KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Rebekah Milian swung.
But spectators at Tyson Park never heard the sound of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove – the eruption of celebration from the Tennessee dugout drowned it out. And as the Volunteers clung to each other and jumped with delight, to their right stood a group of sweaty, dirty and worn Wolverines, silently consoling each other with tears.
Facing a 1-0 deficit, Michigan had fought through the bottom of the seventh to stay alive. With the NCAA Super Regional crown, a berth to the Women’s College World Series and the Wolverines’ season on the line, each batter took their turn facing All-American ace Monica Abbott.
The 6’3″ pitcher kicked off the bottom of the seventh by striking out senior third baseman Grace Leutele. As an upset Leutele left the plate, junior designated player Tiffany Worthy stepped up and dinged an infield hit to short. Senior rightfielder Stephanie Bercaw followed by drawing a walk on five pitches.
A groundout for freshman shortstop Teddi Ewing and an intentional walk for senior second baseman Tiffany Haas left Milian with the bases juiced and one very large weight on her shoulders.
“That’s what you live for,” Abbott said of the two-out, bases loaded, bottom-seventh situation.
And just like that, the Goliath in the circle ended Michigan’s hopes to return to the WCWS and to repeat as national champs.
The 13th-ranked Wolverines entered the best-of-three series with No. 5 Tennessee expecting a battle. And with three games in blistering heat, that’s what they got.
“When you have Michigan and Tennessee playing in a best-of-three series, that might as well be a championship series right there,” senior catcher Becky Marx said. “It’s two World Series-caliber teams that are going at it in the Super Regionals. This whole weekend had championship quality all over it.”
Tennessee drew first blood on Saturday with a 5-3 victory. Home runs from Worthy and sophomore first baseman Samantha Findlay couldn’t compete with the offensive prowess of the speedy Volunteers.
But after almost 24 hours to simmer, the Michigan bats exploded in the first inning of game two. Haas set the tone first by slamming a perfectly placed single deep into rightfield. Home run leader Marx then brought in the first two scores of the game with a blast over the leftfield fence, her 13th this season. When Findlay followed with a single, Abbott was replaced after just 1/3 of an inning.
“We saw early in the game that Monica wasn’t going to have her stuff that moment,” Tennessee coach Ralph Weekly said. “So we elected to rest her and go with (Megan) Rhodes, knowing we’d have Monica if there were another game.”
As Abbott sat in the dugout with a cold towel over her head, the Wolverines kept firing – including another Worthy home run – for an eventual 5-1 victory to force a decisive game three.
The winner-take-all game brought out the inevitable All-American pitchers’ duel the crowd had been waiting to see all weekend: Abbott versus Michigan ace Jennie Ritter.
As spectators fanned themselves under the blistering Tennessee sun, Ritter and the well-rested Abbott fanned batters to keep the score locked at zero for five innings. The Volunteers finally broke through in the top of the sixth with the only run of the game coming off a bloop single from Tennessee rightfielder Katherine Card.
“It’s a tough game to lose because both teams played like champions today,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.
Out of the hundreds of pitches Ritter threw over the weekend, she managed 22 total strikeouts.
“By the sixth inning when I was passing Ritter coming off the mound, she was gasping for air,” Weekly said. “But that kid’s got more heart than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Said Ritter: “My focus in the postseason is just whatever it takes. If it takes a thousand pitches, I’ll throw a thousand pitches.”
The senior hurler ends her career with a slew of records, making her one of the most decorated pitchers in Michigan softball history. Also graduating are Haas, Marx, Bercaw and Leutele.
When asked about the five departing seniors, the typically stoic Hutchins had tears in her eyes.
“They won my heart,” Hutchins said. “They won a national championship. I’ll always be their coach.”