By DUDLEY E. DAWSON
Tennessee has proven itself to the the SEC’s top softball team so far this season, but two-time defending champion Arkansas delivered a Senior Day message on Sunday.
That message – go clinch somewhere else.
Cylie Halvorson hit a tie-breaking three-run homer in the sixth and Krisitina Foreman followed with a solo blast as the No. 12 Razorbacks downed the No. 3 Volunteers 6-4 at Bogle Park.
The win evened the series between Arkansas (36-14, 12-8) and Tennessee (39-6, 17-3) and assured there would no clinching celebration on Sunday or after Monday’s 6 p.m. series finale.
“Well, I’m really glad that they can’t celebrate on our field,” Arkansas head coach Courtney Deifel said. “We knew…we know what they’re playing for and we know what we’re playing for…No one wants to see another team win and celebrate on their home turf.
“…They have a good lead…in the conference and they’re an incredible team. So I was just, I’m really, really happy with the way we competed.
“They are very tough, very, very tough. Maybe the most complete, not one, if not the most, then definitely a top three team that we’ve played all year. They’re very, very complete throughout.”
Halvorson, a transfer from South Dakota State, noted her team was well aware of the scenario.
“We knew that if they would have swept us this weekend that they would have won the conference and we didn’t want that to happen here on our field,” Halvorson said. “So it was really nice for us to take the second game and not even the third, you know what I mean? We didn’t want it to happen and it’s sure not happening this weekend.”
Deifel was not surprised by Halvorson coming through in the clutch with her seventh homer of the season.
“Big players love those moments,” Deifel said. “And she thrives in those moments. She thrives when the team really needs her. It’s such like a piece of her that is, I mean, that, I mean, it’s just so valuable to have. But also it’s, you know, she just stayed the course today.”
The home run came on a 3-1 pitch and off Tennessee starter Payton Gottshall (11-1), who lost her first game of the season.
“I mean, they’re not going to put another one on, so knowing that she’s going to get something to hit, knowing how they were attacking her, and to just stay level in that moment,” Deifel said. “And you could see every swing she took was a better swing. She was seeing it really well. Her timing was good.
“And just to capitalize on that pitch in that moment is just so huge. We knew she was a big time player and she has been that, absolutely.”
Halvorson was just ready to hit.
“I really wasn’t looking for anything specific,” Halvorson said. “I was just trying to get a strike and let my body do the work. And I have my coaches that believe in me, my teammates that believe in me, so it’s really hard to not believe in myself. And so I was just looking to hit the ball hard and I happened to hit a home run.”
So was Duke transfer and senior Foreman, who made it back-to-back jacks three pitches later.
“Kristina’s s my roommate, if you didn’t know that,” Halvorson said. “So as soon as I saw her, I was like, ‘218 is up!’ Because that’s our room number. So I was really happy for her.
“It’s her senior day. I think she was 3 for 3 on base. So I’m really proud of her and she deserves it all. So I was really happy.”
Tennessee is two games ahead of Georgia (38-10, 15-5) with Auburn (37-15, 13-8) and Arkansas rounding out the league’s top four squads.
Arkansas will travel to Missouri next weekend and Tennessee will host South Carolina to close out the regular season with the SEC Tournament being held in Fayetteville May 9-13.
Vols head coach Karen Weekly knew the Razorbacks would play with pride after losing 3-1 on Saturday.
“Exactly,” Weekly said. “They are the defending champs, too. The last thing they want to see is somebody win the conference championship on their field.
“This conference is a bear. You have got to show up every single week ready to play every single day and even days you show up ready, it might not go your way. That’s just how good these teams are.”
Arkansas got the win before a crowd of 3,208 fans.
“Our crowd was awesome,” Deifel said. “Our fans are the best. I would put up our environment at Bogel, when it’s packed and the Berm’s packed, I would put it up against anyone.
“Our fans, our fans are tremendous. And we know how fortunate, how lucky we are. We don’t take one game for granted, then they show up for us and they just bring so much great energy. It’s an electric atmosphere and we’re very lucky.”
Arkansas took a 2-0 lead in the third when Foreman reached on a two-out single and Kacie Hoffman blasted her seventh homer of the season.
It stayed that way until the top of the fifth when Zaida Puni’s two-run, two-out double glanced off the glove of Reagan Johnson.
The hit came off Arkansas senior ace Chenise Delce, who relieved starter Hannah Camenzind (4-2) with a runner on and no one out in the fifth.
Delce fanned Kiki Milloy – daughter of four-time NFL Pro-Bowl selection Lawyer Milloy – before giving up tying runs on a two-out, two-strike pitch.
“You knew they were going to come out fighting,” Weekly said. “They are one of the best teams in the SEC for a reason. They are well-coached, they have a great ace there in Delce and we expected it.
“I didn’t really like the way we showed up today. I just didn’t think we had the attack mentality that we have had these past few weeks that has been a big factor in our success.
“Hopefully we can learn from this, again, and hopefully it will the last time.”
Tennessee loaded the bases with nobody out in the seventh and plated a pair of runs.
It appeared for a moment that McKenna “Boo” Gibson might have touched off a grand slam to tie it, but it fell short.
“We were in a good spot on the line up and Boo just barely got under that ball,” Weekly said. “If the wind is not blowing or she just gets a little bit more, that thing is out and obviously it is a whole different game there.
“But you have got to give credit to them to play really well.”
Weekly talked about her team’s mindset.
“It was just to keep the focus now what is in front of us,” Weekly said. “Not think about where we are run the standings or this for that. It’s the next step. We talk a lot about playing free and playing on the attack and that is what need to do to be successful.”
Photo courtesy of the University of Arkansas