Coach Ralph Weekly arrives in Oklahoma City for Women's College World Series
OKLAHOMA CITY — The young women clad in orange laughed and chatted in the lobby of their hotel before heading to the Women's College World Series team welcome function Tuesday night.
A two-hour plane ride and two-hour practice in 90-degree heat had taken place since their morning wake-up call back in Knoxville some 12 hours earlier, but the Tennessee softball team appeared as bubbly as ever.
"I think the thing I realized since the last time I was here is that making it to the world series is not a given,'' said Lady Vols junior second baseman Lauren Gibson. "I'm going to make sure I enjoy this trip and soak it all in as much as possible before getting focused for our games, and I'm telling our underclassmen to do the same thing.''
Tennessee (52-12) opens the double-elimination WCWS on Thursday (TV: ESPN2, 7 p.m.) against Alabama (55-7).
"It never gets old coming here, and there's never a bad day at the world series,'' said UT co-head coach Ralph Weekly, who along with his wife, Karen, has guided the Lady Vols to five WCWS appearances in their 11-year tenure. "It's every softball player and coach's dream to compete in the college world series.''
Tennessee, seeded No. 7 despite a No. 4 RPI, has finished in the top three of the eight-team WCWS field in each of its previous four trips — 2005, 2006, 2007 and, most recently, 2010.
Karen Weekly said the Lady Vols took to the sun-drenched field at Oklahoma City University on Tuesday afternoon with the mindset of winning it all this time around.
"We're happy to be here, but not 'just' happy to be here. We want to win it,'' she said. "We would have practiced at home this morning, but with an earlier flight, we had to adjust. Forty-eight hours from game time is the best time to get a quality workout in; (Monday) we were still a little tired from Sunday's games, so that was more about film work with a 30-minute strength and conditioning workout.
"Today, it was defense and offense on the field, and some time spent in Oklahoma City University's indoor batting cages.''
Ralph Weekly is confident with both of his pitchers, junior WCWS veteran Ivy Renfroe (25-8, 1.73 ERA) and sophomore All-American Ellen Renfroe (27-4, 1.18), so he believes the key is UT's ability to generate runs against the No. 2-seeded Crimson Tide.
The teams split their March 21 doubleheader in Tuscaloosa this season, as Alabama won the first game 3-2 in 11 innings before the Lady Vols handed the Tide its first loss of the season in the nightcap, 5-2.
"Alabama is a legit and deserving No. 2 seed, and they are seeded ahead of us for a reason,'' Ralph Weekly said of the SEC champions. "To be successful against a team as good as Alabama, you need all components clicking the entire game.
"We won the second game, but we did not beat Jackie Traina, we lost to her in the first game in 11 innings. That's our challenge — she's one of the top two pitchers in the collegiate game.''
Traina, 37-2 with a 1.67 ERA, breaks 70 mph with her fastball and features a devastating changeup that has led her to 316 strikeouts in 246 2/3 innings pitched this season.
The Crimson Tide has yet to lose a postseason game, sweeping through the SEC tournament, its NCAA tournament regional and Super Regional.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee sports. Follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32