Ellen Renfroe bursts onto the scene
CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. -- There is no bigger event in college softball than the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City, but the Cathedral City Classic is a dress rehearsal like few other regular-season events in college athletics. This year's tournament featured 34 teams, including seven of last season's eight World Series participants and 14 teams ranked in the Top 25 the week of the event, playing 84 games spread over four days and five fields in the California desert.
And unlike the desert destination to the northeast in Nevada, what happens here doesn't always stay here.
Two years ago, Washington's Danielle Lawrie beat Florida's Stacey Nelson in a preview of what would unfold between the teams in that season's championship series in Oklahoma City. In February 2010, UCLA avoided a rare two-loss day with an extra-inning win against Northwestern in which Megan Langenfeld drove in two runs in the extra frame and closed out the game in the circle, a harbinger of efforts to come from the eventual World Series Most Outstanding Player.
Time will tell whether Tennessee's stay offered any such clue this season, but such staging didn't escape co-coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly in handing the ball to freshman Ellen Renfroe against UCLA on the event's showcase field. With Renfroe going the distance in the circle, the Lady Vols completed a perfect weekend with a 7-1 win against the defending national champion.
"It's always good to get a victory against a great program like UCLA," Ralph Weekly said after the win, the third for the Lady Vols in the past four meetings against the Bruins. "We made the decision today to go with our freshman because this is as close to a World Series atmosphere as you get, and we think she's going to be pretty good and we wanted to give her that opportunity to throw against one of the top-five teams.
"We were going to go with her all the way, win or lose. I was really proud of her."
Renfroe struck out 10 batters and scattered six singles in her seven innings against UCLA to improve to 7-1 on the season. The lone loss came last week, when she looked the part of a freshman against Stanford. Making her first start against a ranked team, she gave up three hits, walked one batter and hit another before exiting in the second inning of a 5-0 loss for the Lady Vols. But maturity, at least with respect to that normally evident in a player less than a calendar year removed from high school competition, is something you hear a lot about when it comes to Renfroe. And whatever jitters marked her debut on the big stage against Stanford were gone by the time she got the ball against another Pac-10 power.
"Ellen's just done a great job," said outfielder Kat Dotson, the reigning SEC co-freshman of the year. "She has such a positive energy on the field and off the field. And I think she brings a lot of people up when she's in the circle; she just makes everyone else calm and collected. She does a really good job, and I'm really proud of her."
Weekly was quick to reject any notion that the freshman is emerging as the ace on a staff that also includes older sister Ivy Renfroe, who shut out UC Santa Barbara in Cathedral City and totaled 17 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings, and experienced junior Cat Hosfield. But the younger Renfroe is out front in innings, strikeouts, ERA and wins, adding an intriguing component to a team that also is showing off more power than last season (not that it had trouble scoring runs a season ago).
And Weekly doesn't try to contain at least some measure of giddiness about the 6-foot Tennessee native.
"She's a pretty darn good pitcher for a freshman," the coach said.
• Georgia opened its stay in Cathedral City in decidedly uncharacteristic fashion, losing 1-0 to Oklahoma State on Thursday, its first loss this season and the first time in 84 games it was shut out. But, after bouncing back with wins against Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Oregon State, the Bulldogs put an emphatic exclamation point on the weekend with an 8-0, run-rule win against Arizona on Saturday night. Alison Owen, arguably the college game's most notable relief specialist, picked up three wins out of the bullpen and struck out 17 batters in 11 innings, and outfielder Megan Wiggins garnered SEC Player of the Week honors after hitting three home runs and driving in eight runs.
• UCLA took some lumps in losing twice and committing 10 errors in five games in Cathedral City, but there was also a lot to like about the Bruins. Noticeably favoring a right ankle she injured in a rundown last week, senior Donna Kerr was terrific in a 3-0 win against Oklahoma and gutted out seven innings for a no-decision in her team's 5-4 extra-inning win against Northwestern. The win in that game came courtesy of a walk-off home run from freshman Alyssa Tiumalu, one of a number of times throughout the weekend that freshman contributors Tiumalu, Jessica Hall, Kellie Fox and Talee Snow showed the kind of potential that could be scary by May. Tiumalu leads the Bruins with a .457 batting average, and Fox tops all regulars with a 1.232 OPS.
• More in the days ahead on Washington, but with Lawrie and Ashley Charters among those in attendance this weekend, the Huskies continued to look like a team that isn't leaving the championship picture anytime soon. Washington swept through Texas A&M, Fordham, Cal State Fullerton, Massachusetts and Cal Poly and scored 41 more runs. The Huskies have 150 runs in a 13-0 start. They started 13-0 en route to a title in 2009 but scored just 86 in the process.
• With 84 games to talk about, you would think fans in Cathedral City wouldn't have found much reason to look beyond the confines of the facility. But one result from afar that made the rounds -- and drew the same astonished reaction each time -- was news of Southern beating Louisiana-Lafayette in a tournament hosted by McNeese State. The SWAC program, which once lost to Louisiana-Lafayette by a 35-1 score, was just 1-10 entering the game but pulled out a 5-4 win behind seven innings from pitcher Michael Pless and two RBIs from Victoria Stewart.
• Also far from the desert, Alabama beat Missouri in a game between ranked teams in a tournament hosted by South Florida. Crimson Tide senior Kelsi Dunne got the best of Missouri's Chelsea Thomas, allowing just three singles and two walks in a complete-game win.
Oklahoma: When Jessica Shults went to the ground and stayed there after fouling a pitch off her leg in the third inning of a game against Cal Poly in Cathedral City, a bad weekend for Oklahoma seemed to reach its nadir. The Sooners trailed the Mustangs 2-0 at the time and already had accumulated losses against Georgia, Hawaii, Long Beach State and UCLA in which Patty Gasso's team scored just two runs among the four games. But Shults got to her feet and hit the next pitch over the fence for a three-run home run, paving the way for the Sooners to escape with one win to take back to Norman.
One bad weekend won't ruin a season, although it likely will cost Oklahoma its place in the top 10 for the time being, but an All-American stepping up and delivering a hit under adversity is the kind of thing that ultimately could pay dividends for Oklahoma and its emerging superstar.
Fordham: There was a time in the not-so-distant past when coming out of the gym in New York City and merely surviving against upper-echelon competition was a success for Fordham. So it says something about the program that a 3-2 record in Cathedral City, including wins against Texas, Cal State Fullerton and Nevada, could be construed as equal parts success and missed opportunity.
The Rams held an otherwise unstoppable Washington offense to three hits in a 2-0 loss and led LSU by a run with two outs in the sixth before back-to-back-to-back home runs from Anissa Young, Tammy Wray and Ashley Langoni erased the advantage in what finished as a 6-2 loss. But they did get a signature win against Texas to bolster their at-large profile for the postseason, and they got it with Jen Mineau in the circle for just her second start of the season. Mineau has been slowed early in the season by a stress fracture in her landing foot, an injury that limited her ability to throw at all in preseason and held her to a largely relief role the first two weeks of the season.
"We hope to get her back to 100 percent," Fordham coach Bridget Orchard said. "But it is something, because it is her landing foot, that we're really making sure to pay attention to and that we don't make it anything worse. She's got bone edema on her landing foot, so at any time, if she lands on it hard, it could go."
As with Missouri a season ago, when Kristin Nottelmann emerged while Thomas was injured, Fordham has enjoyed at least one silver lining in the early health woes. Given the ball far more than might have been expected, senior Chelsea Plimpton has a 1.76 ERA in 11 starts, and it was Plimpton who held the mighty Huskies in check Thursday.
Syracuse: You could make a case that no team had a better stay in Cathedral City than Syracuse. The Orange spent much of their time outside the sphere of the tournament's showcase fields, but that hardly diminishes the luster of a Big East squad leaving as one of just four teams to go 5-0 in the tournament after beating Utah, Hawaii, Fresno State, Nevada and Fullerton. All five wins were by a single run, highlighted by a 3-2 win against Hawaii on Friday in which Canadian international Jenna Caira struck out 16 batters and a 4-3 win against Fresno State on Saturday that came courtesy of Lacey Kohl's two-out, two-run home run in the top of the seventh.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.