Originally Published: March 28, 2012
Tennessee Athletics/AP PhotoTennessee relies on the Renfroe sister pitching duo of sophomore Ellen, left, and junior Ivy.

Lady Vols sister act rounding into form

By Graham Hays

It's no surprise that Ellen Renfroe was in the circle when Tennessee handed Alabama its first loss of the season, knocking the Crimson Tide from the ranks of the unbeaten and the No. 1 ranking with a 5-2 win on the road last Wednesday. After adding to her totals in her team's subsequent five wins against Mississippi State and Furman, Renfroe is 18-1 with a 0.92 ERA and 183 strikeouts in 136.2 innings and perhaps the early front-runner for top SEC pitching honors.

The surprise is that when it comes to Tennessee's long-term prospects this season, Ellen's win might have been just the second most important result a Renfroe earned that night in Tuscaloosa.

Though Tennessee dropped the doubleheader opener in heartbreaking fashion, losing 3-2 in 11 innings, it got the kind of pitching performance it had been waiting on from junior Ivy Renfroe, Ellen's older sister. The sisters split starts essentially equally last season, but Ivy entered the Alabama twin bill with an ERA on the wrong side of 3.00.

She went the distance in the extra-inning loss, striking out 14 and allowing just five hits. And what looked like a tactical gambit by the Lady Vols, saving Ellen for the second game to avoid throwing her against Alabama ace Jackie Traina, instead turned into one of the season's most memorable games.

Ivy followed that performance with a five-hit shutout against Mississippi State over the weekend and a one-hit shutout against Furman on Tuesday. She ran into some trouble in another outing against Mississippi State, but the overall impression was of a pitcher who might have turned a corner. About three weeks ago, her ERA languishing and her record hovering around .500, Ivy started working not just with pitching coach Marty McDaniel on the physical side of things in the circle, but more closely with co-coach Karen Weekly on the mental side of things.

"Ivy pitched us into the World Series in 2010," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said after the Alabama series. "And Marty is a very good technical pitching coach, but Karen calls the pitches and she's more of a mental pitching coach. So we put Ivy, with Marty's approval, Marty and Karen have worked with her every day. … With her, it's more of a mental thing, knowing how good she can be. Because she can be really good. So I think that's started to take hold. We just kind of really combined the mental part of pitching with the physical part of pitching, and I think this is going to be a permanent improvement.

"I know she's going to have tough games like any other pitcher, but I think we're on the right track."

Seeing a chance to steal the first game against the Crimson Tide, the Lady Vols could have turned to Ellen and taken their chances in the second game. But Weekly had one message for Ivy as the game reached what proved to be its midpoint but which would normally have been its final innings. The game was going to be Ivy's to win or lose because the Lady Vols will need both sisters if they want to make a run at an SEC title or a return to the World Series.

"I said it's more important for us for you to finish this game. Win or lose, it's important for you to finish this game, not to pull you out and put Ellen in," Weekly recalled telling Ivy. "That's what we did. And we did lose the game, but I think we gained more through that loss."

A tricky run of conference play that begins with this weekend's series against Kentucky will reveal more about the extent of those gains.

As Traina goes, so will the Tide

By Graham Hays

Alabama has done everything a program can do in softball, right up to the moment when it all falls apart in Oklahoma City.

So it's more than a little intriguing to see Jackie Traina making herself so at home in the moment.

Alabama's sophomore pitching ace was at it again Tuesday. Traina pitched both ends of a doubleheader against in-state rival Auburn, coming away with 18 strikeouts and just five hits allowed in wins that improved the Tide to 32-1 this season and 9-1 in SEC play. That wrapped up a stretch of 15 games in 19 days that included midweek doubleheaders against Tennessee and Auburn and a trip to Oregon.

[+] Enlarge
John Korduner/Icon SMIJackie Traina pitched 11 innings, striking out 15, to lead Alabama to a 3-2 win over Tennessee.

Traina got the best of Oregon ace Jessica Moore on the excursion to Pac-12 country, a trip plagued with travel woes, striking out 10 in a three-hitter and driving in the go-ahead run against the Ducks with a bases-loaded walk. That proved to be just a warm-up for last Wednesday's game against Tennessee. Facing a team that has had more luck than any in scratching out hits against her, she struck out 15 batters in 11 innings and ended the marathon with a walk-off home run to dead center that cleared the fence with plenty of room to spare.

It's impressive that Traina is 19-0 with 158 strikeouts in 116 innings in the circle and ranks among team leaders with a 1.112 OPS at the plate. Those are the kind of numbers that can help a team get to the World Series. Traina's penchant for delivering in the biggest moment is what can put a team over the top in Oklahoma City.

"I think she knows now that she's kind of like the stud," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said last week. "There's a kind of presence about her. She's kind of relishing in the role -- she won't say that out loud; she's very unassuming and she's never had a big ego. I think she relishes in the role and I think she wants the ball, obviously. I think she's fearless. I think she loves the pressure. Some kids melt, and I think she goes the other way, and she just thrives."

That was the thought in Murphy's mind when he walked onto the field in the fourth inning of a scoreless tie against Stanford in the winner-take-all third game of the Tuscaloosa super regional last year. With runners on first and second and one out, he asked catcher Kendall Dawson how much senior ace Kelsi Dunne had left after a long weekend of work and saw all he needed by way of reply in Dawson's eyes. Murphy handed the ball, and his team's chances to avoid a second consecutive super regional exit at home, to Traina. She got out of the inning, striking out USA Softball Player of the Year Ashley Hansen, and pitched three more innings of no-hit relief.

And in what has now seemingly become Traina's style, she scored the winning run herself.

Alabama has question marks. It could use a reliable arm behind Traina, a fact driven home when it lost the second game of the doubleheader against Tennessee. It needs to shore up its defense. But whether it's a trip to the West Coast or a long night in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide have someone to follow when the moment arrives.

"She's got that second level, that next gear, where she brings everybody with her," Murphy said. "Not many kids have that. I think they're few and far between nowadays. I think she's got it."


You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?