Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI
This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
Last week, Vol Nation joined the entire nation in facing history. History often repeats itself, and an invisible malaise of a different kind took center stage over COVID-19.
Repetition of years of systemic marginalization, oppression, and racism came to the forefront of the American narrative. This particular disease, thousands of years old, prompted University of Tennessee Athletics Leadership to issue a statement saying, in part, “Vol Nation, let’s rise to the challenge to meet a new standard. If you’re going to support our black student-athletes when they compete, please have the courage to support them and their families in their daily pursuit of peace, happiness and equity.”
This column follows sporting events throughout Volunteer athletic history. Though reflecting on favorite plays and players often remains light and fun, it must be acknowledged that at each juncture in that history, athletes have faced hatred and criticism not for the way they play, but for the color of their skin. Sports, which often act as forums for togetherness in support of favorite teams, also often serve as reflections of inequality and strife. Tennessee football did not integrate until 1968, 14 years after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and Tennessee basketball did not integrate until 1971. Tennessee baseball integrated in the early 1970s as well when quarterback and shortstop Condredge Holloway represented the Vols as a two-sport athlete of national acclaim (and backlash).
While players crusaded for wins against Southeastern Conference foes, they also crusaded — and continue to crusade — for equity and success. In order to truly embrace the Volunteer spirit, this crusade must be supported. Though the remainder of this column will continue with content and tenor typical of others in this series, take a moment to consider what happened this week, not just in UT sports history.
June 6, 1952
Coming off a year where the baseball team reached the NCAA World Series Championship, the Vols struggled on the road to Omaha in 1952. Despite a strong first inning, Tennessee allowed SEC rival Florida to earn twice the amount of runs in the postseason NCAA District Three match-up on June 6th in Kannapolis, North Carolina. Having already dropped a game to Duke in the double elimination tournament, the Vols left the border state without victories to laud.
The Florida Gators exploded for a 10-5 win against the Vols. Tennessee demonstrated improvement in the batter’s box. UT had only scored one run against Duke in the prior 7-1 loss, but mayhem on the mound midway through the game led to a loss.
Lead-off hitter Bill Asbury commenced a quick start for the orange and white. Gator Jim Gardner misjudged Asbury’s flyout to center field, dropping the ball while the Vol stormed to second. Asbury would later hit a line drive to open the second. However, Bert Rechichar made the biggest difference in the box with a three-run homer in the first. The Vol bats got hot early on while pitcher Don Williams kept the Gators hitless and scoreless through two.
Then, the third spelled trouble.
Florida put up four runs on three hits, an error, and a walk. Billy Joe Bowman relieved “rangy righthander” Williams in the fourth when the Gators took a 6-5 lead. His first pitch resulted in a ground rule double. Fortune favored Florida, as the Gators jumped out to a 9-5 lead.
The Gators failed to score again until the ninth inning, but the Vols never got back on the board to keep the game competitive. The foes from Florida took the win and postseason bragging rights. In 2020, both the Gators and the Vols stood poised to make runs toward the top of the SEC before COVID-19 quelled conference play.
June 2, 2006
The softball team in orange, white, and Lady Vol blue remains no stranger to postseason play. In 2006, the Lady Vols reached their second consecutive Women’s College World Series. The first task proved a tough one: No. 1 UCLA. The Bruins set their sights on the university’s 100th national title.
Spoiler alert: they didn’t earn it.
Tennessee, the top fielding team in the country with a .980 average, defeated the No. 1 team in the first round, eliminating UCLA from what was the team’s eighth consecutive WCWS appearance. With the win, the Lady Vols’ neutral site record improved to 23-0 on the season. But the one-point win did not come easy.
Behind Monica Abbott’s 11 strikeouts, Tennessee held on to win 4-3 after two errors in a game. The match-up ended at 2:05 a.m. after a true pitcher’s duel. UCLA pitcher Anjelica Selden, like Abbott, performed solidly, pitching a no-hitter until Shannon Doepking tore a single up the middle in the fifth inning. Both pitchers allowed nine hits. In the sixth, Lady Vol Tonya Callahan tied the game at two-all on a single.
In the top of the seventh, Sarah Fekete set the SEC single-season record for hits with 108. Teammate Lindsay Schultzer held the previous record of 107, which she set the year prior. Another record holder stole the show, however. The SEC career RBI leader, Kristi Durant, hit what would be the game-winning RBI in the same inning. With two RBI in the game, she extended her record to 203, 12 more than the previous record holder, Alabama’s Kelly Kretschman (191).
Unfortunately, the stunning high for the Lady Vols ceased the next day when Northwestern blanked the typically explosive squad, 2-0. Monica Abbott struck out 15 batters, but her teammates could not get the bats going.
The 2020 squad opened the season with a 6-3 win over Northwestern. The Lady Vols finished 14-9 when COVID-19 forced the end of the season. They finished the abbreviated year with a 3-2 loss to North Carolina on March 10th. They would have faced Texas A&M on March 13th to open SEC play, aiming for their 17th consecutive postseason run during the program’s 25th anniversary season.
Tennessee’s defense proved a strong point this year, recording 17 double plays. With a young team of returning players, they will look to capitalize on that momentum cut short heading into 2021, which will hopefully be a better year for everyone on and off fields.