Dan Fleser: Double Whammy Helped Lady Vols To Win Over Bama

  • Friday, May 24, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

One softball leap immediately led to another Friday afternoon at Lee Stadium.

Alabama’s Kristen White began the pivotal sequence of a Super Regional game with Tennessee. The Crimson Tide’s center fielder had ranged back toward the fence, tracking a soaring fly ball hit by Tennessee’s Laura Mealer. White went airborne trying to prevent an escape. She came down empty-handed. The ball got away.

That was Mealer’s cue to take flight. She had rounded second base and glimpsed what her swing had wrought. The ball’s high bounce of a porch railing behind the fence served as a second confirmation. But Mealer only needed one.

“As soon as I saw (White) come down without the ball,” she said, “It was just the most amazing feeling.”

It was at least two feelings rolled into one jubilant moment for her and her teammates. There was the joy that corresponded with Mealer’s homer, which drove in two runs and capped a three-run fifth inning. There also was the relief associated with erasing a deficit against Alabama, which had been on its front foot from the start in stalking victory.

The Lady Vols (44-10) had to usher the latter feeling through a dicey inning before securing the 3-2 result in the opener. The postgame reaction of both coaches characterized how the game went.

“The only thing we didn’t win out was the final score,” Alabama’s Patrick Murphy said. “This team did not quit. It will not quit.”

The Crimson Tide (36-18) outhit Tennessee 6-3 and stranded seven baserunners.

Several minutes later, Karen Weekly savored her team prevailing in the tug of war over the bottom line.

“In the postseason, a win’s a win,” she said. “We started pretty rough but I’m really proud of them for just hanging in there, hanging in there.”

What Weekly said beforehand to Mealer was more relevant than any after-the-fact review. Mealer had come to UT this season as a transfer from MTSU. Her portal appeal was based largely on a two-homer performance against the Crimson Tide during a regional in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season.

“This week I kind of challenged Laura a little bit to remember who she is,” Weekly said. “I mean, we wanted Laura here because of what we saw her do at MTSU against good competition. She tore up that regional down there last year at Alabama. I said, ‘Laura that’s who you are.’ ”

Mealer’s big fly was preceded by Rylie West’s walk and a two-out error by Alabama second baseman Kali Heivilin on pinch-hitter Gabby Leach’s grounder. Murphy referred to the walk and the error as “the double whammy.”

West, who had stolen second base, scored on the error. Her head-first slide into home plate eluded a tag and survived an official review.

“There was a bit of hesitation coming around third,” West said. “I need to be looking at (third-base coach) Karen, then it wouldn’t have been as close . . . I could’ve been better on that play.”

West had to persevere throughout the game to square her ledger. She answered her two-base error that helped set up an Alabama run in the first inning by fielding a ball off the fence in the sixth and throwing out a base-runner at third. She caught the inning’s final out in foul ground to strand two baserunners.

Karlyn Pickens started and Payton Gottshall finished in relief for Tennessee. Neither pitcher was especially sharp and Weekly wouldn’t commit to a starter for Saturday.

Whoever starts, she had better be better from the beginning. Same goes for the team.

 

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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