KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee remains confident that it's only a matter of time before the Lady Vols win the softball national title that continues to elude them.
"I have absolute faith that Tennessee will get a national championship in softball," third baseman Raven Chavanne said Wednesday as the Lady Vols returned to campus after finishing second in the Women's College World Series. "Whether it's next year or in five years, I know it's going to happen."
Tennessee's latest title bid ended Tuesday when it got swept by Oklahoma in the best-of-3 championship round of the Lady Vols' third World Series appearance in the last four years. Tennessee also reached the championship round in 2007 before losing to Arizona in three games.
The Lady Vols (52-12) came home to a festive greeting that featured over 100 supporters, including Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart, football coach Butch Jones, men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin and dozens of student-athletes in other sports. Marlon Walls, a defensive lineman on the football team, set off an air horn as the Lady Vols exited the team bus.
"Butch would text us every night," Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly said. "Cuonzo texted us every night. Everyone in the department texted us. I'm just proud to be a Vol. I wanted this for the university. I really wanted it. You leave it on the field and it just didn't happen. That's all there is to it."
The turnout Wednesday indicated how the Lady Vols' run to the championship round had inspired a fan base that hasn't had too many reasons to cheer lately. Tennessee hasn't reached a bowl game or advanced to the NCAA men's basketball tournament the last two years, but the softball program nearly brought a title back to Knoxville.
Tennessee, the No. 7 national seed, gave top-seeded Oklahoma all it could handle Monday in the first game of the championship series. The pitchers' duel between Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe was scoreless for the first 10 innings. Madison Shipman put Tennessee ahead with a three-run homer in the top of the 11th. Oklahoma tied the score in the bottom of the 11th and won it 5-3 on Lauren Chamberlain's homer in the 12th, ending the longest softball game in Lady Vols history.
Oklahoma won the second game 4-0 Tuesday to clinch the title.
"Our kids fought," Weekly said. "They overachieved. Nobody picked us to be in that game. We had a great team. We fought hard. We just ran into a better team. You can make excuses all day, but that's what happened."
Even though they lost the series, the Lady Vols won plenty of fans across the country.
Second baseman Lauren Gibson said she checked her phone after Monday's marathon and found 623 text messages. Weekly said that Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona texted him earlier in the Women's College World Series. For about 25 minutes during Monday's game, either "(hash)LadyVols" or "Tennessee" trended nationally on Twitter. For about five minutes, one term or the other trended worldwide.
"It was pretty crazy," Shipman said. "I had to ask somebody what trending on Twitter meant because I'm so new to the whole Twitter thing."
The Lady Vols will try to build on that momentum and return to the Women's College World Series for a third straight time next year. It won't be easy.
Tennessee's list of departing seniors includes Chavanne and Gibson, both selected as first-team All-Americans by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. Ivy Renfroe ended her Tennessee career with a 97-24 record and a 2.04 ERA. The Lady Vols also must replace four-year starter Kat Dotson in the outfield and two-year starter Melissa Brown at first base.
But the Lady Vols should get a boost from the addition of a recruiting class that Weekly rates as the best he's signed since his arrival. And even though the Lady Vols lose plenty of firepower, they've gained plenty of incentive from coming so close to that elusive title this year.
"We can definitely taste it," Shipman said. "We're looking forward to next year. We've got some unfinished business to take care of."