Lady Vols, Sooners in driver's seat
OKLAHOMA CITY -- You can be mentally tough and still lose in Oklahoma City when the calendar turns to June.
But good luck winning here if you can't persevere.
The severe weather that tormented the Oklahoma City area again on Friday and left players on all eight teams seeking shelter underground had passed, and softball returned to the forefront Saturday under a cloudless sky and a record crowd at Hall of Fame Stadium.
By early evening, No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 7 Tennessee were where all eight teams hope to be when the Women's College World Series begins -- still unbeaten and a game away from the championship series. To get there, the Sooners beat No. 4 Texas 10-2 in five innings, and the Lady Vols beat No. 11 Washington 1-0.
Since 1994, 32 of 38 spots in the championship round went to teams that started the World Series with back-to-back wins.
"Every game is the biggest game that you play, but this game is the biggest game there is," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of the two winners' bracket contests traditionally played on Friday night. "Because it puts you in a position to have someone have to beat you twice. And I think right now, with the way we're playing, that would be difficult for any team to do."
It's a luxury earned by dealing with adversity, and Saturday was no exception.
Tennessee, the only team other than Oklahoma that will wake up on Sunday just a win away from the championship series, came uncomfortably close to repeating a bit of history it would surely like to leave buried in the past. No program has more World Series wins without a championship than the one from Knoxville.
That wouldn't be the case if Tennessee had pushed across even a single run in regulation during the second game of the 2007 championship series against Arizona. Instead, the Lady Vols left 14 runners on base that night and lost 1-0 in 10 innings. A loss the following night sent the trophy back to Tucson.
When Tory Lewis came up Saturday with two outs and two runners on base in the bottom of the seventh, the Lady Vols had already stranded 13 runners through the first six innings. An out from Lewis and it would have been 15.
Instead, the junior outfielder's third hit of the day brought home Whitney Hammond from third base with the winning run.
Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly credited his players for never hanging their heads as the missed opportunities mounted. And true enough, fight they did. But it's equally true that all the fight in the world might not have helped them but for Ellen Renfroe. Inning after inning, she bought her teammates time.
Renfroe allowed just two hits and no walks and struck out 11 against a team that won its previous three games against the SEC pitcher of the year (twice) and the Big Ten pitcher of the year.
"I've seen a lot of toughness -- a lot of toughness -- out of Ellen," Ralph Weeky said. "The attitude ... of, 'I am going to hold the opponent until my team scores.' She did it against North Carolina State [in a regional], she did it in one of the Alabama [super regional] games. She's just tough."
After a 9-2 win against Florida on Thursday, Renfroe deflected a question about the beneficial effects of such plentiful run support. Her goal, she said, had to be to pitch every inning as if it was a scoreless game. Good plan.
One half of a sister pitching duo with older sister Ivy, Ellen Renfroe did not pitch up to her previous standards in SEC play this season, with a 3.00 ERA and three losses (these are lofty standards we're talking about). Yet she has never been better than during most of her team's postseason run.
"When I got out with the bases loaded," shortstop and cleanup hitter Madison Shipman said, "I just kept telling myself 'I'm going to go out there and Ellen's going to make a great play, and we're just going to get the momentum back on our side.' That's what I kept telling myself because, of course, I get frustrated when I don't get the job done. But I kept telling myself she's pitching a great game."
Tennessee never got down on itself. More importantly, it never got down on the scoreboard, thanks to its ace.
The final score in Saturday's second game might suggest Oklahoma's closest brush with adversity came avoiding sprained ankles in the handshake line, but for the second game in a row, and just the second time in the postseason, the top seed saw its opponent score first against national player of the year Keilani Ricketts.
And just like Thursday against Michigan, and just like when Arkansas and Texas A&M pulled close in games earlier in the postseason, Oklahoma answered not just quickly, but decisively.
Down 2-0 entering the bottom of the third inning, Oklahoma scored six runs in what felt like the blink of an eye. The coup de grâce came on what the record book will record as a four-base error but what roughly 9,000 people in attendance will describe as an inside-the-park home run bunt from Brianna Turrang, whose mad dash around the bases would have fit right in with the 1889 land rush that gives her team its nickname.
Just for good measure, the Sooners stomped out three more runs the next inning.
Lost among all the hits and all the runs was a play that was at least as telling.
The Longhorns jumped in front by those two runs, but it was close, inches close, to being at least a five-run lead. With two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the third, Texas catcher Mandy Ogle hit a hard line drive to center field. Retreating on contact, Oklahoma center fielder Destinee Martinez left her feet and caught the ball just before it continued on its way to the fence.
On Twitter, former major leaguer (and Longhorn) Greg Swindell commented, "People don't realize how clutch that catch was."
Even before Oklahoma got a chance to hit, Martinez started the comeback.
"I saw it pretty clear off the bat," Martinez said. "We talk about where Keilani is going to throw the pitch, and since she throws so hard to right-handed batters, I kind of play to the left of second base. Once I saw the ball off the bat, I just drop-stepped and took off. I was kind of talking to myself, 'Stay calm, stay calm; you got it.'
"And I just leaped up, grabbed it and ended the inning."
Oklahoma has stars in Ricketts, Lauren Chamberlain, Shelby Pendley, Jessica Shults and Georgia Casey. The reasons it's the favorite don't stop there. The Sooners always seem to answer because there are so many people who can.
"These are the names you don't hear too much about," Gasso said in reference to big days at the plate for Brittany Williams and Callie Parsons. "They quietly do their job, and they do it so well."
Like Martinez, the third member of an outfield with Turang and Parsons that understandably but unfortunately takes second billing to the star-studded infield.
If the smallest measure of doubt remains as to the inevitability of their title, it is because of how Alabama took that away from Oklahoma a year ago. The Sooners didn't answer then. Maybe they could have. They definitely seem ready to now.
"I think it was there last season, too." Martinez said. "I just feel like we're here this year with the feeling of what happened to us last year, and we don't want to lose. I mean, our record -- we haven't lost very often, and the feeling of losing, it hurts everybody. I know we try to stay away from that feeling, and once we go down early in the game like that, there's no reason we can't get back up.
"We all work pretty well together, and we know there's nothing that can stop us."