When the Tennessee softball season began, the Lady Vols coaches found themselves in the enviable position of having four quality and dependable pitchers.
Sisters Ellen and Ivy Renfroe were expected to provide leadership again, while freshman Erin Gabriel also was being counted on to contribute some, as was sophomore infielder Cheyanne Tarango on occasion.
Although the pitching has held up well enough to give Tennessee (43-9) a No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament in Lexington, Ky., not all the pitchers and other players have, at least physically.
Gabriel (5-1, 2.66 ERA) made her last appearance on April 2. The two-time Gatorade softball player of the year in the state of Ohio suffered a torn labrum in her hip that required surgery and is out for the rest of the season. Tarango (6-1, 1.47 ERA), meanwhile, is filling in at first base because starter Melissa Davin suffered a hand injury against Missouri last weekend and is likely sidelined for the SEC tournament.
As a result, Tennessee is trying to adjust to the proverbial curveball the team has been thrown. The Lady Vols play 10th-seeded South Carolina (32-22) in the quarterfinals on Thursday (TV: ESPN, 7:30 p.m.). The Gamecocks won 6-3 on Wednesday night against seventh-seeded Kentucky (38-18).
“We planned to use at least three pitchers at the start of the year, and then Erin got hurt and that really affected us,” said co-head coach Ralph Weekly on Tuesday. “But with Davin’s injury, I had to put Cheyanne at first base, so she wasn’t available to pitch and I probably could have used her Sunday.”
The Lady Vols lost the final regular season game to Missouri, 12-8, allowing Florida to win the SEC regular season title. It was third loss in the last four games for the Lady Vols after winning 19 consecutive games.
Ivy Renfroe, a senior, is 17-3 with a 1.85 ERA. Junior Ellen Renfroe is 15-4 with a 2.03 ERA. Both also have one save each.
With some quality teams in the SEC tournament, Weekly knows the Lady Vols will have to be pitching well.
“I feel like this is a very good team, but they don’t call this game fast-hit or fast-run, they call it fast-pitch, and we have to have good pitching,” he said.
If so, Tennessee can remain focused on trying to get back to Oklahoma City for the College Softball World Series. However, first the Lady Vols have to get through a challenging SEC tournament.
“The goal has been the same since August — the goal is to win the national championship,” said senior third baseman Raven Chavanne, who was named Wednesday along with teammate Lauren Gibson as one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year. “But we’re not looking ahead, not even looking to the regionals next week. We’re focused on the SEC tournament right now.”
John Shearer is a freelance contributor.