published Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Lady Vols back in Series: UT softball to face Bama tonight in opening game

Tennessee players celebrate their win over Georgia during a softball game of the NCAA Knoxville Super Regional on Sunday.
Tennessee players celebrate their win over Georgia during a softball game of the NCAA Knoxville Super Regional on Sunday.
Photo by The Knoxville News Sentinel /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Madison Shipman has played on the field at the American Softball Association's Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.

The Tennessee shortstop hasn't been on the stage she'll take tonight, however.

The seventh-seeded Lady Volunteers open their fifth trip to the Women's College World Series when they face SEC rival and second-seeded Alabama tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

"It's always been a dream of mine to play in the College World Series, so it's been a surreal couple of days," Shipman, a sophomore who leads UT in RBIs, said after practice Tuesday afternoon in Oklahoma City. "I'm so excited that I wish the games were today. I'm so excited to play, and I can't wait to get out there."

After three consecutive trips to the pinnacle of college softball, the Lady Vols (52-12) last reached Oklahoma City in 2010 following a two-year hiatus. UT lost in its own regional last season and dropped their NCAA tournament opener this season before rallying for four wins in two days. The Lady Vols then took the deciding game of the Super Regional against Georgia with a sixth-inning rally on Sunday.

UT won their opening two games before losing twice to Arizona in 2010.

"It's the same feeling with excitement and being glad to be back and how much fun it is, but it is different because you've been here before and you've already experienced it," said junior pitcher Ivy Renfroe, who pitched in all four World Series games in 2010. "The first time it's always special with whatever you do in sports. It's different, but it's so exciting knowing what to expect.

"Going to play at the World Series is just having fun with all your teammates and just enjoying it. When you get out there you're just playing another game and another team. It'll be different knowing that I've already been out there before."

The Lady Vols haven't finished lower than third in any of their previous trips, though co-head coach Ralph Weekly dubbed his team a "darkhorse." Weekly, the former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga coach who's in his 11th season leading the Lady Vols with wife Karen, called top-seeded California, Oklahoma, Alabama and Arizona State the four favorites. UT won at then-No. 1 Arizona State in February a day after losing to Cal and split a doubleheader with the Crimson Tide (55-7) in March.

"The big thing is to win the first game, of course," Weekly said. "That's a pretty tough challenge with Alabama being who they are, but the key here is always getting off good and winning that first game. We've been fortunate to do it in the past.

"We're just going to have to play really good ball to go deep in the tournament."

UT leads the nation in defense, anchored by what Weekly called "phenomenal" play in center field by former Girls Preparatory School standout Tory Lewis. The Lady Vols have a strong pitching staff with the sister tandem of Ivy and Ellen Renfroe, two Jackson natives who average more than a strikeout an inning between them. The Lady Vols are 13-7 this season in one-run games and have played five such games in the NCAA tournament.

"We just have not dominated people like we did sometimes in the past," Weekly said. "I think if anything, the '10 team had a little bit better hitting. But I think overall this team's a little stronger."

The Lady Vols' chances tonight and beyond likely hinge on their quartet of juniors who played on this stage as freshmen in 2010. Leadoff hitter Raven Chavanne leads the team in batting average, hits and stolen bases, second baseman Lauren Gibson is the team's top home-run hitter and another defensive anchor and Kat Dotson is valuable at the plate and in right field. Senior Shelby Burchell has been on a tear with 11 hits, four doubles and seven RBIs in the NCAA tournament.

For sophomores like Shipman, Lewis and Ellen Renfroe, though, it's all a new experience.

"I'm sure every team goes in here thinking they can win the whole thing," Shipman said. "Like Ralph and Karen say, we always find a way to win. It may be different people coming through, [but] we find a way."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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