Tennessee softball coach, players after win over Florida
OKLAHOMA CITY — Forget close. Forget extra innings. Forget history.
In a script that defied a track record of tedious nail-biting between two SEC archrivals, Tennessee routed Florida 9-2 Thursday on opening day of softball’s grand event, the Women’s College World Series.
And the view looks so much better from the winners’ bracket.
The No. 7 seed Lady Vols (50-10) are back at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium on Friday (TV: ESPN, 7 p.m.) to face Washington (45-15), the No. 11 seed who wasn’t even supposed to be here but beat Nebraska 4-3 in eight innings Thursday.
“It’s definitely good to get that first win under your belt,’’ said UT senior outfielder Kat Dotson who wore out Florida with three hits, three RBIs and scored two runs.
“After last year we had a lot to prove. We wanted to come out and say, ‘We’re here, we came to play this year.’ ’’
The UT-Washington winner gets Saturday off. The loser plays an elimination game Saturday night.
Last year, Tennessee bowed out quietly, losing its first two games for the first time in five WCWS appearances.
To avoid a similar dispiriting trip into the losers’ bracket, they had to conquer a longtime nemesis.
Florida (57-8), the No. 2 seed, had won 17 of the past 20 games from UT, took two of three this year in March and nudged the Lady Vols out of the SEC regular season title by percentage points on the final day of the regular season.
The past four UT-Florida games had gone eight innings to reach a verdict.
This time, Tennessee trumped Florida’s ace.
Taking advantage of a wild start by Florida All-American Hannah Rogers, Tennessee struck for a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning and never trailed.
Ellen Renfroe (18-4) made it stand up, fashioning a four-hitter.
Rogers (33-6) threw only 24 pitches before getting the hook. She retired just one of five batters and walked three, including Cheyanne Tarango to force in the game’s first run.
“It’s not something we expected,’’ said UT senior third baseman Raven Chavanne. “She’s a great pitcher, a first-team All-American. She just didn’t have her best stuff.’’
Rogers started Melissa Brown off with two balls and that was it. Lauren Haeger reported from the bullpen and was greeted by Brown’s two-run double to make it 3-0.
That’s how it stayed for a while. But a crowd of 7,911 would get some drama after all.
Florida got to Renfroe for two runs in the fifth — shortly after ESPN’s camera caught her snacking on a turkey sandwich in the top of the inning.
“It didn’t work too well,’’ she said later with a laugh.
But it could have been worse. She got Taylor Schwarz to tap out an infield grounder leaving the bases loaded and UT’s 3-2 lead intact going to the sixth.
At which point, Lady Vols co-head coach Ralph Weekly, delivered a timely message.
Weekly: “I told ’em ‘You’re not going to back into a championship. You’ve got to be explosive and be explosive right now or they’ll come and take it from you.’ ’’
How’s this for explosive? Hannah Akamine’s leadoff single ignited a four-run rally that included two Florida errors and saw Dotson rope a two-run double down the right-field line, followed by Lauren Gibson slicing an RBI double down the left-field line.
Dotson wasn’t done yet.
She smacked a triple to the center-field fence in the seventh, driving in the ninth run.
“I just always do really well against Florida,’’ Dotson said. “No matter home or away, I do well and feel confident.
“It just feels natural and I don’t have to think too much.’’
The nine runs were the most allowed by Florida all season. The Gators’ seven previous losses were by a combined nine runs.
From a familiar foe, the focus now turns to an unfamiliar one. UT and Washington have played four times, the most recent in 2009, each winning twice.
The Huskies upset Missouri in a Super Regional to return to the site of their 2009 national championship.
On Thursday, Nebraska had one foot in the winner’s bracket, leading 3-2 going into the bottom of the seventh.
But the Huskies tied it when Victoria Hayward tripled and scored on a sacrifice bunt by Hooch Nagaly.
Then 5-foot-3 Kimberlee Souza ended it in the eighth with a walk-off home run over the left-field fence.
Washington recorded only three hits — two home runs and a triple. Winning pitcher Kaitlin Inglesby clobbered a two-run shot in the first.
“In the conference we come from you pitch well, play great defense and get that timely hit,’’ said Washington coach Heather Tarr, “so we’re used to it.’’
It’s safe to say Tennessee’s coaching staff burned the midnight oil Thursday night into Friday morning assembling a dossier on the Huskies.
“I only know what I saw on television,’’ Weekly said. “I just know they’re good.’’
Follow Mike Strange on Twitter at Strangemike44.