Photo Credit: Emma Corona/Tennessee Athletics
By Tucker Harlin
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee (47-8) eliminated Indiana (44-18) with a 7-3 victory to close the Knoxville Regional. With the win, the Lady Vols advance to their first super regional since 2019.
“I’m super proud of our team,” said Tennessee head coach Karen Weekly. “I told them not to ever take this for granted. When you are up 7-0 and you feel like you’ve got the game in hand, it’s hard to win a regional. They just came out and earned it.”
The Lady Vols started the game strong as Kiki Milloy’s leadoff walk was followed by a Zaida Puni blast to the stands in the outfield, giving Tennessee an early 2-0 lead in the first inning.
“Home runs are great, but it’s tough hitting behind Kiki just because I know people are going to start throwing around her,” Puni said about her home run. “She keeps me locked in, and I’m able to start something so that the rest of the team can go do what they do.”
It looked like a rough outing early for Tennessee pitcher Payton Gottshall, but she was able to escape a jam with the bases loaded by striking out in foul territory and forcing Avery Parker to pop out in foul territory.
“I just kept attacking and throwing my pitches,” said Payton Gottshall. “I feel like I had gotten away from that a little bit, and I was just trying to do too much with them.”
Gottshall saw more trouble in the second inning. Cassidy Kettleman singled to start Indiana’s at bat, and Kinsey Mitchell beat a throw to first on a bunt. Brooke Benson bunted to advance Kettleman and Mitchell, and Cora Bassett took a walk to load the bases once more. Gottshall evaded trouble once again escaped the jam with a Taryn Kern strikeout and a Taylor Minnick pop out to third.
“Payton has another gear,” Weekly said about Gottshall. “You saw it today when things got a little hairy, and all of a sudden she’s just spinning the heck out of the ball and showing her best stuff. She just loves to compete, so when the situation is at the toughest and the tightest she’s at her best.”
The game experienced a dead stretch in offense over the next two and a half innings, but Tennessee woke up in the fifth inning. Kiki Milloy started the outburst with a triple down the first base line and came home on a wild pitch. One pitch later, Zaida Puni sent her second home run of the day over the wall in left field, putting Tennessee ahead by four.
The party would not stop there. McKenna Gibson followed Puni’s homer with a single to center field. Rylie West hit a single to center field and advanced Gibson to third, and Mackenzie Donihoo walked to load the bases. Lair Beautae was able to bring home Gibson on a sacrifice fly. A wild pitch advanced both West and Donihoo, and Giulia Koutsoyanopulos doubled to left field to make it a 7-0 contest.
The Hoosiers had a few runs to get out before the game ended. Brooke Benson and Cora Bassett started the inning with a pair of singles, and Taryn Kern walked to load the bases. Taylor Minnick grounded out to third, but Benson came home to give Indiana its first run. A wild pitch brought Cora Bassett home and narrowed the gap to five. After a Sarah Stone ground out to first, Brianna Copeland singled too and earned Indiana its final run.
“I’m super proud of our youthful group,” said Indiana head coach Shonda Stanton. “We battled all the way to the very end and punched our ticket to the regional championship game. We wanted to compete in the regional finals, and we always know if we have strikes or bunts left, we need to get the job done. That last game stings a little bit, but I don’t want that to overshadow what we accomplished this morning in that game, and it’s a testament to the young women I get to coach.”
Tennessee will host the super regional against the 13-seed Texas (45-13-1) next weekend in Sherri Parker Lee Stadium. The Longhorns, like the Lady Vols, won all three games they played in the Austin Regional.
“We talk about celebrating everything you achieve and celebrating till midnight and then turning the page,” Weekly said about the upcoming super regional. “Obviously, anybody who makes it through a regional is really good, one of the last 16 standing. It’s going to be a battle. Every super regional I’ve been a part of, going back to the very first one in ‘05 with (Monica) Abbott on the mound. They are not easy, there are going to be some really great games next weekend.”