By Alex Norman
The Tennessee Lady Vols softball team arrived at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City a confident group, after sweeping through the Regional and Super Regionals with a 5-0 record.
That confidence did nothing but grow after wins over Florida, Washington and Texas advanced the seventh-seeded Lady Vols into the final round.
Unfortunately for Tennessee, top-seed Oklahoma was waiting for them.
Oklahoma was dominant during the regular season, winning 55 of 59 games. They only went to extra innings one time all year. They were the best hitting team in the nation, and they were the best pitching team in the nation.
In Game One (best of three WCWS Championship Series) Sooners pitcher Keilani Ricketts shut down Tennessee’s offense, allowing only two hits through the first ten innings.
But Tennessee hung with them in that first game, thanks to a spectacular performance from senior pitcher Ellen Renfroe.
In the top of the eleventh inning the Lady Vols finally broke through. Madison Shipman smashed a three-run homer to straight away center, and it appeared that Tennessee would be one win away from a national title.
But in the bottom of the eleventh, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Tennessee. With one out a pop-up in the infield was one that the Tennessee defense couldn’t secure. Ricketts ended up on second base. The flood gates opened after that.
The Lady Vols were a single strike away on a few occasions, but couldn’t get that out they needed. Destinee Martinez might have made the final out at third base (the ultimate base running error) but was called safe on a bang-bang play at the bag. The call didn’t go Tennessee’s way.
Oklahoma would eventually tie the game, and then win it in the 12th on a Lauren Chamberlin two-run homer. The Lady Vols, so close to victory, fell 5-3.
“That was a great fast-pitch softball game between two great teams who played their hearts out,” said Lady Vols co-head coach Ralph Weekly.
“Obviously no one likes to lose, so it’s a rough loss,” said Lady Vols shortstop Madison Shipman. “It was a long game. It was a battle between both teams, and like we’ve been doing all season, we try to learn from our losses and try to grow from it. It’s a quick turnaround, so you can’t dwell on it.”
Keilani Ricketts threw an absurd 188 pitches, striking out 13 batters in 12 innings. Ellen Renfroe tossed an almost as absurd 180 pitches in 11+ innings, while also striking out 13 batters.
“There’s no break in the Oklahoma lineup. Every single pitch it’s all you’ve got,” said Renfroe. “So I think more than anything it is emotionally draining. Physically we’ve trained for this all year.””
The Lady Vols had little time to get past the loss. Game Two was the following night. Ivy Renfroe got the start and looked good in the first two innings. But in the third, she made a mistake. Ricketts hit a three-run homer which would turn into all the runs Oklahoma would need.
Tennessee could only muster three hits against Sooners pitcher Michelle Gascoigne. The 4-0 final score gave Oklahoma their second national championship, and sent the Lady Vols home without the title following their sixth WCWS appearance.
“I want to congratulate the University of Oklahoma. They are amazing,” said Weekly. “I know it might have looked like we just weren’t hitting out there. But I tell you, our kids were really trying.”
The Lady Vols softball program has become a perennial SEC and National Championship contender. And Weekly doesn’t see any reason why that should not continue.
“We’re losing some great players, but we had six underclassmen on the field at the end of the game. And we have a number two ranked class coming in,” said Weekly. “You don’t’ reload; you just keep going. You pick up the players to replace the players and try to get going. Obviously freshmen are never as good as seniors, but I think we’ll have a good team next year. I think we’ll be good.”