Lady Vols sister act rounding into form
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
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.
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."
Games to watch
Alabama at Mississippi State: It's the first of back-to-back weekends of potentially uncomfortable reunions for Alabama coach Patrick Murphy. A week ahead of a series at home against LSU, Alabama travels to Starkville, Miss., to face Mississippi State and coach Vann Stuedeman, who served as Alabama's pitching coach last season. (When Murphy accepted the head coaching job at LSU, before reconsidering, he took assistant Aly Habetz with him but not Stuedeman.) It seems to have worked out for all involved in the end, and there aren't two better people in the business than Murphy and Stuedeman, but the first meeting will carry some extra eyeballs with it.
Arizona State at Oregon: As if the Sun Devils don't have enough big bats with Katelyn Boyd, Annie Lockwood, Alix Johnson and Elizabeth Caporuscio, freshman Haley Steele picked last week's series against rival Arizona to break loose with six RBIs and four extra-base hits. The Sun Devils face both Cal and Washington on the road this season, meaning they can't afford too many stumbles elsewhere on the road if they want to defend their Pac-12 title.
Baylor at Missouri: Baylor isn't going away without a fight. The Bears took a game off Oklahoma last weekend, with Courtney Repka beating Keilani Ricketts with a four-hit shutout in the finale. But with this three-game series at Missouri on the heels of a midweek trip to Texas A&M, it doesn't get any easier. Entering the trip to College Station, Repka is 10-3 with a 0.81 ERA, putting her right on the heels of Ricketts and Tigers ace Chelsea Thomas.
Florida at Georgia: With the combined talent these programs lost to graduation, it's impressive this is still a rivalry series between top-10 teams. This is the start of a challenging week for the Bulldogs, who follow three games at home against the Gators with a midweek doubleheader at Tennessee. Offense took the spotlight in this series a season ago (the Bulldogs outscored the Gators 28-13 in a three-game sweep that marked the low ebb of the latter team's season), but both Florida's Hannah Rogers and Georgia's Erin Arevalo are rolling in the circle so far this season.
Louisville at DePaul: The Blue Demons have taken some lumps against elite competition in recent weeks, losing twice at Alabama last week (in addition to a split against always competitive Longwood) on the heels of losses against Washington and Oklahoma the previous week. But this is still a major test for Louisville, which puts its unbeaten record on the line at Kentucky first on Wednesday night. The Cardinals play out of conference at Tennessee in May, but the trip to Chicago is easily the toughest trip of their conference slate.
Stanford at Arizona: Coming off the wrong end of sweeps, one of these teams is going to begin conference play in a big hole. The Cardinal got six hits from the combination of freshmen Hanna Winter and Leah White at the top of the order in three games against California, but the rest of the lineup added just six more hits. After allowing just six runs in a stretch of 12 games, Arizona allowed 32 in five games last week against New Mexico State and Arizona State.
Tulsa at Texas: It's a busy Saturday for Tulsa, which faces New Mexico in Austin after it plays host Texas. On the wrong end of a 19-4 loss against Louisiana-Lafayette in its opener, Tulsa has slowly climbed back into the Top 25 mix. A win against the Longhorns would arguably prove more than anything remaining on the schedule. Aimee Creger, Tulsa's primary starter, has a 2.81 ERA, but that drops to 2.16 without the ULL loss.
Washington at California: Another week and another huge series in the Pac-12. The pitching combos of Jolene Henderson and Valerie Arioto for Cal and Kaitlin Inglesby and Kasey Stanchek for Washington are a combined 43-1 with a 1.13 ERA. But it's also a matchup of the only two Pac-12 offenses slugging at least .500 with 50 stolen bases. Both teams looked different a season ago, but the series in Seattle was one of just two Cal lost in conference.
Player of the year watch
Mel Dumezich, Texas A&M
Stock up: To be continued in the SEC? Dumezich made sure Texas A&M had the edge in the final Big 12 meeting between the Aggies and Missouri. Beating Tigers ace Chelsea Thomas once is an accomplishment, but Dumezich not only got the best of her twice in head-to-head pitching duels, she provided her own run support with a two-run home run in a 2-1 win against Thomas in the series opener. And given Aggies coach Jo Evans' rather pointed comments about her counterpart, Ehren Earleywine, tipping pitches, it's nice to know the rivalry will live on.
Jolene Henderson, California
Stock up: Even as teammate Valerie Arioto was reminding us how much of a difference she makes, earning Pac-12 Player of the Week honors, Henderson reminded us why Cal still made it to Oklahoma City without Arioto last season. Henderson pitched a pair of shutouts against rival Stanford to improve to 16-1 this season with a 0.91 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 108 innings, the latter a noticeable uptick in her strikeout rate.
Michelle Moultrie, Florida
Stock up: It's easier to run through the plate appearances when she didn't do any damage in a three-game sweep against Arkansas. Moultrie piled up three doubles, two home runs and a stolen base to earn SEC and USA Softball player of the week honors. She isn't waiting until Oklahoma City to put the power in her power-speed combo on full display this season. She's slugging .839, nearly .200 points better than a season ago.
Ashley Rainey, Troy
Stock up: Throwing a four-hitter to beat Auburn early in the week was impressive stuff from the freshman. Holding Louisiana-Lafayette at bay long enough to let Troy's offense come through for a 9-4 win that knocked the Ragin' Cajuns from the ranks of the unbeaten was even better.
Delaney Willard, BYU
Stock up: Well, look which team is leading the WAC. New member BYU opened conference play with a convincing sweep of New Mexico State thanks in large part to Willard. BYU's cleanup hitter totaled three home runs in three games against the Aggies and led her team with a 1.039 slugging percentage and .585 on-base percentage through its first 27 games.
By the numbers
45.1: Missouri junior pitcher Chelsea Thomas had not given up an earned run in 45.1 innings before giving up a game-winning two-run home run to Texas A&M on Friday.
3: Three Pac-12 players have on-base percentages that rank in the top five in the country: California senior Valerie Arioto leads the way at .661 and Arizona State senior Katelyn Boyd (.608) and sophomore Bailey Wigness (.588) rank third and fifth, respectively.
249: Louisiana-Lafayette's Christi Orgeron hit a grand slam against Georgia Tech on Thursday to make her the Ragin' Cajuns' career RBIs leader with 249.
5: Hawaii senior pitcher Stephanie Ricketts threw her fifth career no-hitter in an 8-0 win against San Jose State. On the season, Ricketts is 16-2 with a 0.88 ERA and 139 strikeouts in 120 innings pitched.
17: Alabama has beaten Auburn 17 straight times after beating the Tigers twice in a doubleheader Tuesday.
-- Erin Quinn