No. 11 Lady Vols earn split with No. 2 Alabama

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. ( -- On Tuesday night in front of a Lee Softball Stadium record crowd of 1,650 Orange-clad partisans, No. 11 Tennessee (24-5, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) rebounded from a 9-5 doubleheader-opening loss to upset No. 1 Alabama (30-2, 6-1 SEC) in the nightcap, 4-1, and earn a split in the two teams’ vital league series.

The win marks the first for the Lady Vols over the nation’s top-ranked squad since sweeping a doubleheader from No. 1 Alabama at Tyson Park back on May 6, 2007, to earn the program’s only SEC regular season crown. UA’s only previous loss this season had been to No. 17 Louisiana-Lafayette by a 1-0 score back on March 4.

“Alabama is a true No. 1 team,” Lady Vol Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. “In my opinion they are the best Alabama squad we’ve played in my 10 years here at Tennessee. Karen (Co-Head Coach Weekly) and I are so proud of our team for bringing the fight to them in game two. These are the types of games that make teams stronger down the road in postseason play.”

In firing her second consecutive complete-game (Iowa on March 18), Big Orange freshman pitcher Ellen Renfroe out-dueled previously unbeaten Crimson Tide freshman Jackie Traina, who had entered a perfect 12-0, to improve to 14-2 on the season. The Jackson, Tenn., native permitted the dangerous UA line-up just two hits and one unearned run while striking out seven and throwing 144 total pitches over seven frames of effort. In the process, Renfroe lowered her team-best ERA to a stellar 1.39 overall and is now limiting the opposition to a .167 average.

Lady Vol freshman shortstop Madison Shipman (1-for-3, RBI) got the UT offense started with a clutch two-out RBI single during the bottom of the fourth. Sophomore second baseman Lauren Gibson (2-for-3, run, team-best three RBIs over the DH) and junior designated player Jessica Spigner (1-for-1, run) each contributed clutch insurance RBI’s during a two-score seventh. Sophomore right fielder Kat Dotson was 2-for-3 at the dish, scored two of Tennessee’s tallies and hit a team-best .600 during the DH.

The catchers created all the fireworks during the opening frame of the nightcap as UT junior Ashley Andrews and ‘Bama’s Kendall Dawson each erased base runners via strong throws to second.

With Renfroe throwing well, owning three K’s through the first two innings, Tennessee managed the first major threat of the contest in the bottom of the second. Gibson singled with one retired and was soon joined on the base paths as Spigner was hit by a Traina offering. With runners occupying first and second, UA’s rookie pitcher responded with back-to-back strikeouts to leave the UT duo stranded.

With the two pitchers dueling and getting strong back-up via their defenses, it was left to the Big Orange to break in front in the bottom of the fourth. Dotson got things started with a lead-off infield single, advancing to second on a throwing error by Alabama third baseman Courtney Conley. A pop-up and a K threatened to derail the outburst, but Shipman came through in the clutch with a single that found a hole as Dotson raced home for a 1-0 lead. With two on sophomore pinch hitter Melissa Brown bounced a ball to second that was misplayed on another ‘Bama miscue as Spigner crossed unearned from second to make it 2-0, Lady Vols.

As good teams usually do, the Crimson Tide answered right back in the top of the fifth. A Conley lead-off walk, a dropped liner in the UT outfield and a sac bunt put UA runners at second and third with just one out. A shot back to the circle was almost caught on the fly by Renfroe, but the ball got away, and she settled on making the sure retirement at first as Conley crossed to cut the deficit to 2-1. With two down UT’s hurler managed to get left fielder Kayla Braud, she of the .505 batting average entering the day, to pop-up to short as Shipman squeezed the sphere for a big third out.

The Tide managed a runner in scoring position with one out during the top of the sixth, but again Renfroe responded. The 6-0 right hander coerced a bouncer to third by Traina and struck out first baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia looking to leave another UA runner stranded. On the Traina bouncer, sophomore third baseman Raven Chavanne demonstrated her impressive range by moving well to her left near short to corral the ball before firing across the diamond to nail Traina by a half-step.

In the bottom of the sixth Dotson kicked-off what would eventually turn into a huge insurance inning with a lead-off base knock. Following a sac bunt off the bat of junior first baseman Shelby Burchell, Gibson delivered a one-out RBI single to make it 3-1. Spigner soon followed with her own RBI base hit as Gibson raced home with UT’s fourth tally of the contest.

Things got a bit hairy for the Lady Vols in the top of the seventh as Alabama managed to load the bases with two outs on walks drawn by designated player Amanda Locke, Dawson and Braud. Renfroe wouldn’t be denied, however, striking out center fielder Jennifer Fenton to complete the stirring upset.

Game One

Trailing just 2-0 heading into the sixth inning, No. 11 Tennessee watched No. 1 Alabama add three runs in the sixth and four more in the seventh to fight off a late UT rally and prevail in the teams’ doubleheader opener, 9-5.

Burchell (1-for-3, two RBIs) blasted her ninth HR of the season to get the Big Orange on the scoreboard in the bottom of the sixth, while Gibson went 1-for-4 with a pair of RBIs. Chavanne (2-for-3) and sophomore left fielder Whitney Hammond (2-for-3, double) each delivered two of UT’s eight total hits and scored a tally, while Dotson was 1-for-2 and registered her team-best 51st RBI of the campaign.

Junior Cat Hosfield started and finished the match-up for Tennessee, allowing five earned runs on four hits with a walk and two strikeouts over 4.0 innings of work. Sophomore Ivy Renfroe permitted three earned tallies on four hits, walked four and struck out four in 3.0 frames of relief.

Despite allowing base runners early on, neither Hosfield nor Alabama senior starter Kelsi Dunne blinked under the pressure, putting zeroes up on the scoreboard over the opening two frames.

In the top of the first, Shipman started the contest off with a great play on a slow roller by the speedster Braud, charging the ball and making a throw to nail the runner by a step at first. A walk to Reilly-Boccia and an illegal pitch advanced the runner into scoring position with two down. Hosfield managed to get Traina swinging for strike three, but the ball escaped the grasp of Andrews behind the plate. The Tumwater, Wash., native raced to her left near the backstop, corralled the ball, turned quickly and fired a strike to Burchell at first that retired Traina by an eyelash to end the threat.

Tennessee nearly broke in front in the bottom of the first as a lead-off single by Chavanne and a stolen base quickly put a Lady Vol in scoring position with no one retired. Following back-to-back fly outs by Grieve and Dotson, Gibson blasted a shot that looked off the bat as if it might leave Lee Stadium. It landed just short as Braud managed to make a solid grab on the run back at the warning track.

A hit batter came back to haunt UT during the top of the third as Hosfield christened the frame by hitting the lead-off batter Dawson with a 3-2 pitch. After a failed Alabama sac bunt, Braud ripped a chopper to first that Burchell managed to grab before it could race by. The Columbia, Tenn., native stepped on the bag at first and fired to second, but Dawson barely managed to beat the tag. Reilly-Boccia delivered in the clutch, lacing a single to left that plated the runner for a 1-0 lead.

Alabama added another to its tally in the top of the fifth as a two-out throwing error on the Lady Vol infield allowed Braud to achieve scoring position. Reilly-Boccia again came through in the clutch as her base knock to center plated Braud for a two-run advantage. Not to go unmentioned, Hammond made an outstanding play on a foul ball down the left field line during the frame as the Chattanooga, Tenn., product made a sliding “web gem” grab in foul territory to retire Fenton.

With the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the sixth, the Crimson Tide received a two-RBI single from Fenton and an RBI base knock by Braud to take what seemed to be a comfortable five-run lead.

Burchell made things less comfortable early on in the bottom of the sixth by following a Dotson lead-off bunt single with a two-run homer to cut the deficit to 5-2.

Unfortunately for the Big Orange, Alabama wasn’t done, striking for four more tallies in the top of the seventh. UA added the scores to make it 9-2 as Conley and Dawson were hit by Hosfield pitches with the bases loaded, Fenton singled to left and Braud bounced out to second for an RBI.

An Andrews walk and back-to-back infield singles by Hammond and Chavanne gave Tennessee’s offense life in the bottom of the seventh as UT tried to mount a rally. With one down Dotson was hit by a Dunne pitch to force in a run and end the UA pitcher’s stint in the circle as Traina was summoned in for a relief appearance. She managed a K for out number two before Gibson greeted the new hurler with a two-RBI single through the infield to draw UT within 9-5. Spigner stepped to the plate with two Lady Vols on base and hammered a promising drive that was caught near the warning track to end the contest.

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