OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – Having leadership from senior players who have experienced the big crowds, noise and chaos before can often be a key to success at the Women’s College World Series.
A strong senior class contribution definitely proved to be a benefit Tennessee could rely on during its Thursday match-up against Florida as Lady Vol seniors Raven Chavanne, Kat Dotson, Lauren Gibson and Melissa Brown combined for six total hits, four of the extra-base variety, and seven RBIs as UT rolled past the Gators, 9-2.
Dotson led the way for UT at the plate by going 3-for-4 with a double, a triple and three RBIs, while Brown was 1-for-4 with a tone-setting two-run double during the top of the first. Gibson was 1-for-2 with a two-bagger, three walks and a RBI, and Chavanne was 1-for-5 from the leadoff spot with a RBI and a stolen base.
Those contributions at the plate backed a complete-game pitching effort from junior Ellen Renfroe (18-4) as the Jackson, Tenn., native allowed two earned runs on four hits with five strikeouts over seven frames of effort.
"Right now, it's all about these kids right here," Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. "I've been so proud of our kids the way they faced adversity against Alabama (in Super Regionals) and came back and won, and I want to make this brief, but I want to say one thing. When the score was 3‑2, I called them together before we went to bat and I said, ‘You are not going to back into a championship. You are not going to back into the championship. You have to explode and you have to explode right now or they'll come on and take it from you.’ And they did the rest. It's all about the players."
Second baseman Kelsey Stewart guided the Gator offense from the top of the batting order by going 2-for-4 with a triple and a RBI, while third baseman Stephanie Toftt was 1-for-4 with a RBI. Junior Hannah Rogers (33-6) took the loss from the circle for UF, permitting three runs on a single hit while issuing three walks over just one-third of an inning.
Tennessee wasted no time threatening in the top of the first inning as right fielder Kat Dotson and second baseman Lauren Gibson drew back-to-back, one-out walks off Gator starter Hannah Rogers. UT shortstop Madison Shipman followed by blooping a single to left, packing the bags full of Lady Vols. First baseman Cheyanne Tarango stepped to the plate facing a huge early opportunity and delivered in the clutch via drawing a bases-loaded walk, forcing in Dotson from 60 feet away for a quick 1-0 advantage. With Rogers struggling from the circle, Florida coach Tim Walton made the call to the bullpen, bringing on Lauren Haeger in an early relief appearance. Brown greeted the new pitcher with a double into the left center gap as a pair of Tennessee runners crossed the plate to improve the lead to 3-0. Haeger managed a strikeout of catcher Hannah Akamine and got a pop-up off the bat of pinch hitter Melissa Davin to limit the damage any further.
Florida attempted to answer right back in the bottom of the first, putting a pair of runners on the base paths with two retired as center fielder Kirsti Merritt drew a walk and Haeger reached on a fielding miscue at short. The Gators left the duo stranded, however, as Ellen Renfroe caught right fielder Kelsey Horton looking at strike three to end the frame.
After the Lady Vols missed a golden chance to blow the contest open in the top of the second by leaving two stranded in scoring position, Florida catcher Taylore Fuller managed UF’s initial hit of the game in the bottom half with a sharp single up the line at third. The Gators were unlucky in that the ball ricocheted off Tennessee third baseman Raven Chavanne’s glove and then off the left leg of the third-base umpire to remain in short left, preventing a potential double. A strikeout and a routine bouncer to short left Fuller where she stood as UT maintained its 3-0 lead.
Renfroe and Haeger settled in briefly after the opening two frames as neither squad managed a serious scoring opportunity during the third or fourth innings.
After Tennessee left a pair on the bases in the top of the fifth, expanding its left on total to seven overall, Florida finally make its scoring breakthrough during the bottom half. As always seems to happen it was a leadoff walk to left fielder Jessica Damico that opened the threat. Following a steal of second, Damico managed a deft dodge on a liner between the second base bag and short off the bat of second baseman Kelsey Stewart. The ball eventually rolled all the way to the wall in left center for a triple as Damico trotted home, cutting the Gator deficit to 3-1. With two retired, third baseman Stephanie Tofft ripped a single to center, plating Stewart as the gap shrunk further to just a single tally. A Haeger hit-by-pitch and a Horton walk packed the bags full of Orange & Blue with two retired for Schwarz. The Gator first baseman bounced a ball to third, however, that Chavanne nabbed on a high bounce before pivoting to step on the third base bag to conclude the threat.
The Lady Vol offense created a response of its own in the top of the sixth as catcher Hannah Akamine opened the inning with a single just inside the left field line. Center fielder Tory Lewis dropped a potential sac bunt to third that was thrown away at first for an error as the runners eventually advanced to second and third with no one retired. That gave Chavanne an opportunity to deliver in a clutch spot and she did just that with some assistance as her chopper to second was misplayed for an error allowing pinch runner Whitney Hammond to score and restore a two-run advantage. Dotson and Gibson followed immediately with consecutive RBI doubles to blow the game wide open in Tennessee’s favor, 7-2.
The Gators managed a pair of base occupants with two down in the bottom of the sixth on a walk by Fuller and a single to first from Stewart, but again Chavanne corralled a bouncer and stepped on the third base bag from an inning-ending force out.
Tennessee added two more insurance runs during the top of the seventh to expand its advantage to 9-2. A single from Akamine and a two-bagger by Lewis set the stage for a Haeger wild offering to plate a run. Dotson followed immediately with an RBI triple off the center field wall as Lewis crossed from just 60 feet away.
Three consecutive groundouts in the bottom of the seventh from the Gators wrapped up Tennessee’ 9-2 victory.