Ashley Morgan Sends Lady Vols To Super Regionals
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Ashley Morgan stood on second base and let out a primal screen, simultaneously unleashing unfettered joy and weeks of frustration.
The Tennessee sophomore had been struggling at the plate in big moments this season. She only had two hits in her previous 19 at-bats.
But Morgan delivered in the clutch for the Lady Vols in a winner-take-all regional final game on Sunday afternoon.
Morgan belted a two-run double in the fifth inning to help 12th-seeded Tennessee finally break through against North Carolina ace Brittany Pickett and clinch a spot in the Super Regionals with a 2-0 victory over the Tar Heels at Sherri Parker Lee Stadium.
After Morgan was replaced by a pinch runner, she was mobbed by her teammates before she could even enter the dugout. They all knew how hard Morgan worked to stay positive despite her lack of production.
“It felt good off the bat, and when I was finally on second base it felt great to know that we finally got some runs on the board,” Morgan said. “Seeing everyone in the dugout was awesome.”
Tennessee (42-15) advances to the Super Regionals for the third consecutive season and 11th time in program history. The Lady Vols will face No. 5 Florida in Gainesville in their third straight All-SEC Super Regional.
On a day highlighted by superb pitching and stellar defense, Morgan provided just enough offense for Tennessee to keep its season alive.
The Lady Vols, who beat UNC 2-0 on the road in March, were held to two meager hits by Pickett in their 1-0 loss in the opening game on Sunday to force the high-stakes rubber match.
But the Lady Vols felt confident they were starting to get a better read on Pickett by the end of the first game. They made an adjustment after being no hit through five innings, shortening up their swings instead of swinging for the fences.
Tennessee co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly were particularly pleased with Morgan’s approach and thought she was seeing the ball well.
They moved Morgan to the No. 4 spot in the lineup for the second game, and she rewarded their faith by ending an eight-game drought without an RBI.
“I love seeing when players get knocked down and they just keep getting back up. I couldn’t have been more happy for a young lady than I was for her today to get that hit,” Karen Weekly said. “You heard in her answer there was nothing about being happy for herself. It was all about the team and about looking over and seeing the celebration on her teammates’ faces.”
After fighting its way through the loser’s bracket, UNC (38-20) leaned on Pickett to go the distance in both games against Tennessee. The left-hander threw 177 total pitches in steamy conditions.
Pickett won the first pitching duel with Tennessee freshman Ashley Rogers in the opener. Pickett and Rogers had nearly identical stat lines, both allowing two hits with eight strikeouts and two walks. The only difference was a solo home run by UNC’s Kristina Burkhardt in the sixth inning.
Tennessee made it a priority to create more pitching depth this season, feeling a lack of different looks to throw at teams resulted in postseason losses the previous two seasons.
Rogers, Caylan Arnold and Matty Moss all contributed solid innings for the Lady Vols in the regional.
Arnold got the clinching win, allowing four hits in six innings with six strikeouts. Moss earned the save with an inning of hitless relief to close out the seventh.
“We need all of our pitchers to be at their best this time of year. I think you saw this weekend how we needed every single one of them at different points in time,” Karen Weekly said. “When I think back to just not only today, but we faced North Carolina three times now, and we gave up one run—the run today—and that's a real credit to this pitching staff.”
Arnold was backed by some web-gem worthy defense from second baseman Kaitlin Parsons.
The freshman made three beautiful plays, including a sprawling dive to snatch a line drive that caused her teammates to marvel in awe and a grown man to yell “KP, I love you” from the stands.
“I mean, the first one that she made, I was just like, ‘wow, like that was amazing. That was awesome like holy crap,’ And then the second one, I literally just squatted in the middle of the circle and I was just blown away because she just did such an awesome job,” Arnold said. “I know Chelsea (Seggern) came over and she's like, ‘I know bud, I know. I know it's just crazy, just get up.’ I was like what the heck? She is just awesome. To see my team fighting like that, it just pushed me even more.”
Arnold has been authoring her own bounce-back story the last few weeks. The junior endured a setback early in the season when she was hospitalized after suffering an allergic reaction to peanuts in something she ate.
Arnold has come on strong lately with some of her most gritty performances.
“I've worked really hard this year to get back to feeling like myself and going out there and attacking and being dominant,” Arnold said. “To have my teammates behind me like that and to make such awesome plays like Kaitlin Parsons made, and she did absolutely amazing, and then have Kaili Phillips behind the plate working her butt off for me, that's what really pushed me and what kept me going and what kept me fighting the way that I did for this team.”
Pickett held strong through 13 innings against the Lady Vols, with Morgan’s two-out, two strike double to right-centerfield bringing home the only runs she would allow.
Rather than blame fatigue, Pickett credited Morgan.
“I think she saw the ball well. I thought it was a well-executed pitch too on my end. That's kind of where I was looking to throw anyways,” said Pickett, who gave up seven hits in the decider. “But kudos to her, she got her hands through and stayed with an off speed and got some runs on the board for her team.”
Reaching the regional final was the deepest run UNC has made in program history. Head coach Donna Papa credited her seniors for establishing a fun-loving culture that kept the Tar Heels dancing through weather delays and battling to win three elimination games.
“I'm just extremely proud of what we accomplished,” said Papa, in her 33rd season at UNC. “I certainly am not satisfied that we're sitting here and Tennessee's moving on to the Super Regional, but kudos to them. They played a great second game. They got the runs they needed to win and move on. But to come out of the loser’s bracket and come to the championship game and go to the second game is pretty big.”
After Moss secured the final out for the Lady Vols with a strikeout looking, the senior spiked her glove to the ground and was swarmed by her teammates in celebration.
Morgan received extra hugs and high-fives from friends and family as she emerged from the clubhouse. She headed to the parking lot, climbed into her big black Jeep and prepared for the short drive to her apartment with a satisfied smile on her face.
“She came through big time for us,” Karen Weekly said. “It’s so gratifying to a coach when somebody who works super hard but hasn’t gotten the results comes up big at the biggest time possible.”