Saturday afternoon started bad and ended beautifully for Tennessee’s softball team.
The Lady Vols waved to their fans as sunset fell. Rocky Top was blaring over the public-address system.
Tennessee (49-10) celebrated a come-from-behind 5-3 victory over Alabama (45-15) before a sellout crowd of 1,650 fans in an NCAA Super Regional at Lee Stadium — a victory that puts the Lady Vols back in Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series.
“It means everything,” UT third baseman Raven Chavanne said. “It’s not easy. Like Ralph (Weekly, UT co-head coach) said, ‘They’re the defending champion, and they’re not going back.’ So to be lucky enough to go three out of four years, I mean, we’re just really blessed to be able to do that.”
The Lady Vols’ victory over Alabama avoided a third game in the best-of-three series after Tennessee beat the Tide 3-2 Friday.
It was a shaky start for UT.
Alabama’s Kayla Braud led off the bottom of the first with a single off Ivy Renfroe and went to second when left fielder Rainey Gaffin’s throw was off target for an error. Holly Fichtner later hit a two-run single.
In the Crimson Tide’s second, Danae Hays reached on an error by shortstop Madison Shipman. Andrea Hawkins and Braud singled, loading the bases.
Haylie McCleney hit a pop to center fielder Tory Lewis, who dropped the ball, but threw to second for the force out. However, Hays scored for a 3-0 lead.
“We started out very uncharacteristically, not like Tennessee,” Weekly said. “Even the fans were hollering, ‘Fundamentals, fundamentals.’ ”
UT rallied in the third. Lewis singled, Chavanne reached on an error, and Lauren Gibson singled.
Shipman’s sacrifice fly made it 3-1.
UT’s Kat Dotson and Melissa Brown led off the fourth with singles. Gaffin hit a sacrifice fly and Chavanne an RBI single. It was 3-all.
Shipman led off the fifth with a double and scored on Dotson’s sacrifice fly for a 4-3 lead.
“You could definitely feel the momentum shift, and we knew when it did, we had to keep it,” Chavanne said. “We didn’t want Alabama to get up again.”
It didn’t — thanks to the surprise relief effort by Cheyanne Tarango, the starting designated player, in the fifth.
She entered after Renfroe walked Braud and threw the first two pitches to McCleney in the dirt.
Enter Tarango — instead of Ellen Renfroe. Tarango hadn’t pitched in the postseason.
“We didn’t want it to go two, but with that great of an opponent, we figured the game could go two, and Ellen would give us an advantage, when we had warmed up Chey,” Weekly said. “But with those two kids on base, I was stalling a little bit to figure out what to do.”
Tarango, throwing her off-speed pitches, finished walking McCleney, but ended the fifth with a fly ball, popup and line drive to Shipman.
Ellen Renfroe entered starting the sixth, hit the first batter, and retired the next three.
UT added a run in the seventh on Brown’s RBI single.
Ellen Renfroe pitched around a single in the seventh, and soon the Lady Vols were celebrating.
“These kids are who did it and all the credit goes to them,” Weekly said.
Dave Link is a freelance contributor.