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VOL. 43 | NO. 21 | Friday, May 24, 2019

Pitching depth helps Lady Vols reach Super Regionals

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Clutch hits. Strong pitching performances. Impressive defensive plays. The Tennessee softball team put it all on display last weekend during the NCAA Regionals at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.

Sophomore Ashley Morgan provided the final offensive salvo with a two-out, two-run double to help No. 12-seeded Tennessee beat North Carolina 2-0 in a winner-take-all regional final Sunday that clinched a spot in the Super Regionals for the third consecutive season and 11th time in program history.

The Lady Vols play No. 5 Florida in Gainesville with a trip to the Women’s College World Series on the line. The best-of-three series begins Friday at 7 p.m. ET. at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium. The second game is scheduled for Saturday at 6 p.m., and the “if necessary” game is slated for Sunday at 2.

Tennessee (42-15) opened SEC regular-season play by taking two of three from the Gators in Gainesville in early March.

“It is a familiar opponent, and I guess if there is anything good about it, we played down there this year so all of our kids have been in that venue. They know what it is like,” Tennessee co-head coach Karen Weekly said. “Nothing is going to be new and different. 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.”

Tennessee is trying to reach the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2015.

Morgan put the Lady Vols in position to keep their season alive.

Having struggled much of the season at the plate, Morgan helped the Lady Vols finally break through against Brittany Pickett.

The North Carolina ace had kept Tennessee off the scoreboard for 11 straight innings, with UNC beating the Lady Vols 1-0 in the first game Sunday to force a decisive showdown.

Morgan stepped to the plate in the fifth inning and belted a two-run double to the gap in right centerfield on an 0-2 count.

The Georgia native reached second base and let out a primal scream that combined unfettered joy with a release of frustration.

As she jogged back to the dugout after being replaced by a pinch runner, Morgan couldn’t even make it inside before she was mobbed by her teammates with hugs.

“It felt good off the bat, and when I was finally on second base it felt great to know that we finally got some runs on the board,” Morgan said. “Seeing everyone in the dugout was awesome.”

Following their loss to UNC, Tennessee co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly decided to move Morgan to the No. 4 spot in the lineup for the second game. They noticed how good she was seeing the ball and the quality of her at-bats against Pickett.

“I love seeing when players get knocked down and they just keep getting back up. I couldn’t have been more happy for a young lady than I was for her today to get that hit,” Karen Weekly said. “You heard in her answer there was nothing about being happy for herself. It was all about the team and about looking over and seeing the celebration on her teammates’ faces.”

Tennessee finished 3-1 in the regional, winning the first two games to remain in the winner’s bracket of the double-elimination format.

The Lady Vols had a one-game cushion entering Sunday’s regional final, which proved necessary against UNC and Pickett.

Pickett outdueled Tennessee freshman Ashley Rogers in the opener. The aces had nearly identical stats, both throwing two-hitters with eight strikeouts. The only difference was a solo home run by UNC’s Kristina Burkhardt.

Tennessee went with Caylan Arnold in the winner-take-all game, and the junior answered the call by allowing only four hits in six innings to earn the win. Senior Matty Moss picked up the save with an inning of hitless relief to secure the victory.

The Lady Vols made it a priority to increase their pitching depth this season, believing a lack of options in the bullpen contributed to being eliminated the last two postseasons against Texas A&M (2017) and Georgia (2018) in the Super Regionals.

The regionals showed how much having three different arms helps, with Rogers, Arnold and Moss throwing valuable innings.

Rogers recorded a career-high tying 13 strikeouts in Tennessee’s regional-opening 8-0 six-inning win over Longwood. Chelsea Seggern provided the run support with two home runs and a career-high six RBIs.

Arnold, a Maryville native, helped secure Tennessee’s 12-4 victory over Ohio State, allowing two runs on four hits in 4.2 innings of relief.

Arnold has come on strong toward the end of an up-and-down season that included suffering an allergic reaction from eating something with peanuts at the field that sent her to the hospital.

“She’s back to her normal self and we need all of our pitchers to be at their best this time of year,” Karen Weekly said. “I think you saw this weekend how we needed every single one of them at different points in time.”

Kaitlin Parsons helped preserve the shutout for the pitching staff against UNC in the final game with some jaw-dropping defense.

The freshman second baseman made three web gems, including a diving stab of a line drive that caused one grown man in the stands to yell “KP, I love you.”

Her teammates were equally enamored.

Outfielder Ashley Morgan celebrates an RBI double that pushed the Lady Vols ahead in their series-deciding game against North Carolina.

-- Tennessee Athletics

“I mean, the first one that she made, I was just like, ‘wow, like that was amazing. That was awesome like holy crap,’ And then the second one, I literally just squatted in the middle of the circle and I was just blown away because she just did such an awesome job,” Arnold said.

“I know Chelsea came over and she’s like, ‘I know bud, I know. I know it’s just crazy, just get up.’ I was like what the heck? She is just awesome. To see my team fighting like that, it just pushed me even more.”

Tennessee survived the regional without injury, aside from Ralph Weekly taking a hard foul ball off the shin while standing in the third base coaching box.

Weekly sat on a bucket in the dugout with ice on his lower leg between innings. The best medicine the Lady Vols could provide Weekly was winning.

Moss called a timeout while facing the final UNC batter to say a quick prayer, and then ended any prayer the Tar Heels had of a comeback.

Moss spiked her glove to the dirt after recording the Super Regional-securing strikeout, and was swarmed by teammates in celebration.

The Lady Vols were able to savor the victory for a few hours before turning their focus to Florida.

To reach the Women’s College World Series, they will need to find a way to solve Gators ace Kelly Barnhill and contain Amanda Lorenz and Kendyl Lindaman at the plate.

“It makes me feel a lot better than the last couple years when we didn’t have three pitchers that we felt confident in,” Karen Weekly said. “Florida’s tough and we are going to have to play really well and get good pitching, good defense and timely hitting because they are very tough and they are very tough at home and they are playing very well too. So you have to play well and you have to have a little bit of luck.”

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