Dan Fleser: Alabama's Valentine Provided The Fireworks To Sink The Lady Vols

  • Sunday, May 26, 2024
  • Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser
Dan Fleser

The thunder came before the lightning on Sunday afternoon.

This wasn’t a case of Mother Nature playing some meteorological trick on the softball gathering at Lee Stadium. It was all Alabama’s doing, specifically Riley Valentine. The Crimson Tide’s designated player swatted a ball that eluded Tennessee left-fielder Rylie West’s leaping attempt at a catch and disappeared over the fence for a grand slam.

The lightning did arrive shortly thereafter and the game was halted for nearly three hours. The delay didn’t amount to a reprieve. Save for a seventh-inning rally, the Lady Vols never recovered and lost 4-1 in the Super Regional’s decisive third game. The game ended with UT star Kiki Milloy grounding out with the bases loaded.

Valentine’s homer was a staggering follow-up to a 14-inning loss on Saturday in which UT stranded 18 baserunners.

Sunday’s game reflected three trends, one that began with Alabama’s first at-bat on Friday and two others that materialized throughout the weekend, stranding UT a victory short of the Women’s College World Series.   

Fast start: The booming start marked the third time Alabama (38-18) grabbed the lead in the first inning. The effect was to put Tennessee (44-12) on its heels while the Crimson Tide got to its front foot.

The Lady Vols were an out away from avoiding any damage in the decisive game. But a diving West couldn’t get Kenleigh Cahalan’s soft liner, which fell for a single. Starting pitcher Payton Gottshall then hit two batters before hanging a curve to Valentine. The rest, along with Tennessee’s season as it turned out, was history.

Kristen White: Alabama’s leadoff hitter was the catalyst for the other first-inning scoring. Along with amassing four hits, the slap-hitter speed factored into two early errors by UT on Friday and Saturday. In both instances, the Lady Vols seemed more anxious thereafter.

White’s most important hit went into the scorebook as a fielder’s choice. She chopped a bases-loaded grounder to shortstop and teammate Lauren Johnson beat the throw home to score the winning run of Saturday’s marathon.

“I honestly wanted the bat in my hands in that moment,” White said. “ . . . It was very gratifying and just an amazing experience.”

Tennessee, which went scoreless for 16 consecutive innings spanning Saturday and Sunday, ought to consider adding a hitter like White to enhance its chances of pressuring opposing defenses, manufacturing runs and avoiding such droughts. Incoming freshman Saviya Morgan previews as this sort of player.

Role reversal: After Laura Mealer’s homer off Alabama starter Kayla Beaver gave Tennessee the Game One victory, the Crimson Tide wrested both storylines from the Lady Vols.

Alabama matched UT’s total homers with two of its own and Valentine’s did the most damage.

Beaver and fellow starter Jocelyn Briski also outdueled Tennessee’s more celebrated duo of Gottshall and Karlyn Pickens.

Beaver threw 10 shutout innings in relief on Saturday and finished on Sunday after freshman Briski had pitched six scoreless innings.

The final reversal was a team that went 10-14 in SEC play and lost eight of its final 11 regular season games advancing to Oklahoma City and the conference regular season champions staying home.

 

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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