weeks to close this part of it," Huff said. "He understands because he had to leave football. I am very excited about that. I've got to dive right in because we've got 40 days until the wedding, and I've got a lot of stuff I've got to get done."

Kajitani and Huff said they would definitely watch the WCWS championship series on television.

"We're watching," Kajitani said. "It's going to be hard, but I definitely want to see who is going to win it all."

"Absolutely," Huff said. "I love the game, can't get away from it, want to see who wins. I have friends on both teams."

Webb said she wasn't sure yet if she could watch as she still gets "emotional," when she thinks about softball, and all three seniors' voices caught during interviews with media members Monday.

"We're disappointed not making it to the championship game, but no one thought we were going to be there anyway and to get to that third place finish we were proud of ourselves and our team," Webb said. "We left everything on the field.

"That was our goal the whole time. We wanted to get this team to the World Series. We wanted to end it at the World Series. We were able to do that. I think with the girls experiencing the World Series they're going to want to get back next year, and I think they have a very good chance of doing that."

Grieve will be the team's only senior next season and with the country's No. 1-ranked recruiting class on the way to Knoxville, the Lady Vols will now be among the favorites to get to the Women's College World Series in 2011.

"We're obviously disappointed to lose," Grieve said. "We talked about our season and how everybody counted us out. We knew all along that we were as good as anybody else in the country so just fun to actually prove it.

"I think we opened a lot of eyes with our pitchers and our freshmen. They're going to be older and experienced and know how to deal with the pressure situations. I think we'll be expected to go back."

Grieve will want to do what this year's seniors did – play her last games on the sport's biggest stage.

"I think everybody wants their career to end in Oklahoma City," Grieve said. "We've been talking. It's better for some of the younger girls to know what it feels like to get there. You're young so you have a taste of it and you know how to work and what to look forward to, so it will be good. Everybody knows what it will take now."

If the team makes it back, the Lady Vols can count on having at least one former Lady Vol in the stands.

"These girls are very important to me," Webb said. "They're like my sisters, and I told them to get to the World Series and I'll be there next year cheering for them."

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