Beating Sooners might be relative
Preview: WCWS Championship Series
OKLAHOMA CITY -- It remains to be seen if any team can give Oklahoma a scare in this Women's College World Series.
Tennessee will be the last team to have that opportunity, and it has two arms to throw against what might prove to be the greatest college softball lineup ever put together. And while that doesn't guarantee any wins in the championship round of the World Series, it's undeniably more difficult to lose if the other team doesn't score.
It began to take shape with two young sisters throwing softballs against a brick wall in the parking lot of the high school where their dad taught science.
Ellen and Ivy Renfroe have always been best together, and the Lady Vols need the two aces, with a combined 169-39 career record, at their best for the challenge that begins Monday night. They need to be as good as they were in a 2-1 win against Texas on Sunday.
Tennessee was in an advantageous position Sunday. All it needed to reach the best-of-three championship series for the second time in program history was one win against a Texas team that not only needed to beat the Lady Vols twice but also was playing its second game of the day after an earlier win against Florida in an elimination game.
All the same, two big questions remained unanswered.
First, would Tennessee deal with Blaire Luna's riseball? The Texas All-American and this season's national leader in strikeouts had made life difficult for Tennessee before. In two previous career starts against the SEC team, Luna piled up 30 strikeouts in just 16 innings. Luna thrives on coaxing opponents into swinging at pitches they have little or no chance to do anything productive with even if they make contact. And not many connect with the riseball.
"She has an amazing riseball," Tennessee All-American Lauren Gibson said. "When you watch it on TV, it's like 'Wow, why would you swing at that?' But when you're in the box, the pitch looks so good. And then all of a sudden it jumps out of nowhere. It's probably one of the best riseballs I've seen in my career."
As comfortable as any player after three trips to the World Series and two summers with Team USA (which calls the stadium an unofficial home), Gibson provided a quick answer. The third player to the plate in the top of the first inning, the slugger who stands 5-foot-6 went just far enough up the ladder to connect with a rise that didn't rise enough and drove it over the left-field wall for a 1-0 lead.
Luna finished with 12 strikeouts, and Tennessee certainly swung and missed at that riseball plenty of times. But building off the comfort of an early lead and a foothold, the Lady Vols also drew eight walks, including one with the bases loaded by pinch hitter Lexi Overstreet that brought home Gibson for the second and eventual winning run. Three of the pitches Overstreet took for balls were riseballs.
The bigger question, both for the game in question and Tennessee's prospects in any games that might follow, was whether Ivy Renfroe would rise to the occasion. The Lady Vols rotated the sisters for most of the season, but Ellen started and went the distance in wins against Florida and Washington to open the World Series. That after she also closed out the super regional clincher against Alabama, when Ivy was pulled after a sudden and inexplicable loss of control.
Control problems at this time of year, when pressure mounts and practice time shrinks, can lodge themselves deep enough in even a good pitcher's psyche so as to make her a liability.
Told she would get the start against Texas the previous night, Ivy walked the first batter of the game. She then proceeded to blow pitches that registered up to 71 mph past Longhorns for the better part of five innings.
"I take this game really seriously sometimes, and I just remembered to have fun and enjoy the moment," Ivy said by way of explaining the turnaround.
That fits the personality profile. Ivy is the older sister, but ask her what she most admires about her younger sister's game and she comes up with Ellen's focus and body language.
"I would say Ivy's more laid back, kind of loose; Ellen's more serious," Gibson said. "Ellen definitely has a funny personality, but she's more serious, whereas Ivy's always very giggly. I think that kind of shows on the field, too. Ivy's very relaxed when she's out on the field, while Ellen has that very serious face."
When Ivy did hit a rough patch in the fifth, Texas runners reaching second and third with two outs, Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly brought in Ellen. A completely different style of pitcher, despite their shared background, Ellen picked up the save with 2⅓ innings of relief.
On one hand, they form a perfect pitching partnership, the petty jealousies or oil-and-water personalities that might pop up elsewhere absent among sisters who really are each other's biggest fans. On the other hand, try finding two competitive pitchers whose existences are more intertwined.
"I think it's a pleasant thing to have sisters on the team, and I think in other facets it's a problem because there is so much love between them and so much love in the family," Weekly said after the win against Washington on Saturday. "But they've done such a great job in putting the team first, both of them. It's never been a problem. But it's just an interesting scenario, let me put it that way."
The challenge ahead is, well, daunting. The Sooners have already scored 82 runs in the NCAA tournament. Without even playing a game yet in the championship round, that's already more than nine of the past 10 national champions scored in their entire postseason runs. There is world-class power in the top half of the lineup and speed and contact in the bottom half -- bats that wouldn't be in the bottom half of just about any other lineup.
Not to mention that runs are going to be hard to come by against Oklahoma ace Keilani Ricketts, the two-time reigning national player of the year.
Or that the record-breaking crowds have a certain audible affection for the local team in what is a neutral venue in name only.
Washington tried to put up a fight Sunday, but the weight of earlier tape-measure home runs from Lauren Chamberlain and Ricketts seemed to hang over the attempted rally, reminders that the Sooners always had more in reserve.
"Right now, we're a team that's peaking," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said after a 6-2 win. "We're playing very, very good softball. All the way through the lineup everyone is contributing. Even those guys that are waiting off the bench, coming in to run for us, everybody is locked in to this. And it's really exciting."
All of that is Monday's concern for Tennessee. In the moment Sunday night, the smiles spoke only to the fact that Ellen and Ivy earned the right to spend what are likely their final games together pitching for a national championship.
"It's just tremendous for us to be able to come here together," Ivy said. "For me to come with Ellen -- and [freshman non-pitching reserve and youngest sister] Anna, too -- it's really cool. It's really awesome for the Lord to be able to bless us like that and to come to the World Series. All softball players dream of coming to the Series, and to come with my sisters, it's really cool."
That will remain true whatever the scoreboard says. But it would be that much more memorable if there are some zeros lined up out there in the Oklahoma night.
"I definitely think it's an amazing opportunity for all three of us to be here together," Ellen added. "Just something that I think all three of us will cherish for the rest of our lives."