The opening game of the quarterfinals matched Mississippi State, a team who came in to the tourney 2-8 in their last ten games but nevertheless on Wednesday got their first SEC tourney win since 2005, against a streaking South Carolina team who closed 8-2 to finish in third place in the SEC, even though they were a pre-season pick to finish near the bottom. South Carolina has been slowly improving year-by-year under head coach Beverly Smith, and this year they busted through. Head Coach Beverly Smith attributes the jump to the team’s belief in each other. “You can talk about this as a coach,” she says, “and the players can say the right thing, but when they actually believe it and live it, great things can happen.”
In the bottom of the third, South Carolina scratched across two runs, and added a third an inning later when Alyssa Kumiyama homered. Cayla Drotar was a bulldog in the circle for South Carolina. Coach Smith praised her pitcher: “She doesn’t concede to the hitter. She’s willing to throw the change-up on any count.” South Carolina won 3-1 and moved on to the semi-finals.
The second game matched two teams who surprised prognosticators this year. The Georgia Bulldogs were picked ninth in the pre-season poll after finishing last in 2017, but they got on a hot streak early, winning 25 games in a row in February and March, and won every SEC series until their last, against Ole Miss. They wielded big bats, leading the SEC in four offensive categories. Arkansas was picked tenth in the league, but they played consistently all year, including in the SEC. The team that was once a doormat in the league went 12-12 this year and finished seventh.
Arkansas got on the board early, scoring four in the top of the third, with the big blow being a two-out, three-run homer off the bat of A.J. Belans. Autumn Storms got the start in the circle for Arkansas, and she pitched well. Georgia chipped away, scoring single runs in the third and fourth by piling up the singles, but missed an opportunity when they left the bases loaded with one out in the fifth — a line drive to left by Mahlena O’Neal found the glove of Tori Cooper. Mary Haff came in to relieve Storms, and held the Bulldogs to one more run. Arkansas moved to the semi-finals with an 8-3 win, where they’ll face South Carolina.
Head Coach of Arkansas Courtney Deifel has led the Arkansas rise. “I’m so proud of this team,” she says. “They’ve come into their own as the season has gone. They have a ton of character. Our players are not intimidated. And that’s the big difference between last year and this one. They don’t care who’s in that other dugout. They’ll battle for each other.”
Perennial powers Tennessee and LSU squared off in the day’s third game, which also matched fan bases. Tennessee fans are a hoot. They dance to “Rocky Top,” sing “She’ll Be Coming Round To Score (When She Comes),” and keep up nonstop cheering, louder even than the dugout. LSU has the loudest individual super-fan, the brother of third baseman Shemiah Sanchez, who yells encouragement on every pitch to the team and on occasion runs up and down the stairs in his excitement.
This game was as riveting to watch as the fans. LSU’s Allie Walljasper gave up a run in the first inning on a Meghan Gregg double, but then shut down the powerful bats of Tennessee. Caylan Arnold sparkled in the circle for the Lady Vols, throwing an efficient, low-pitch, three hit shutout, and Tennessee advanced with a 1-0 win. Their fans also came out on top, unofficially of course.
In the nightcap, league champion Florida faced off against arch-rival Alabama, who came in with a five-game win streak. The Tide got two runs off All-American pitcher Kelly Barnhill in the top of the first on a groundout and a sac fly, but then she got her rhythm and began shutting Alabama down. Courtney Gettins got the start for the Tide and held on several times when the Gators threatened. But in the bottom of the fourth inning, Aleshia Ocasio homered with Janelle Wheaton on base to tie the game 2-2. Alexis Osorio, Alabama’s senior ace, came in to relieve Gettins, and when in the top of the sixth Florida Head Coach Tim Walton brought Ocasio out of center field to relieve Barnhill with a runner on, it looked like two fresh and excellent pitchers might keep this tie game going a long time. But in the Gators’ sixth, a walk to Ocasio and a perfect bunt by Sophia Reynoso put runners on first and second with no outs, and two outs later, Amanda Lorenz smashed a no-doubter, three-run homer to put the Gators up 5-2. Ocasio closed the door and Florida advanced to the semis to play Tennessee.
Mark Allister teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is completing a book, Turn and Look: Women’s College Softball Is Crushing It.