Less than 24 hours after the Tennessee softball team cruised to an 8-0 win over Longwood in game two of the Knoxville Regional, the Lady Vols were given their best shot from Ohio State early.
After jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the top half of the first, Tennessee watched that lead quickly turn into a 2-1 deficit, thanks to a pair of solo home runs from the Buckeyes in the bottom of the inning.
If the gut-punch fazed the Lady Vols at all, however, it didn’t show.
For the second-straight day, strong, timely hitting at the plate, and more solid pitching from the circle proved to be too much for the opposition as Tennessee (41-14) dominated Ohio State (35-17), 12-4 to move on to the regional finale on Sunday.
“I thought Ohio State was a very good team,” Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. “I thought that coming in.This was a game, like any game, where you knew you were going to get hit in the mouth.
“When we got down like that, it didn’t really seem to matter. They kept saying we’re going to come back. They’ve been that way all year.”
Playing the role of visitor due to NCAA rules, Tennessee quickly got production out of their leading hitter, shortstop Aubrey Leach who laid down a bunt single to lead off the game.
Leach was able to reach third after a Haley Bearden infield single, setting up Leach to score off of a wild pitch in the following at-bat to put the Lady Vols ahead, 1-0.
Ohio State wasted no time to find their answer, posting a two-run bottom of the first inning thanks to solo home runs from Lilli Piper and Ashley Prange.
Prange’s home run came just one play after Tennessee catcher Kaili Phillips threw out a Buckeye base runner attempting to steal second. Heading into the second, the momentum was on the side of Ohio State.
But that momentum shifted in the Lady Vols’ favor in the third inning, thanks to a three-run frame off of a Cailin Hannon three-run home run down the left field line to put Tennessee back in front, 4-2.
The hit tallied a team-high three RBIs for Hannon, and was just her fourth home run of the season.
“I was trying to make an adjustment from the first at-bat,” Hannon said. “I just knew that if I kept battling no matter what pitch it was, she’d bring one that I could hit. I just tried to stay in the zone and swing hard at anything.”
In the fifth, the Lady Vols added two more scores when pinch-hitter Gracie Osbron singled to left to plate a pair of RBIs.
With a couple of insurance runs in the sixth to make it to 8-2, Ohio State cut into Tennessee’s advantage with another Prange home run, this one good for two runs, to make pull within four, 8-4.
The seventh saw the Lady Vols put the game away for good, scoring four more runs. Twice in the frame, both Leach and Bearden drew bases-loaded walks to score two runs, and Phillips capped off Tennessee’s offensive showcase with a two-RBI single.
After a marvelous performance in the circle on Friday, where she tallied 13 strikeouts, freshman pitcher Ashley Rogers again got the starting nod for the Lady Vols.
According to Weekly, the coaching staff planned to use all three pitchers against the Buckeyes, but after Rogers surrendered two home runs in the first inning, he turned to Matty Moss a little earlier than he had expected.
“I know we used all three pitchers, which was a plan that we had,” Weekly said. “We just didn’t plan to change that early though, and we wanted to use Matty (Moss) for transition between the two.”
Moss saw action for over an inning, notching two strikeouts and allowing two hits before Caylan Arnold closed out the rest of the game.
Arnold (9-8) finished with five strikeouts, giving up just four hits and two runs in over four innings. According to her, it was her typical mindset of attacking hitters that helped her close out the game strong.
“Well, anytime I go in there I always try to have the same mindset which is to just attack the hitters and throw my best stuff,” Arnold said. “I think that’s what I did today. My mindset going into it was just to hold them until my team can get the runs up on the board.
“It was awesome having that offense behind me and that helps me a lot to keep going and attacking.”
Because of that offense and Arnold’s pitching, Tennessee moves on to a regional final for the third-straight season.
They will play again on Sunday against the winner of Ohio State and North Carolina, only needing one win to move on to Super Regionals. Two losses, however effectively ends their season.
“It’s a great place to be,” Weekly said. “It’s what we strive to be and when we qualified for the playoffs, we figured we had so many games that we needed to win if we wanted to get to the World Series.
“We’ve been through this for many years, you know, and it always works out best when we get through the first two days.”
The Lady Vols and the Ohio State/North Carolina winner will face off at noon on Sunday at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.