Tennessee entered this year’s Women’s College World Series looking to improve on its third-place finishes from 2005 and 2006. Sunday afternoon the Lady Vols accomplished that feat as Monica Abbott’s two-hit shutout combined with two first-inning runs lifted the Lady Vols to a 3-0 win over Northwestern and a spot in the national championship series.
The Lady Vols (62-6) face either Arizona or Washington in the best-of-three championship series that starts Monday at 7 p.m. CDT tonight The Lady Vols knocked off Arizona 1-0 in Friday’s second round but have not faced the Huskies this season.
“It (advancing to the championship series) is really awesome because we have come so close in the past three years,” Abbott said. “We came out strong and focused today because we know what it is like to come through the loser’s bracket and how hard it is to play two games in one day. We wanted to get it done in the first game. I am so excited. This is the first time for this softball program to be a national championship contender.”
After striking out 16 in each of the first two games of the series, Abbott struck out 17 Wildcats, including the first seven outs of the game, as she advanced her record to 49-3 on the year with her third straight shutout. Her strikeout total tied former Texas hurler Cat Osterman for the second-most in a seven-inning WCWS game. Osterman, who holds the strikeout record with 18 K’s, struck out 17 in 2005.
The senior from Salinas, Calif., has not allowed a run for 26 and two-thirds innings, a streak ranking second only to her 40 and two-thirds run from May 20-June 3, 2005.
In front of 6,949 fans, Tennessee staked Abbott, who has not lost a lead all season, to a 2-0 lead in the first. The Lady Vols have been nearly unstoppable when scoring first, going 52-1 on the year when plating the game’s first run.
“I am really proud of our team today,” Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “I am proud of our pitcher, Monica Abbott. It was another outstanding performance from her. We fought all day long against a really, really good Northwestern team. They are a team that, when I saw them back in Palm Springs, I knew would be right here at the end of the year. They are very, very tough. They are a great hitting team, so Monica’s performance today was even more superb.”
India Chiles, who is hitting .500 in the series despite playing with a torn ACL, started the inning off with a single to left field. Chiles stole second, and Lillian Hammond followed with a walk. Lindsay Schutzler single loaded the bases as she laid a bunt down the third-base line that rolled on the chalk and stayed in fair territory.
Tonya Callahan hit a ground ball to shortstop Tammy Williams, and the Wildcats appeared to have a huge double play as she tagged Hammond and threw to Erin Dyer at the plate to retire Chiles.
After initially ruling Chiles out at home on the force, home plate umpire Jerry Bark reversed the call after the tag-out of Hammond took away the force at the plate.
“I knew that there was a force out at home. That’s obviously what I was going for,” Williams said. “Any ground ball, I’m going to be charging as hard as I can.”
“I’ve never seen a play like that,” Northwestern head coach Kate Drohan said. “The umpire got it right.”
The Wildcats (52-13) got Tiffany Huff to pop out to the shortstop for the second out, but a Shannon Doepking ground ball deflected off the glove of first baseman Garland Cooper. Williams picked up the ball and flipped to first, but Doepking beat the throw and Schutzler scored to make it a 2-0 game after she advanced to third on a wild pitch.
Following the opening two runs, Northwestern hurler Eileen Canney settled down and proceeded to retire the next 15 hitters she faced until her two-out error in the sixth led to UT’s final run.
Canney allowed the three runs, only one was earned, on three hits with six strikeouts as she finished her senior season 33-11. She tied former Northwestern great Lisa Ishikawa for the school’s single-season and career record for wins. Canney finished her four-year Wildcat career with 97 victories in the circle.
“We came out ready to play today,” Drohan said. “Eileen Canney threw a great game. We got some tough breaks, and we couldn’t get on the board. Monica Abbott is on top of her game. Tennessee did a nice job of putting pressure on our defense and then adding that third run at the end.”
Tonya Callahan hit a spinning ground ball that Canney was unable to pick-up. Freshman Tiffany Huff followed with Tennessee’s first extra-base hit of the series, a double to right center that scored pinch-runner Caitlin Ryan from first and gave UT its final 3-0 margin.