As I hoped and sort of predicted, the Lady Vols made a strong comeback in game 2 with Oklahoma, forcing a game 3 to determine who would move on to the final round of eight and a chance to be in the final two at the College World Series. Also, as predicted, game 3 could be anybody’s game. Unfortunately, it turned out to be Oklahoma’s and the Lady Vols are headed back to Knoxville and the careers of three memorable seniors, Ellen Renfroe, Madison Shipman, and Melissa Davin, are over. The underclassmen will begin preparing for next year and another run at the National Championship that still eludes Tennessee.
This series again underscored the importance of the pitcher’s role in softball; you will only go as far as your pitching takes you. Oklahoma’s Kelsey Stevens was in great form in games 1 and 3 and Oklahoma rolled; Ellen Renfroe was in command of all of her pitches in game 2 and the Oklahoma hitters were silenced. The biggest cause for concern for us Lady Vol fans looking ahead to next year is the pitching staff without Renfroe. The heir apparent is junior Erin Gabriel, but to date she has not been the dominant force she will need to be. Gabriel arrived with a lot of hype but injuries and lack of opportunity have delayed her progress. The coaches report that she is a hard worker and very competitive by nature and the promise is there, so we may see an improved Erin Gabriel once the program is in her hands. Also returning to pitch are Rainey Gaffin and Cheyanne Tarango, who have been inconsistent but dominant on occasion. The offense should be strong again, building around freshman stars Aldrete and Geer, and the defense adequate, but the pitching, the pitching….how far the Lady Vols go will depend mainly on if the pitchers progress.
I’d like to conclude this eulogy with a favorite memory or two of each of the Seniors, the image I will remember most often when thinking back about their time at Tennessee, which actually coincides with my time there. I’ve been attending Lady Vol games for four years now, as long as I have been living in Knoxville, so this group is the first whose entire career I have been privileged to watch in person. Consequently they will always be a little bit special, I guess. I confess to having a fan crush on all three.
left to right: Renfroe, Davin, Shipman
The Ellen Renfroe moment I will remember occurred often. Renfroe always had a game face, very stern and serious while on the mound, except when ringing up the final out of an inning via strikeout. The third strike was usually followed by a dazzling smile of relief and triumph, a fist pump, after which she would move quickly to congratulate and accept congratulations from her catcher and other teammates. It was a great moment to see. We had our picture taken with Ellen at a Lady Vol basketball game this year when the team was doing publicity work for the upcoming season, and she was gracious and warm, a talent not every college athlete possesses. If not for the legendary Monica Abbott, Ellen would hold practically every major Lady Vol pitching record: wins, innings, starts, strikeouts, etc., which means she will always be among the Lady Vol all-time greats. Not to have won the championship is a disappointment, but that was a goal that eluded Abbott as well, and should not define Ellen any more than it defined Monica. Ellen was a fighter all the way, working just as hard when her game was off as she did when it was on, and you can’t ask for more than that.
Madison Shipman was a complete player as a freshman who nonetheless got better every year. A true five tool player, she could hit, hit with power, run, field, and throw. Especially throw. Between innings, part of the warm up drill is for the first baseman to bounce grounders to the other infielders in rotation, which they field and fire back to the first baseman. Watching the drill, you would notice the speed of the Shipman throw compared to the second and third baseman’s, and the pop of authority when it hit the first baseman’s glove. During the game, time and time again there would be a ground ball hit deep in the hole to Maddie, and you would see the batter running toward first, and you would think, there’s no way the throw can be in time, and Maddie would throw, and it would be in time. Then you would watch other shortstops when the situation was reversed, and the Tennessee batter would reach first ahead of the throw and you would think, Maddie would have got her out. That’s what I’m going to remember most. Along with the territory she covered; every ball hit between second base and the third base stands, from the pitcher’s mound halfway out to the outfield, was within her range. She was such a presence on the field and at the plate, too, At 6’ 1”. She played the first three years of her career between two other all time Tennessee greats, fellow All-Americans Raven Chavanne and Lauren Gibson, and the biggest question mark coming into this season was who would replace those two in terms of providing stability and leadership, and the answer was Maddie. That the Lady Vols advanced as far as they did is due in no small measure to her presence on the field. Her improvement at the plate was epic; she went from dangerous hitter to dependable hitter, from, you know she is capable of getting it done to you know she is probably going to get it done, which is why she ended up the SEC Player of the Year.
What I will remember most about Melissa Davin is coach Ralph Weekly’s assessment. Last season, in response to a reporter’s question as to why he had batted Davin in a situation the details of which I no longer recall, replied quietly, “I have always believed in Melissa Davin.” After that, I started to pay more attention to her, and I believed in her as well. She didn’t have the gaudiest numbers, and her career was interrupted by injuries such as a broken hand at the end of the regular season during her Junior year, but she was always a dangerous hitter and a dependable fielder who always seemed to step up when the pressure was greatest. But the thing I will I remember first about Davin will be a video produced by Dani Klupenger that highlighted her personal bond with Averi Ramsey, the young girl adopted by the team last year. You can see the video here. I think it exemplifies what, in addition to trying to win championships, the Lady Vols are all about.