Embracing the Grind

UT Softball | Photo by Bruce McCamish

The Lady Vols softball team, after overcoming some struggles in the long regular season, is poised to make another postseason trip to the Women’s College World Series. 

With two out in the sixth inning of a 0-0 pitchers’ duel between No. 7-ranked LSU and No. 4-ranked Tennessee, the bases were loaded with Lady Vols. First baseman Gianna “G” Koutsoyanoulos, a .247 hitter and No. 8 in the order, was up.

“On occasion we pinch hit for her,” said Head Coach Karen Weekly afterward. “But her at-bats were getting better and better. She had this look in her eye. She knew what she was doing up there.”

“Walking out there, it was out of body, surreal,” said G, sounding like the Mission Viejo, California, girl she is. After G took two balls, LSU Head Coach Beth Torina strolled out to chat with pitcher Sydney Berzon. On her way back from the mound, Torina directed a comment or two to the umpire, probably about his balls and strikes. He held up a finger, presumably as a warning.

UT Softball | Photo by Bruce McCamish

During that interlude Weekly counselled G, “Just know what you want. And if you don’t get it, and you get to two strikes, make sure she comes into the zone.” G remembered Weekly saying, “Don’t get yourself out on a pitch you shouldn’t be going for.”

Koutsoyanoulos swung at the next two pitches, took a ball for a full count, fouled one down the left field line, then drilled a double off the right centerfield wall, sliding under a throw at second and doing a celebratory dance as leftfielder Rylie West and catcher Sophie Nugent scored. 2-0 Lady Vols. “It was off-speed or a riser,” said G. “I didn’t really see it, but I got it. There were two strikes, so I had to protect.”

With G on second and second baseman Destiny Rodriguez on third, Weekly pinch-hit lefty freshman outfielder Gabby Leach for shortstop Laura Mealer. Leach, from The Woodlands, Texas, drilled a single up the middle to score Rodriguez. 3-0 Lady Vols. (Leach’s twin sister, Alannah, is also a lefty hitting and throwing outfielder, which should create some confusing moments in the years to come.)

A passing train blew its horn several times in encouragement as All-America centerfielder Kiki Molloy came up to bat. After Molloy ground out to first to end the inning, LSU coach Torina left the dugout to offer a few more thoughts to the umpire, earning herself an ejection. “The later it went,” observed veteran sportswriter Dan Fleser of the scoreless innings, “the more tense it got. It usually comes down to one inning, one hit, one thing.”

UT Softball | Photo by Bruce McCamish

In the third inning, Molloy, working her way back from an ankle injury, had gotten on base with a bunt. “I loved the bunt,” said Weekly. “That was Kiki’s idea. I didn’t give her a sign. She was just looking for a way to get a spark going.” It was only Molloy’s second hit of the LSU series. “Coming back from her injury,” said Weekly. “It’s tough for somebody like Kiki who they gunning for. They have a game plan for her. I proud of Kiki because she knows the one thing this team needs day in and day out is her leadership.”

Molloy, who hit .406 last year and led the nation with 25 homers, is hitting .347 with nine home runs and more stolen bases, 22, than the rest of the team combined. Only slugger Zaida Puni has more homers, 10. “Kiki is a generational player,” Weekly told Trevor McGee of the Daily Beacon before the season, “I have never coached a player like her, and I probably never will again. Just a very special young lady in terms of her talent, her work ethic. She’s the hardest worker on the team. She’s inspiring to watch.”

Third baseman McKenna “Boo” Gibson—so nicknamed because she resembles the character from Monsters Inc. and a second team All-America with a team-leading .367 average—made nifty plays on tough balls in the third and fifth innings to avert Tiger rallies.

West ended the sixth inning with a clutch play, nabbing a hot sinking liner below her knees. A senior journalism major from Eastvale, California, hitting .351 with nine homers, she was recently named as one of seven recipients of the Torchbearer Award, UT’s highest undergraduate honor.

Karlyn Pickens, the 6’1” flamethrower from Weaverville, North Carolina, had thrown six shutout innings before the feisty Payton Gottshall, who had won a 3-0 shutout on Friday evening, came in and closed the door. The evening before Pickens had thrown a three-hitter but lost 1-0. “We felt sick,” said G. “But by gametime the vibes got better.”

UT Softball | Photo by Bruce McCamish

“We grind,” explained Pickens. “We’re playing for everyone to our left and our right.” She said she expected the offensive barrage. “It was a time bomb waiting to happen,” she said. “The doors were going to be blown off.”

“The whole weekend felt like a Super Regional,” said Weekly. “All these series against SEC teams have felt like postseason games. Now they really feel like Super Regionals. It’s incredible pressure. The key is to maintain your mental health.”

Approaching a gaggle of reporters after the game, Koutsoyanopolus said with mostly feigned intimidation, “So many cameras! Three notepads!”  

“We grind,” she said, echoing Pickens. “We’re always giving 100 percent, embracing the little things, the good at bats, the good plays. It’s embracing the grind, embracing the struggle. We’ve been struggling a lot, but I love this team. We just work, we just grind and get through it.”

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