KNOXVILLE — The outfield wall at Lee Softball Stadium is getting another graphic.
The Tennessee softball team is returning to the Women's College World Series.
The Lady Volunteers, trailing defending national champion Alabama 3-0 after two innings, rallied to a 5-3 win to clinch the best-of-three NCAA super regional and advance to the sport's biggest stage for the third time in four years.
"It means everything," said Raven Chavanne, Tennessee's senior All-America third baseman and leadoff batter. "It's not easy. They are the defending national champions and they're not going back, so to be lucky enough to go three out of four years, we're just really blessed to be able to do that. I'm so incredibly thankful and just happy.
"[It's different] maybe it's because it's my senior year and I didn't want my last game to be in Knoxville, even though I love it. I wanted my last games to be in Oklahoma City, so it means a little more."
Since taking the reins of the Lady Vols' program as co-head coaches in 2002 after five seasons at UT-Chattanooga, husband and wife Ralph and Karen Weekly have led Tennessee to six World Series appearances (2005-07, 2010, 2012) in the last nine seasons.
"I think we're in good shape," Ralph Weekly said after celebrating with his players and staff. "We have a top-five recruiting class coming in next year. [Alabama coach] Patrick Murphy said years ago that they don't reload and the tradition never graduates.
"I'm hoping that's what we're building here."
The Lady Vols got a little help from first-year football coach Butch Jones, who watched the game from a second-level suite with his family. Jones spoke to the team both before the game and on Thursday before Friday's opener. Weekly said most of Jones' message to the team would remain between them, but he did share one of Jones' motivational ploys.
"After his message," Weekly said, "he brought out a softball, and ... he said if you really buy in, I want each of you to sign this ball, and they all signed the ball and he signed it.
"Last night, in the seventh inning when I called time after the leadoff single, I walked out to the mound and I had the ball. I said, 'Remember this?' and they all said, 'Yep.' I said, 'Are you all in?' They said, 'Yep,' and we got the next two outs.
"The ball just sat in the dugout today."
A decisive third game later Saturday appeared likely when Alabama ran out to a 3-0 lead after two innings with Jackie Traina, the Tide's All-America ace who was the most outstanding player of last season's World Series, in the circle.
Molly Fichtner, the Tide's fourth batter of the game, drove in two runs in the first, and Danae Hayes scored when Tennessee center fielder and former Girls Preparatory School standout Tory Lewis dropped a routine fly ball with the bases loaded.
"We started uncharacteristically, not like Tennessee," Weekly said. "Even the fans were hollering, 'Fundamentals! Fundamentals!' I think that just goes to show how much heart these kids have."
Lewis singled to start the third and scored Tennessee's first run on Madison Shipman's sacrifice fly. In the fourth, Rainey Gaffin's fly ball plated Kat Dotson, and Chavanne tied the game with a single that scored Melissa Brown. Shipman doubled to start the fifth, took third when she just beat a throw back from first base on a ground ball and scored on Dotson's sac fly.
Tennessee, the visiting team for the second game of the series, added a seventh-inning insurance run when senior pinch-runner Whitney Hammond, another former GPS player, stole second and scored on Brown's seeing-eye single up the middle.
Cheyanne Tarango, who hadn't pitched since an April midweek game, picked up three quick outs with two runners on in relief of starter Ivy Renfroe in the fifth, and Ellen Renfroe finished off the Tide in the sixth and seventh.
"I'm just really proud of our kids," Weekly said. "It's all about them. Coaches, they don't play, they don't throw balls, they don't hit balls, they don't run -- they just coach.
"These kids are who did it, all of it, and all the credit goes to them."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...
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