After falling behind early against Ohio State on Saturday, Tennessee softball co-head coach Ralph Weekly said that his team knew they would come back, and that they had that mentality all season.
That mentality was put on full display Sunday.
In the regional final, Tennessee needed just one more win to move on to Super Regionals for the third-straight year, but the Lady Vols suddenly found themselves in a winner-take-all contest after North Carolina claimed game one.
They were down once again, and this time, the season was on the line.
There were several plays made on Sunday that exemplified what Ralph Weekly was talking about the day before.
There was the pitching from Caylan Arnold that held the Tar Heels scoreless in game two. There was the three diving catches from Kaitlin Parsons at second base that kept North Carolina from grabbing the momentum. Then, there was Ashley Morgan’s double that scored two runs, proving to be the difference in game two.
It took a collective effort, and it was enough for Tennessee (42-15) to escape with a 2-0 win over the Tar Heels (38-20), punching their ticket to the NCAA Super Regionals in Gainesville, Florida, next weekend.
“The whole day was just really, really tough,” Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “We knew it was going to be that way. North Carolina has an exceptional softball team. Our kids just battled.
“They just battled and battled and that was kind of our theme. Just fight the fight and keep fighting.”
In game one, the Lady Vols struggled to find answers against North Carolina pitcher Brittany Pickett.
In a complete performance, Pickett surrendered just two hits in the game while recording eight strikeouts and holding Tennessee scoreless.
“This game all starts in the circle,” Weekly said. “Brittany Pickett is one of the best pitchers we have faced all year and we just had to battle.”
Equally impressive was the performance of Tennessee’s freshman pitcher Ashley Rogers (21-5), who got her third-consecutive start of the regional.
Rogers pitched for six innings, also striking out eight Tar Heel batters. But it was a solo homerun in the bottom of the sixth that would eventually give North Carolina the 1-0 win, forcing a second game.
In that second game, the parallels of the first match up showed themselves throughout, as both teams struggled to take advantage of opportunity after opportunity to put runs on the board.
First baseman Ashley Morgan was the difference maker.
With runners on first and second and two away, Morgan finally cracked Pickett with a hard-hit ball that went to the wall in center field. The hit was good for a double and two RBIs to give Tennessee a 2-0 lead.
“I knew that we really needed these runs and that I was just going to have to fight the entire at-bat,” Morgan said. “(Pickett) was not giving anything, for the most part, and once I got two strikes, I knew that I was going to have to foul off some pitches and that I was going to have to drill the one she gave me.
“It felt good off the bat and it felt great to know that we finally got some runs on the board. Just seeing everyone in the dugout was awesome.”
As was the case the entire day, both teams knew that the final decision would have to come down to defense and in game two, the Lady Vols had the advantage both in the circle and at second base.
In the top of the sixth, North Carolina’s Kiani Ramsey tried driving a ball into the gap between first and second, but second baseman Kaitlin Parsons dove, extending out her arm and snagged the ball off of the dirt for the out.
The catch was one of three momentum-shifting stops that Parsons had made on the day and it garnered a jaw-dropping reaction from her teammates.
“The first one she made, I was just like, ‘wow, that was amazing.” Pitcher Caylan Arnold said.”Then the second one, I literally just squatted in the middle of the circle and was just blown away because she just did such an awesome job.”
Arnold’s own performance went along way in keeping Tennessee’s postseason aspirations alive.
Getting the start for the second game, Arnold had six strikeouts while giving up just four hits and keeping North Carolina scoreless before Matty Moss came in and preserve the win in the seventh.
“It was amazing,” Arnold said of her performance. “I’ve worked really hard this year to get back to feeling like myself and going out there and attacking and being dominant. To have my teammates behind me like that...that’s what really pushed me and kept me going.”
The Lady Vols go forward to face a familiar foe in the Florida Gators (47-15), making it the fourth-straight year that Tennessee has played in an all-SEC Super Regional.
Tennessee took two of three from Florida in Gainesville during a regular season weekend series on March 8-10.
“(Florida) is a familiar opponent,” Weekly said. “We had success down there. That is not something that we can puff out our chest about. It is going to be really, really tough, just like today was.”
The No. 5 Gators and No. 12 Tennessee will face off on Thursday in the first of three games at Katie Seashole Stadium in Gainesville.