Wiedmer: Happy tears for UTC's seniors in home finale

Wiedmer: Happy tears for UTC's seniors in home finale

May 2nd, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

Having just put his University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team through a grueling workout not 30 minutes earlier, Lady Mocs coach Frank Reed left campus a couple of years ago to visit some friends in East Ridge.

But as he drove down Ringgold Road he noticed an all-too-familiar figure furiously running down the sidewalk.

"It was Tiffany Baker," he said of the Southern Conference's all-time home run leader a few minutes after she wrapped up her final home game at Frost Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

"I was like, 'Hey, you need to take the rest of the day off. You're going to wear yourself out.' But that's Tiffany. She's never wanted to miss a chance to get better."

They all got better over the years, all six of Reed's seniors - Baker, Lauren Flores, Della Harrison, Kandice Irwin, Lyndsey Stiles and Nikki Waters, who actually joined the crew late, transferring in from Southern Illinois after her sophomore year.

But the other five will leave as they came in, winning a Southern Conference regular-season championship. The total is now five straight and counting, 13 overall since the program began in 1994.

Yet if all six have played crucial roles in this historic run, no two seniors traveled more different paths to Sunday's teary-eyed Senior Day than Baker and Harrison.

Forced to transfer home from UT-Knoxville when her father, Phillip, died during her pure freshman year - when she was being redshirted by the Lady Vols - Baker has been an offensive star from 2008 forward.

Her 47 career homers are a SoCon record and her Sunday homer in the 7-4, opening-game victory of the double-header sweep of Georgia Southern set a new UTC single-season mark with 15. Her 14 homers a year ago gave her a share of that record with Angela Brewer.

"Oh, gosh, it was 10 times better than I expected it to be," said Baker of the sendoff. "Winning two games on Senior Day. My home run. Owning the record is way better than sharing it."

As for any possible regrets about leaving UT - a perennial top 10 program - for UTC, she said, "I wouldn't change a single thing. I believe I was put in Knoxville for a reason, to learn what it takes to make it to a super regional or world series. But when my father died I wanted to be with my family. And UTC is such a great place."

Reed was told by a friend in Nashville that UTC would also be a great place for Hillsboro High product Harrison, the daughter of former Vanderbilt football great and 10-year NFL veteran Dennis Harrison.

"You're going to get a walk-on who'll be a starter for you in six months," was Reed's recollection of that conversation this weekend. "Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. But Della's the best athlete on our team - she squats over 400 pounds - and once she got into the starting lineup this year none of our fantastic freshmen has been able to push her out."

Ask Baker about Harrison and her eyes brighten as her face breaks into a big grin.

"Della can always make you laugh," she said. "She keeps it loose and fun in the dugout."

Harrison also led by example during the three years she failed to become a starter.

"It takes a really big person to sit in the dugout game after game," Baker said. "Della could have walked off at any time and no one on the team would have blamed her. But she was always there for her teammates, always supporting them and cheering them on. Only a really great person and teammate can do that."

A single example of Harrison's humor: When she first arrived at UTC for fall classes in the fall of 2007 she had never officially met Reed. When she called him to tell her she'd be at the University Center with the rest of the newcomers, Reed asked her how he might locate her in such a crowd.

"She told me, 'Just look for my dad. He'll be the tallest black man in the room,'" said Reed of her 6-10 father. "Sure enough, I saw Dennis and Della was right beside him. They're a really great family."

If there was a single sad moment to Sunday it was the absence of Baker's father.

"Everything was fine until Po [sophomore shortstop Sara Poteat] said something about my dad," said Baker. "I started thinking about how he didn't get to see my jersey retired at East Ridge and how he missed this. He was supposed to be here for Senior Day, but I know he's watching somewhere."

Of course, Harrison was almost moved to tears when asked to discuss Baker.

"This whole team, all my teammates, they're like my extended family," she began. "But Tiffany - golly, I'm going to cry. I can't do it."

Standing a few feet away, Baker started to laugh, then exclaimed, "I'm not dead!"

Added Harrison, "I'm just glad to have had a chance to play with somebody this great. I'm just speechless, and that's a good thing."

It's such a good thing that less than two weeks from the SoCon tourney and three weeks from a possible NCAA tourney bid, Reed was moved to say, "This is the best team I've coached at UTC."