Junior Jessica Spigner
May 19, 2011
By Brian Rice -- for UTLadyVols.com
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- On most Saturday nights in SEC softball, a two-home run, four-RBI night in a winning effort would be the lead story. In a nationally-televised game, the performance might even make "Top Plays" on Sportscenter. But on a Saturday night that just happened to be the SEC Tournament Championship, a game that just happened to be on ESPN, a walk-off home run stole most of the spotlight. Nice problem for a team to have, right?
Burchell's walk-off solo shot in the eighth inning gave the program its second SEC Tournament Championship, but the two home runs for Spigner put the team in position for Burchell's difference-maker.
Not that Spigner minded that her teammate's home took some of the attention off of her performance at the plate.
"We've got each other's backs," Spigner said. "Whoever won the game (for UT), it didn't matter. WE won, we worked our butt off to get there."
Burchell was quick to agree.
"She was great," Burchell said of Spigner's Saturday night specials. "I remember us talking after our first at-bats and I had gotten jammed, but we talked about how we were seeing the pitcher really well, and we're not going to give up. And I remember she said `I'm going to hit it out next time' and I said, `Well, I'm going to be on base.'"
Spigner and Burchell each proved to be prophetic in their conversation. Spigner did indeed homer in her next at-bat, a line-drive shot over the left-center field wall. And standing on first base when the ball was struck? None other than Burchell who had reached on an error.
"I just put a good swing on it," said Spigner, speaking on what was, at the time, her team-leading 15th homer of the season. "It was an inside pitch and I got jammed a little bit. Our coaches had been telling us to just cut the lead in half and we did that, and once we did, we were all like `we can do this, we can come back.' That momentum contributed to the next home run, then Shelby's winner."
"The next home run," as Spigner simply put it, also scored two. Whitney Hammond joined Spigner in crossing home plate on the play, but Hammond had been inserted into the game for her prowess on the base paths as a pinch runner for none other than Burchell, whose line-drive single started the sixth inning.
"Jess has hit the ball extremely well, especially in the second half of the season," Tennessee Co-Head Coach Karen Weekly said. "A lot of her home runs have come later in the season, and that's been a big key to our success down the stretch. Shelby's home run gets the attention because it's the walk-off, but we're not even in that position without Jess."
The headline-grabbing homers are part of a growing offensive focus in a game that has long been defined by dominant pitchers. Weekly credits a shift in the game's focus to the increased production on offense.
"There used to be a lot of emphasis in coaching on pitching," she said. "Now, there are a lot of really good hitting coaches in our game who have really studied hitting and really spent a lot of time teaching hitting, especially teaching power hitting."
One of those great hitting coaches shares a dugout and a head coach's office suite with Karen Weekly. Ralph Weekly served as the hitting coach for the U.S. National Team for its runs to gold medals at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. Karen Weekly said that team's performance at the plate this season is no accident.
"Home runs were a big factor this weekend, five of our six runs in the Championship game came on home runs. That's been something we've really emphasized this season. We wanted to generate more power and broke the school record in home runs this year. We've been really happy with the way the kids have shown that power."
And Spigner, whose 16 home runs pace the record-breaking team that totals 65 on the season, has been all too happy to see the balance of power in the game shift to the offense.
"The game is called `fastpitch' and the pitchers are a huge part of it," Spigner said. "But you need offense and to score runs to win the game. The hitters are changing the game."
Heading into the NCAA Tournament, the Big Orange Nation hopes that Spigner and Burchell each continue to change the game.