Photo Credit: Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
By Jace Brown
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – No. 4 seed Tennessee took game one against No. 13 Texas on Friday afternoon in Knoxville during their first trip to the NCAA Super Regionals since 2019, and their first time hosting since 2017.
The Lady Vols (48-8) have had a stellar year, but the continuation of it comes at the hands of a best-of-three series against the Longhorns (45-14-1).
Texas is the reigning national runner-up. They lost in the finals last year to their powerhouse rivals, the Oklahoma Sooners (55-1).
Tennessee’s Ashley Rogers (18-1, 0.86 ERA) started the game with two strikeouts before giving up a walk. The first half-inning ended following a pop-up from Courtney Day.
The Lady Vols provided an early scare to the Longhorns, putting their first two batters of the game on base. Nothing came of it, though, as the next three batters went down in order.
Rogers worked another quick inning after Viviana Martinez led off with a single, getting two more strikeouts to push her total to four.
The second inning was pivotal for the Lady Vols. Jamison Brockenbrough stayed hot with a one-out single. Destiny Rodriguez followed that up with a single of her own before a lineout by Katie Taylor. Kiki Milloy then started the scoring of the game with a double to center field.
Texas’ Mac Morgan (18-4, 2.58 ERA) let up a three-run blast off the scoreboard in left center field to Tennessee’s Zaida Puni, who has been on fire as of late. This was Puni’s fifth home run in the last four games. The Lady Vols led 4-0 after two.
“Same thing I’ve always said, just sticking to my process. Our main goal is just attack,” Puni said when asked about her recent hot streak at the plate.
Texas’ nine-slot hitter Alyssa Popelka started the third inning with an infield single. After a pop-up and a strikeout, she took second after a dropped third strike. Bella Dayton was able to push her home with a two-out single, making the score 4-1.
After eight-straight collective outs, Tennessee’s Katie Taylor broke the streak with a two-out single in the bottom of the fourth. The spark was snuffed after Milloy grounded into a fielder’s choice.
After two quick outs in the top of the fifth, Texas looked like they might have a comeback brewing after two singles, one each from Mia Scott and Bella Dayton. Rogers ended that scare with a strikeout to Courtney Day, clinging to the three-run lead.
Puni led off the bottom of the fifth with another big hit, this time a double. Texas then changed pitchers to Estelle Czech (10-4, 2.51 ERA).
Following a four-pitch walk to McKenna Gibson, Rylie West hit a laser off the center field wall for a double, scoring Puni and making the score 5-1.
After a strikeout and an error on the infield, the bases were loaded for the red-hot Brockenbrough. After flying out to left, the runner at third tagged up, but was thrown out at home by several steps.
After not capitalizing again, Texas gave Tennessee a big scare. Martinez smoked a triple to center to lead off the inning. Ashton Maloney then flew out to foul ground in left, but Martinez was able to tag up and score, making it 5-2.
Reese Atwood extended the scare with a double to left center. After a flyout, pinch hitter Jordyn Whitaker worked an incredible at-bat, working a 12-pitch walk. Leighann Goode then grounded into a fielder’s choice to Destiny Rodriguez who collided with the runner. She got up despite the scare to lead off the bottom of the sixth.
After a groundout, Taylor suffered a hit-by-pitch to the back. After a brief walk to ease the pain, Milloy grounded into a fielder’s choice. Surprisingly, she tried to make it to second after not garnering attention, but was caught for the last out.
She made up for the baserunning mistake immediately, though. After Scott hit a line drive to deep center, she made an over-the-shoulder catch for the first out of the seventh.
Rogers made swift work of the next two batters, causing two flyouts to secure the 5-2 victory. Rogers finished with eight strikeouts.
“It’s fun playing behind her,” Puni said of Rogers. “She competes. She’s always there for us on and off the field. She just wants to win.”
Tennessee and Texas play Game Two Saturday, May 27th, at 3:00 pm ET to see if Texas can cause a Game Three or if the Lady Vols can secure a trip to the Women’s College World Series.