Tennessee began its quest for a softball national championship on Thursday by first reasserting its SEC dominance.
The conference’s regular season and tournament champion beat league rival Alabama 10-5 at OGE Energy Field, winning for the first time in 10 years at the Women’s College World Series and scoring 10 runs in a WCWS game for the first time in program history.
The victory advanced No. 4 seed Tennessee (50-8) to a date with top-seed Oklahoma at 3 p.m. on Saturday. The two-time defending national champions beat Stanford 2-0 in Thursday’s other afternoon game.
Along with upgrading the team’s SEC profile, the Lady Vols’ hitters also extended several postseason trends.
Katie Taylor added to two of them with one swing when she slammed a two-run, two-run double to the right-field wall to start the scoring in the second inning. The sophomore right-fielder was hitting ninth in Tennessee’s batting order. During the tournament, the sixth-through-nine hitters in UT’s order had a collective .302 batting average and had driven in 12 of the team’s 42 runs. The runs also increased Tennessee’s two-out total to 37, SEC tournament included.
“My gosh, you look at the bottom of our order,” UT coach Karen Weekly said. “You had five hits out of the six, seven, eight, nine (hitters) and a home run and a double. I mean they sparked us. They were the heroes.”
Zaidi Puni added to that two-out total, along with her own profile, by following with another two-run double shortly thereafter. The RBIs gave the third baseman 13 for the NCAA tournament.
All four runs in the inning were unearned since the Crimson Tide was charged with a two-out error.
After No. 5 seed Alabama (45-21) countered with two runs in the third, Jamison Brockenbrough, who batted sixth, reached down for a low pitch from Crimson Tide starter Jaala Torrence and slammed a two-run homer over the center-field fence. It was the freshman designated player’s first homer since March 19 versus LSU.
“I’ve been working on (hitting) that low-and-in pitch,” Brockenbrough said in a postgame ESPN interview. “All that hard work, it just paid off.”
After she drove in five runs in Tennessee’s NCAA opener against Northern Kentucky, Puni said: “I guess this is her postseason Jamison.” Including the SEC tournament championship game, postseason Jamison now has nine hits and 10 RBIs in her last seven games.
McKenna Gibson’s RBI double and Rylie West’s long three-run homer in the fifth put Tennessee (50-8) on the verge of a run-rule victory. The Crimson Tide wouldn’t go that easily, however. Despite losing three of the teams’ four previous meetings, Bama had scored 16 runs against UT. Both starter Ashley Rogers and reliever Payton Gottshall were nicked for runs and labored to put away hitters, recording just one strikeout apiece.
Rogers, who was named an All-American this week, allowed two runs in four innings. During an in-game interview, Weekly said she conferred with Rogers about how she was feeling and added, “She’s giving us a gutsy performance.”
With Tennessee leading 10-2 to start the fifth, Gottshall entered and surrendered two runs. Alabama scored again in the sixth when Marlie Giles homered. The pinch hitter had reached on a hit by pitch but Tennessee challenged the call and it was overturned.
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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 email@example.com.