Walk-Off blast helps Lady Vols slip past S.Carolina

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 11 Tennessee’s (25-5, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) offense blasted three home runs on a damp Friday night in front of 845 fans at the Lee Softball Stadium, but none proved more vital than the two-run, walk-off shot off the bat of freshman left fielder Chelsea O’Connor during the bottom of the eighth inning that concluded UT’s 4-2 (8 inn.) series-opening triumph over South Carolina (17-13, 3-8 SEC).

The big fly marked the first HR of the Galeton, Colo., native’s collegiate career and was also the first walk-off homer to end a non-run-rule contest for any Lady Vol player since Shannon Doepking beat South Carolina back on March 21, 2007, 2-0.

“It was really great to come off the bench and get the adrenaline going,” O’Connor said. “I was really warmed-up and ready to go at the plate. Ashley (Andrews) got things started with a hit, and I just looked for my pitch. Just to have all my teammates so excited, and it’s my first home run and all, it was just an amazing feeling.”

Lady Vol junior designated player Jessica Spigner (2-for-4, double, HR) contributed her fifth HR of the campaign as part of a back-to-back homer effort in the second inning with freshman shortstop Madison Shipman (1-for-2, second HR of 2011). The occurrence marked the first back-to-back big flies for Tennessee softball since former Lady Vols Nicole Kajitani and Erinn Webb pulled the feat during UT’s 4-3 victory at #2 Michigan on May 28, 2010, that clinched a berth in the program’s fourth Women’s College World Series.

Despite seeing a streak of 21.1 consecutive frames without allowing an earned run come to an end, freshman pitcher Ellen Renfroe improved to 15-2 overall and 2-1 in SEC play by firing a complete-game three-hitter. The Jackson, Tenn., native allowed two runs, walked two and struck out eight over a career-high eight frames of work.

“Hitting a drop ball is Chelsea’s specialty, so I told her to get as far up in the box as she could and make them throw her pitch,” Lady Vol Co-Head Coach Ralph Weekly said. “Chelsea’s a great player, so I’m not surprised by her home run. Give South Carolina serious credit, their pitchers threw well, and we didn’t adjust to what they were doing. They have a much-improved team and definitely earned respect from us tonight. This is a good win for Tennessee.”

For the 49th time in her collegiate career, Big Orange sophomore third baseman Raven Chavanne reached to open UT’s initial at-bat by beating out an infield single leading off the bottom of the first. The Thousand Oaks, Calif., native advanced into scoring position as junior first baseman Shelby Burchell reached via a fielding error by Gamecock second baseman Dana Hathorn. UT sophomore second baseman Lauren Gibson absolutely smoked a pitch but it traveled on a bounce right into the glove of a S.C. fielder for an easy putout at first as the Big Orange left a pair stranded.

With Renfroe working quickly through the South Carolina line-up, Tennessee utilized the long ball in the bottom of the second to nab the advantage. Spigner opened the frame by crushing a pitch from S.C.’s Audrey Broyles out of Lee Stadium. Shipman followed seven pitches later with a blast over the scoreboard as the Lady Vol lead quickly grew to 2-0.

The Gamecocks attempted to answer right back during the top of the third as catcher P.J. Fulmer christening the inning with a double to right center. After a potential sac bunt was popped up for the first out, shortstop Samie Garcia reached on a UT infield miscue to place runners at the corners with just one retired. Garcia and pinch runner Jackie Slawson attempted to pull-off a double steal but a cut-off throw to second was fired home in time by Gibson as Andrews tagged out Slawson for a huge second out. Renfroe concluded the once promising South Carolina threat by striking out center fielder Lauren Lackey swinging.

Bidding for more on the scoreboard, Tennessee got a two-out rally started in the bottom of the third as Gibson singled on the infield, Spigner doubled and then Shipman walked to load the bases. Sophomore pinch hitter Melissa Brown stepped to the plate and just got under a pitch, popping up just onto the outfield grass to leave three runners stranded.

A lead-off single by Hathorn to start S.C.’s fourth inning came back to hurt UT immediately as first baseman Laura Mendes hammered a drive over the center field wall to deadlock the count at 2-2.

Renfroe settled down following the big fly, getting out of the fourth with no further damage and needing just seven total pitches to retire South Carolina in order in the top of the fifth.

The Gamecock offense managed a pair of base runners with two retired in the sixth as Mendes walked and left fielder Kaitlin Westfall reached via an error. Renfroe coerced a pop-up behind the plate, however, by third baseman Evan Childs that Andrews handled easily to leave two more S.C. runners on base.

Tennessee reaped back-to-back, two-out walks from Burchell and Gibson in the bottom of the seventh, but Spigner hit into a fielder’s choice at short to send the teams on to extra frames.

Renfroe improved her strikeout total to eight overall by catching Hathorn and Lackey looking at strike three to wrap up a quick one-two-three top of the eighth.

With one retired in Tennessee’s half of the eighth, Andrews came through with a base knock off Gamecock relief pitcher Ashley Chastain. O’Connor promptly stepped to the plate and crushed a 1-2 offering over the wall to set off Big Orange jubilation at Lee Stadium.

The Tennessee Lady Vol softball team continues its weekend series against South Carolina on Sat., March 26th, at 12:30 p.m. ET at Lee Softball Stadium. The match-up will be broadcast live on TV via SportSouth with Leah Secondo and Cheri Kempf on the call. Check both http://twitter.com/LadyVol_Sftball and http://twitter.com/LadyVol_Sports for the most up-to-date information on Tennessee softball.