May 23, 2010

Courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - For the first time since 2007, No. 16 Tennessee (45-13) can pack its bags for an NCAA Super Regional as the Lady Vols outlasted a rugged Louisville (41-19) squad on a blazing Sunday afternoon at Lee Softball Stadium to post a 3-1 (9 inn.) triumph and secure the championship of the Knoxville Regional.

The Big Orange now advance on to next weekend's NCAA Super Regional in Ann Arbor, Mich., where they will face the home-standing and No. 2 nationally-seeded Michigan Wolverines live on the ESPN family of networks. The times and dates for those games are still to be determined and will be posted on utladyvols.com as soon as they are released.

Both programs possess quite an NCAA Tournament history versus the other. UM and the Lady Vols battled twice in 2005 at the Women's College World Series on the way to the Maize & Blue's eventual national title, while Tennessee downed Michigan two games-to-one during the NCAA Knoxville Super Regional in 2006 on the road to a third place finish at the WCWS.

Heroines were in abundance for UT against Louisville on a Sunday that frustrated Tennessee to the tune of 16 runners left on base. Included among that group were sophomore third baseman Jessica Spigner (1-for-4, double, RBI), who knocked in the game-tying run on a double to right during the fifth inning, sophomore pitcher Cat Hosfield, who allowed just one run on four hits over eight innings of work from the circle while improving to 16-8 on the year, junior center fielder Kelly Grieve (2-for-4, stolen base, run), the fireplug whose hustle play on a single to left started the huge two-out, game-tying rally in the fifth and freshman second baseman Lauren Gibson (1-for-5), whose lone hit of the match-up was a lead-off double that eventually became the winning tally in the decisive ninth inning.

Also contributing as per usual to Tennessee's 12-hit offensive assault were freshman right fielder Kat Dotson (3-for-5) and rookie left fielder Raven Chavanne (2-for-6), as the duo combined for nearly half of UT's total hit output.

Freshman pitcher Ivy Renfroe was summoned into the contest starting the ninth and worked a perfect frame to pick up the fourth save of her career.

"Sweet 16! I'm really proud of these kids," Lady Vol co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. "This was a young team from the start, and nobody gave us much of a chance for anything. A lot of times during this season we started five, and even a couple of times in the SEC Tournament, started six freshmen. One thing that's been consistent about this team, win or lose, they never quit; they never quit. I also want to congratulate Louisville. They are well-coached, they are a fantastic team. They took it to us, they had great pitching, but I'll tell you, today was the Lady Vols' day."

The Lady Vol speed game attempted to get the offense off to a quick start during the top of the first as Chavanne ripped a lead-off single to center and Dotson followed with a perfect bunt out in front of the plate for a hit. Unfortunately, a groundout, foul pop-up behind the plate and a K left the UT duo stranded at second and third.

Hosfield worked quickly through the bottom of the first in order, getting fly ball outs off the bats of Louisville center fielder Kristin Austin and catcher Melissa Roth before catching second baseman Jordan Trimble looking at strike three on a 3-2 offering that traveled right across the middle of the plate.

After the Big Orange left a runner stranded at first in the top half, the Cardinals drew first blood in the bottom of the second as third baseman Chelsea Bemis ripped a shot to left off Hosfield for a solo homer to grant UL a 1-0 advantage. Tennessee's hurler immediately rebounded from the long ball to retire the next three batters she faced in order.

Following scoring opportunities during the third and fourth innings where the big hit Tennessee needed just wouldn't come, the Lady Vols finally got even on the scoreboard in the top of the fifth. A hustling Grieve ended up occupying second after a single to left and a fielding miscue from Louisville's Jennifer Esteban. Roth attempted to pick off the runner, throwing behind the speedster at second as she strayed off the bag, but the catcher's throw sailed into center for the second Cardinal miscue of the inning allowing Grieve to advance to third. Spigner drove a shot to deep right that turned UL's Vanessa James in a complete circle before eventually hitting off the wall for a run-scoring double to deadlock the game at 1-1.

The Cardinals left a runner standing at third in the fifth and started the bottom of the sixth by getting a pair on base via a lead-off single on a swinging bunt to first from James and a hit batter. Hosfield fielded her position well with one retired, handling a sharp grounder off the bat of Trimble, turning quickly and gunning down the lead runner at third base on a fielder's choice toss to Spigner. Bemis stepped in and popped up a ball on the infield that Spigner charged in to nab via a running basket catch to send the contest to the seventh inning dead-locked at 1-1.

The frustration reached a fevered pitch for Tennessee during the seventh and eighth frames as the UT offense managed four total hits and left six runners stranded over the two innings combined. The Lady Vols had occupants at first and second with no outs in the seventh, after singles by Dotson and Grieve, and loaded the bases with one retired in the eighth on an Ashley Andrews walk and base knocks from Chavanne and Dotson. The Big Orange failed in both opportunities, however, to get the key hit necessary to take its first lead of the game.

With Hosfield fighting hard to keep Louisville from tallying a walk-off run, Gibson granted the Orange & White more offensive life in the top of the ninth as her lead-off double against UL starter Tori Collins hit off the wall in left. With one down in the frame, Kajitani stepped into the batter's box and lifted what appeared to be a routine foul ball just outside the first base bag. A miscommunication between Louisville second baseman Trimble and the right fielder James proved huge as the ball landed safely in foul ground. Granted new life at the dish, Kajitani ripped the next pitch she received from Collins just over the second baseman and into right center to plate freshman pinch runner Whitney Hammond. Senior first baseman Erinn Webb (1-for-4, double) bounced to second as Trimble raced over for Louisville and made a great diving stop on the ball. A throw from her knees was wide of the bag, however, for an error. Webb turned wide around first and got caught in no-man's land, but Louisville botched the rundown for its second miscue during the play, allowing Kajitani to score all the way from first and make it 3-1.

Renfroe was summoned into the contest to close the door starting the bottom of the ninth and the Jackson, Tenn., native did just that. The 5-10 right hander retired Bemis, shortstop Colby Wherry and designated player Katelyn Mann in order to secure the Knoxville Regional title.