Dan Fleser: Puni, Rogers Have Lady Vols Within A Game Of Women’s College World Series

  • Friday, May 26, 2023
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

Tennessee’s Zaida Puni spoke from her heart on Friday when asked about softball teammate Ashley Rogers. In reaching so deep, Puni worried whether tears would interrupt her words.

“It’s been an amazing two years playing with her,” Puni said.

Rogers was sitting right next to Puni in the postgame interview room after the Lady Vols 5-2 victory over Texas in an NCAA Super Regional game at Lee Stadium. As she listened, her tears flowed more freely. The lights caught their reflection under her eyes as she dabbed at them. She interrupted Puni’s testimonial at one point with a quiet, heart-felt, “Oh thanks.”

Their teammates should have done this duty in gratitude for the work Puni and Rogers did in moving Tennessee (48-8) within one victory of reaching the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2015.

Puni slugged a two-out, three-run homer in the second inning. The third baseman’s fifth homer of the tournament, which capped a four-run inning, left the ballpark like a comet. The celebratory yell she roared immediately after the ball left her bat served as the vapor trail. It was yet another loud moment born from a calm, quiet approach.

“I think when I take a deep breath before every at-bat, it just calms me,” she said. “But I guess it comes down to my preparation. I trust my preparation . . . when I come into the game, I’m not trying to do too much.”

Puni’s homer turned out to be a game-breaker because Rogers wouldn’t crack. Puni lauded the former Meigs County High standout’s competitiveness and Friday’s performance was a prime example. Rogers navigated eight Texas hits, stranding two baserunners in three separate innings while allowing just the two runs.

Rogers ended two of those innings with strikeouts. Coach Karen Weekly visited the pitcher’s circle the third time, which was the sixth inning, for what Rogers described as nothing more than “a little breather for a second.” Rogers ended that threat by getting Texas’ Leighann Goode, who was second on the team in homers, to ground to Lady Vols second baseman Destiny Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who earlier had a hit, was in the lineup because usual starter Lair Beautae had suffered a concussion in practice during the week. Rodriguez took a blow on the play to tag out a baserunner for an inning-ending fielder’s choice play.

Tennessee center-fielder Kiki Milloy short-circuited any possible drama in the seventh by racing back toward the fence and reaching over her shoulder to snag leadoff hitter Mia Scott’s drive, turning a possible extra-base hit into an out.

“That was freaking awesome, over the shoulder,” said Rogers, who pointed at Milloy after the catch. “I don’t know how she caught that.”

It wasn’t easy. Saturday won’t be any different, Weekly said.

“You can’t go into tomorrow thinking, ‘Oh wow, win this we go to the World Series.’ We’ll fall on our face,” she said, “or, “Oh wow, we’ve got one win, we’re almost there.’ We’ll fall on our face.

“We just have to play in the moment, one pitch at a time. Find the joy in competing.”

* * *

Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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