Zaida Puni Tennessee softball home run 5.21
Zaida Puni (11) hits her second homerun of the game against Indiana at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium. Sunday May 21, 2023.

Tennessee softball is moving on to the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time since 2019 with a 7-3 victory over Indiana. 

The No. 4 seeded Lady Vols (47-8) took down the Hoosiers (44-18) behind an offensive explosion in the fifth inning. With the win, Tennessee is set to host No. 13 Texas at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium in the NCAA Super Regionals. 

The Lady Vols made it through their home regional undefeated.

"I am so proud," Tennessee head coach Karen Weekly said. "It's hard to come out and be at your best everyday and not get complacent... We have great leadership within our team. We are a player-led team."

Tennessee, playing as the designated away team on Sunday, got the scoring going early in the game. Zaida Puni hit a two-run home run to put Tennessee up early. 

The home run was the first of two Puni would hit in the regional final. The third baseman also hit multiple home runs on Friday against Northern Kentucky. 

"It's kind of tough hitting behind Kiki (Milloy)," Puni said. "I know people are going to start throwing around her. She keeps me locked in. If I'm able to start something so that the rest of the team can go then I'm going to do what I can do."

Tennessee got the offense going early, but Indiana put together two high-stress situations together in the bottom half of the first and second. 

Payton Gottshall got the start for Tennessee. The righty had to fight through back-to-back bases loaded situations, allowing no runs in her time in the circle. 

"I just kept attacking and kept throwing my pitches," Gottshall said. "I feel like I kind of got away from that a little bit, just trying to do too much with them at one point, but I just kept going at them and kept attacking."

Gottshall went on to finish the game with five innings of work, striking out six while giving up five hits. With the win, her record moves to 15-1 on the season. 

"Payton has another gear and you saw it today," Weekly said. "All of a sudden, she's just spinning the heck out of the ball and she's showing her best stuff."

Indiana went pitcher by committee on Sunday, starting Heather Johnson. Freshman Sophie Kleiman came on in relief and had the Lady Vols off balance. 

Then, the fifth inning happened. Kiki Milloy got the offensive explosion started with a triple down the right field line. A pitch later, she scored on a wild pitch.

Another pitch after that, Puni hit her second home run of the day. Her monster weekend came after a week of sickness, where the third baseman could only practice once. 

"I didn't really get to practice the whole week, so I was kind of nervous myself," Puni said. "But we had (batting practice) on the field Friday and I said, 'Oh, OK, I'm fine.'"

Puni's second home run of the day was apart of a slew of hits from the Lady Vols in the fifth inning. Lair Beautae added a run on a sacrifice fly. Giulia Koutsoyanopulos added a two-RBI single in the inning as well. 

When it was all said and done, the Lady Vols tacked on five runs in the fifth inning. The Hoosiers didn't back down without a fight. 

With SEC Freshman of the Year Karlyn Pickens in the circle, the Hoosiers found some life in the bottom half of the seventh inning. 

The freshman loaded the bases, but the Tennessee bullpen remained silent. Weekly opted to stick with her gut and give Pickens an opportunity to build confidence in a NCAA Tournament setting. 

"We had a cushion," Weekly said. "I felt it was really important for her to get on the field and just experience a postseason atmosphere... They're all competitors. They want to stay in and they believe they can get the job done."

Pickens got the job done. The righty closed out Indiana, surrending three runs in her two innings of work. 

After two years of heartbreak in the NCAA Regionals, the Lady Vols broke through. Sherri Parker Lee is hosting the Knoxville Super Regional for the first time since 2017. 

The players remember the feeling of losing on their home field in the regionals, and they will remember the feeling of winning the regional on Sunday. 

"I think they all have such a great appreciations for how hard it is," Weekly said. "You don't want to lose a regional in front of your home fans. So, there was just that extra motivation, knowing that we're a good team and we could get this done.

"But nothing is easy, nothing is given to you. You're going to have to fight and scratch and claw for everything you get. I think that is what so gratifying to me, I know that's what they did."

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