Tennessee Headed To College World Series Title Game After 4-1 Win Over Aggies

Dan Fleser: Soft Liner Helped Lady Vols Advance To Super Regionals

  • Monday, May 20, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

The softball struck by Tennessee’s Rylie West didn’t threaten an outfield fence. The soft line drive barely cleared Virginia’s shortstop before settling to the grass before the charging left fielder.

Yet the single had the same effect as the no-doubt solo home runs crushed by teammates Kiki Milloy and Taylor Pannell in the first inning a day earlier. West’s hit drove in two runs just the same in the Lady Vols’ first at-bat on Sunday and there was no doubting the significance.

“I think that’s an important piece,” Virginia coach Joanna Hardon said. “Momentum is real in this game.”

The piece Hardon referenced was Gibraltar-like with Karlyn Pickens on the mound. The Lady Vols’ sophomore allowed only two hits and threw an economical 74 pitches in the 6-0 shutout that clinched the NCAA Regional Championship at Lee Stadium.

Tennessee (43-10) advanced to next weekend’s Super Regional at home against SEC rival Alabama.

Small wonder that Hardon followed her measure of UT’s early advantage by commending Pickens.

“She’s legit,” the coach said.

On this weekend, Pickens was doubly so, throwing a pair of shutouts. Her performances bookended Payton Gottshall’s five-inning shutout of the Cavaliers in Saturday’s 12-0 run-rule victory. Collectively, the UT pitching duo allowed seven combined hits and stranded nine total baserunners in three regional games.

“That’s huge,” UT coach Karen Weekly said. “I doubt that’s being done at any other regional in the country.”

Pickens set the tone on Sunday by striking out Virginia’s best hitter – leadoff batter Jade Hylton – on three pitches to start the game. Pickens never threw more than 18 pitches in an inning. She trailed in the pitch count only seven times and walked one. The Cavaliers got two baserunners as far as second base, which constituted their only scoring threats.

West, meanwhile, was no less productive with her next two at-bats. She was noisier, however. The senior left-fielder hit a second liner in the third inning and this one struck the left-field fence, driving in two runs. In the fifth, she worked the pitch count full against reliever Madison Harris before really making a racket. West sent a majestic arching drive over both the outfield fence and the makeshift tarp wall behind it.

“Everyone was pretty locked in with what they wanted, just the game plan in general, so that made it a lot easier to see the ball and attack what I got,” West said.

In the two victories against Virginia, West saw her way to four hits, including another homer, and nine RBI.

After being routed by the Lady Vols on Saturday, a chastened Hardon said: “Sometimes you’re in the driver seat. Sometimes you’re a bug that gets squashed on the front of the windshield.”

A day later, after a second shutout victory over high-scoring Miami (Ohio) late Saturday night to stave off elimination and a better second effort against the hosts, Hardon was moved to tears by her team’s play in the program’s first NCAA appearance since 2010.

“What a helluva year,” she said. “I don’t know if I can say that.”

Tennessee’s year goes on and as for Weekly’s emotions? She couldn’t be happier.

“Yesterday and today, (the players) were just locked in and really, really enjoying competing,” she said. “That’s what makes me the happiest.”

In other Tennessee sports this weekend:

Baseball: The Vols swept a weekend series with South Carolina and earned a share of the SEC regular season championship with Kentucky.

Tennessee (46-10, 22-8 SEC) was one of just four teams to top 20 victories in conference play. Eight teams finished under .500. Coach Tony Vitello’s perspective on the championship reflected the disparity.

“That’s very difficult to do,” he said. “Congrats to anyone in this league that finished with a winning record.”

Tennis: While the Lady Vols season ended with a 4-1 to Texas A&M early Sunday morning in Stillwater, Okla., the finish was noteworthy for happening in the Final Four of the NCAA Championships. They had beaten UCLA the previous night to become the first No. 16 seed to advance to that point. The Lady Vols last reached the Final Four in 2002, when coach Alison Ojeda was a player.

“We have said for this entire year that there is just something really special about this group,” Ojeda said.

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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 member of the Tennessee Sportswriters and the U.S. Basketball Writers Halls of Fame. He can be reached at danfleser3@gmail.com.

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