KNOXVILLE – North Carolina’s fans didn’t take up much space at Lee Stadium Sunday afternoon but the Tar Heels faithful did their sabbath best to make a lot of joyful noise on behalf of their pitcher.
Whenever Brittany Pickett got two strikes on a Tennessee softball hitter, the fans stamped their feet, clapped their hands in rhythmic fashion and chanted “K-time.” They were imploring North Carolina’s junior left-hander to record another strikeout and Pickett delivering her fair share.
She rang up eight during a dominant two-hit 1-0 shutout of the Lady Vols.
The outcome forced a decisive second NCAA Regional game with a trip to next weekend’s Super Regional at stake.
Pickett returned to the mound and struck out four more Lady Vols. But UT outnumbered her with two fresh pitchers in starter Caylan Arnold and reliever Matty Moss. First baseman Ashley Morgan eventually struck back with a two-run double in the fifth inning for a 2-0 victory.
The only chant heard thereafter was “Lady-Vols.”
The win advanced No. 12 seed Tennessee (42-15) to a best-of-three series at No. 5 Florida in Gainesville, Fla. The winner advances to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
The Lady Vols will have some experience on their side, having won two of three games at Florida in early March to begin SEC play. But now its May and the circumstances are different.
“It’s going to be really, really tough, just like today was,” UT co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “I turned to somebody in the dugout about the fifth inning and said ‘welcome to postseason softball.’ This is what it’s all about: nail-biter games that turn on one mistake.”
The Lady Vols have reached the Super Regional round for the 11th time overall and eighth time since 2010. Perhaps the biggest difference between last season – when they were dispatched in two games at Georgia – and now is having a third capable pitcher.
Freshman Ashley Rogers, the former Meigs County High standout, has rounded out UT’s pitching trio in impressive fashion. She added some postseason entries to her season’s log, beginning with a dominant two-hit 8-0 shutout of Longwood in Friday’s first game. It was Rogers’ first action since May 3 and she appeared to benefit from the break in getting her 21st win.
“Coming in as a freshman, it’s definitely a challenge, just because it’s so mentally exhausting,” she said. “Every single game you have to be locked in and on your toes, which is pretty much the deciding factor every single game or somebody will beat you. It’s just something you have to just practice and build up over time.”
Rogers faced Pickett in Sunday’s first game and allowed only two hits as well. Rogers matched Pickett strikeout for strikeout but surrendered a home run to Kristina Burkhardt in the sixth inning.
Arnold, a junior from Maryville who won 26 games last season, offered the best evidence to date that she’s rounding back into form, allowing four hits in the second game and striking out six in six innings.
“We need all of our pitchers to be at their best this time of year,” Weekly said. “And I think you saw this weekend how we needed every single one of them.”
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org