OKLAHOMA CITY — Ellen Renfroe was stunned, taken aback, and not sure how to react.
Her drop ball against LSU on April 15 had just hit the top of the backstop, and Tennessee softball's sophomore All-American pitcher was at a loss to understand why or how that happened.
"A lot of pitching is mental, and when you start thinking too much, you get in trouble,'' Renfroe said Wednesday. "On the outside, I tried to play it off, like it was no big deal.
"But on the inside, as technical as I am, I'm thinking this has got to be fixed, and I tightened up.''
Renfroe managed just two complete games in nine starts prior to firing a three-hitter against Georgia in NCAA tournament Super Regionals last Sunday. The Bulldogs used those three hits to score a 1-0 victory, but UT rallied to win the decisive third game, 2-1.
Co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly breathed a sigh of relief; the Lady Vols (52-13) were headed their fifth Women's College World Series. Just as importantly, Ellen Renfroe had found her groove.
"We've got to have Ellen at the world series,'' Ralph Weekly said last Sunday. "Ivy is pitching fantastic, but I believe our edge is that we have two great pitchers.''
The Weeklys used both Renfroe sisters in Thursday night's 5-3 loss to second-seeded Alabama in both teams' WCWS opener at Hall of Fame Stadium.
By the time Ellen Renfroe entered in relief in the first inning, it was too late. UT was down 3-0 and runners were on first and second, and after walking two to force another run across, she retired the next eight straight.
The Tide got to Ellen Renfroe for a run in the fourth inning with a one-out double that skirted under second baseman Lauren Gibson's glove and an RBI single up the middle before the Weekly's re-entered starter Ivy Renfroe with Alabama up 5-2.
The seventh-seeded Lady Vols will play a WCWS elimination game at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday (TV: ESPN2) against 11th-seeded Oregon (44-17), a 3-1 loser against third-seeded Arizona State (52-9), needing to win four games in two days to advance to the best-of-three championship series.
Pressure has never bothered Ellen Renfroe — perfection has.
While big sister Ivy relies on her 70 mph fastball, Ellen Renfroe is a control pitcher, painting corners with a variety of pitches at varying speeds. Even with her struggles, Ellen Renfroe entered Thursday night 27-4 with a 1.18 ERA.
"Ellen can throw seven different pitches, and I mean pitches that do seven different things,'' Karen Weekly said. "Rise, changeup, knuckle, drop, curve, fastball and drop-knuckle, and she throws them all at different speeds.''
But until last Sunday's Super Regional performance against Georgia, Ellen Renfroe was off kilter.
Until, that is, she caved in and took some advice from Ivy, who had similar location issues as a sophomore last season.
"Ivy told me to just put everything out of my mind, and just be a competitor for Christ,'' Ellen Renfroe said. "Instinctively, I'd wanted everything perfect, and it was hard to take her advice knowing Ivy is a different kind a pitcher, and as a person, she's always been able to just roll with things.
"Sunday, I just stayed relaxed and kept my mind clear, and it was like, 'Ivy, you were right.' "
Ivy Renfroe was as relieved as anyone to see her younger sister back on track.
A week before, after allowing two runs over 27 innings in the regional, Ivy Renfroe sat at the victorious postgame podium wearing a blank expression.
The Lady Vols had won the regional, but Ivy was concerned for Ellen, who hadn't gone beyond the third inning in any of her regional starts.
"That's my sister, so of course I'm going to be concerned and feel for her,'' Ivy Renfroe said. "But I know Ellen, and she'll deal with it in her own way.''
As it turned out, Ellen dealt with it Ivy's way.
"The thing we noticed with them, even when they were in high school, is that they're at their best protecting one another in relief,'' Ralph Weekly said. "With sisters, it's a different dynamic, but I wouldn't trade them for anyone.''