Tennessee heads into the NCAA softball tournament this weekend holding numerous advantages.
The Lady Vols are loaded with elite talent, up and down the lineup. The top half of the order, in particular, can hit the cover off the ball.
Softball is so much about pitching. Tennessee (44-10) has not one, but two, seasoned stoppers in sisters Ivy and Ellen Renfroe.
They know they’ll enjoy the home-field advantage, potentially all the way to Oklahoma City. Lee Stadium should be rocking — and intimidating to the visitors.
Postseason experience? The seniors have been to the Women’s College World Series twice in the past three years.
There’s just one nagging omission:
Momentum. The Lady Vols are not exactly on a roll.
Tennessee begins regional play Friday night against Big South Conference champion Longwood (41-18) having lost four of its past six games.
From March 19 through April 21, Tennessee reeled off 19 consecutive wins, 13 of them in the nation’s toughest conference, the SEC. The Lady Vols were ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation.
Lately, the juggernaut has become a jugger-not.
A 2-1 loss to Arkansas on April 26 ended the spree. After three consecutive rainouts, UT lost two of three games in a cold, wet, miserable weekend at Missouri.
A win over South Carolina in the SEC tournament was followed by another loss to Missouri.
The questions are:
What happened? And, more important, is it a big concern going into the tournament?
“I think our team is still competitive and I think we can play with anybody in the country,’’ co-head coach Ralph Weekly said.
Three of the four losses have a common thread: UT ran into a hot pitcher and got shut down.
Kimmy Beasley of Arkansas is All-SEC and among the nation’s strikeout leaders.
Missouri’s Chelsea Thomas threw a no-hitter against the Lady Vols in Columbia, then beat them 3-0 in the SEC tournament.
“I give all the credit to Chelsea Thomas,’’ said UT’s All-America senior Lauren Gibson. “She pitched two amazing games.’’
Weekly calls Thomas the best pitcher in the country. To his credit, he said that before the series at Missouri.
Tennessee is one of the liveliest offensive teams in the nation. But great pitching can still prevail in softball. Monica Abbott routinely silenced potent bats from 2004-07.
The fourth loss was different. Missouri outslugged UT 12-8, the most runs allowed since 2009. For one rare afternoon, neither Renfroe was effective.
Throw that one out as a fluke. The greater threat from here on is the dominant pitcher.
The Lady Vols will see strong pitching this weekend, especially from N.C. State (33-18-1) and James Madison (41-15). If they survive and advance, they’ll likely face a great pitcher in Alabama’s Jackie Traina in a Super Regional.
Losing Melissa Davin — she was injured at Missouri — doesn’t help. Still, Tennessee’s batters have hit too well for too long to go meekly into the offseason.
“We’ll get out of the hole,’’ Gibson said. “It’ll happen.’’
Come to think of it, there’s another advantage Tennessee has:
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.
Game 1 — N.C. State (33-18) vs. James Madison (41-15), 3:30 p.m.
Game 2 — Longwood (41-18) at Tennessee (44-10), 6 p.m.
Game 3 — Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1:30 p.m.
Game 4 — Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 4 p.m.
Game 5 — Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, 6:30 p.m.
Game 6 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 1:30 p.m.
x-Game 7 — Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 4 p.m.