Tennessee is Oklahoma City-bound

May, 28, 2010

Tennessee's place in the bracket of this year's Women's College World Series was best written lightly in pencil, if written at all. The tournament's No. 15 seed, after a fifth-place finish in the SEC, the Lady Vols entered the postseason with a freshman and a sophomore in the circle, a lineup littered with even more youth, and worst of all, No. 2 Michigan blocking their path.

Yet the Lady Vols are going to Oklahoma City. And if this trip is a surprise, it may also be all the evidence needed to trade pencil for chisel and lend some permanence to the program's profile.

Southern Mississippi made a pair of trips to the Women's College World Series when it had Courtney Blades to hand the ball to in the circle. It hasn't been back since. Texas hasn't traveled north after Memorial Day since Cat Osterman made the last of three appearances in the World Series. And Virginia Tech sightings have been few and far between since Angela Tincher left.

By completing a sweep of the Wolverines with a 4-3 win in Ann Arbor, Tennessee has etched its name in the stone of softball's story as more than just the place where Monica Abbott pitched.

"I'm not naive enough to think we've totally arrived yet," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said by phone Friday night. "And I know there are some great teams going and some great teams that aren't -- I mean, I thought Michigan was fantastic. I just thought they were a great team and well-coached and all that and the other. But I do really think we're becoming a program to be reckoned with."

The Lady Vols needed just three seasons to make it back to the World Series without Abbott, who left Knoxville as the NCAA's all-time leader in strikeouts, wins and shutouts but without the NCAA championship that was as close as one win away by the time she was a senior. That's not a long time to retool a roster by just about any standard other than the ones familiar to Arizona and UCLA, but patience is not a luxury at the top of the mountain.

Exit at the hands of Tincher and Virginia Tech in regionals, as Tennessee did at home in 2008, and it's hard to miss the contrast of a program with a once-in-a-lifetime pitcher eliminating a program trying to move on without the same. Exit at the hands of mid-major Jacksonville State in regionals, as Tennessee did at home again in 2009, and whispers become something louder.

Tennessee was good enough, the thinking went, but only Abbott made it great.

"It didn't bother me because, in the first place, Tennessee is a great place to be," Weekly said. "We've got a fantastic stadium, and we've got a great financial base and a great fan base. And I knew we were on the right track. I mean, I've been around a long time, and [co-coach and wife Karen Weekly] is a really hardworking coach. So it didn't bother me, but it just drove me more."

Just how much it drove both Weeklys is evident from the roster that has yet to drop a game in the NCAA tournament. Three freshmen and three sophomores were in the starting lineup for the second game against Michigan, and when freshman pitcher Ivy Renfroe is in the circle, as the team's de facto ace increasingly is on a regular basis, it's four freshman starters. More than half of the players who take the field for the Lady Vols never played a game with Abbott. There are veterans -- seniors Erin Webb and Nicole Kajitani (nicknamed "Peanut" for a reason at 5-foot-3) combined for three home runs in Friday's clincher -- and Tiffany Huff and Kelly Grieve lead.

But this is a new Tennessee. A very good Tennessee.

A potentially great Tennessee.

"We don't in any way think we're any better than anyone else, but we think we're building a pretty good program," Weekly said. "And everybody would say, 'Well, yeah, but you can't go back without Monica.' So we're really happy about that."

Not long after the Lady Vols clinched passage to the World Series, Weekly got a text message from a coaching peer. Five words that said it all.

"Monica has left the building."

And the walls she helped build aren't about to come tumbling down.

Athens Super Regional: Third in the SEC in home runs and third in the nation in slugging percentage, No. 6 Georgia's batters take bases in bunches. The last thing an opponent can afford to do is aid the cause. But that's exactly what doomed No. 11 California from the outset in the opening game of the best-of-three series.

Instead of trailing 1-0 after Alisa Goler's home run in the first inning, the Bears found themselves down three runs because of a walk that put Taylor Schlopy on base ahead of Goler and a subsequent error that allowed an unearned run to cross the plate on what would have been the third out. California starting pitcher Valerie Arioto, whose own tremendous hitting eye at the plate makes her as much of an on-base machine as just about anyone in the country, issued six walks in the circle against the Bulldogs. That after she walked just six in her previous 31 innings, including starts against some dangerous offensive teams in Arizona, UCLA and Ohio State.

On this particular day, given the Bears couldn't plate any runs against Sarah McCloud, perhaps the extra runs were irrelevant. But it also suggests that California, whether Arioto or freshman standout Jolene Henderson starts the second game in the circle, can play much better than it did Friday. And that Georgia will punish it if it doesn't.

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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