KNOXVILLE – The pitching math added up in Tennessee’s favor during the Regional round of the NCAA softball tournament last weekend. The Lady Vols outnumbered an opponent’s star pitcher and advanced to a Super Regional showdown at Florida.
The same formula almost worked again for UT. Almost.
Florida’s Kelly Barnhill isn’t just another star pitcher, however. The senior right-hander, a two-time All-American and national player of the year in 2017, threw all three games for the Gators – 383 pitches total. The last 103 were dispatched in 98-degree heat on a cloudless Sunday afternoon at Pressly Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
Like Saturday night, Barnhill worked overtime, going eight innings. Unlike Saturday night, the Lady Vols couldn’t chase her and get into the Gators’ bullpen. She lasted until Jaimie Hoover’s two-out single drove in All-American Amanda Lorenz with the decisive run of Florida’s 2-1 victory.
The victory sent Florida (49-16) to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City for the third consecutive year and the 10th time overall. Tennessee, meanwhile, fell in the super regional round for the third consecutive year. All three times, the Lady Vols have been eliminated by an SEC opponent.
The compliment UT co-head coach Karen Weekly paid Barnhill the night before, after Tennessee outlasted her for a 3-2 victory in nine innings, echoed after Sunday’s effort.
“She’s a heckuva pitcher; she’s a fighter,” Weekly said. “She’s one of the best pitchers in the country right now, if not the best.”
After losing 3-0 to Barnhill in Friday’s series opener, Tennessee (43-17) summoned a determined response in the final two games.
Senior Haley Bearden was responsible for two of the most dramatic moments. With UT the home team, she drew a bases-loaded walk from reliever Natalie Lugo in the bottom of the ninth to win Saturday’s game. On Sunday, she erased UT’s one-run deficit with one swing, hitting Barnhill’s first pitch of the seventh over the right-field wall for a home run.
Junior Caylan Arnold, who outdueled North Carolina ace Brittany Pickett in the decisive game of last week’s regional at Lee Stadium, was brilliant Saturday night, throwing 177 pitches and finishing a marathon that last nearly four hours.
“I felt like in the past when we’ve been in a super regional, my adrenaline has kind of taken over and I didn’t feel that this game,” Arnold said. “I just felt very calm and collected, which I think is what made the difference.”
Under the circumstances, Weekly felt confident in going with Arnold, who’s from nearby Maryville.
“When I handed her the ball (Saturday), I said, ‘You’re our back-to-the-wall girl so let’s get after it,” Weekly said. “She wants the ball and she’s going to get out there and fight for her team.”
Freshman Ashley Rogers, the former Meigs County star, started on Sunday. After a shaky start on Friday, the right-hander bounced back with 7 2/3 innings of impressive work. She allowed six hits and struck out eight. She retired 15 in a row until Lorenz’s one-out double in the eighth set the stage for Hoover’s hit.
Florida’s other run came in the first inning. A short fly ball that fell between two fielders factored greatly in the scoring.
“It should’ve been caught; it should’ve been caught.” UT co-head coach Ralph Weekly lamented during a post-game radio interview on the Vol Network. “We work on that thing all the time.”
In the end, Tennessee could’ve won, too. That’s the biggest disappointment of all.
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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