Between grand slams and game-winning doubles, Rainey Gaffin had an eventful start to her college career. The freshman at the University of Tennessee made herself an intricate part of the Volunteers’ success in one of NCAA Division I’s most demanding conferences.
Gaffin, however, was far from limited in standing out in the SEC. When everything was said and done, the former Legacy star also proved she could shine on the national stage, as well.
Gaffin was the only freshman on seventh-seed Tennessee’s roster to play every game in the team’s run to the Women’s College World Series finals. But is not her personal success in the team’s first run to the championship game since 2007 of which she has reminisced.
Instead, the reoccurring image to the freshman is much more stinging — the top-seeded Oklahoma Sooners celebrating the program’s second national title on June 4.
“I can remember their players throwing up their gloves after our final game, them running out and tackling each other and how much I want that in my career,” she said. “It hurt to watch, but it made me want it so much more.”
Gaffin’s memorable trip to ASA Hall of Fame Stadium had her filling a similar role to the one she played in the regular season. The freshman continued to be the team’s offensive specialist, starting at designated hitter against Florida and Texas and pinch hitting the other three games.
Gaffin did not record a hit in the series, but reached base in nearly every outing. As would be expected, the .290 average batter pegged most of her troubles on the tournament’s high-caliber pitching. She rated Oklahoma’s lefties Keilani Rickets and Michelle Gascoigne as best arms she faced. Each struck her out. But she also gave Texas right-hander Blaire Luna her props.
“I didn’t want to underestimate her, because I watched her kill it versus Florida,” Gaffin said. “Then I saw why at my first time up to bat. She has it all — inside, outside, up and down.”
A run into the World Series had been a dream of Gaffin’s since she first picked up a glove and started following the championship. But the experience of stepping onto the field turned out to be more intense than she could have ever imagined from her days watching the series from the stands.
“It was a way different feeling than any other tournament I’ve played in,” she said. “You have 10,000 people watching you — its like state, times 50.”
The temptation to freak out was more than ample. But Gaffin kept her nerve, in part, due to some words of wisdom from her mother/high school coach Dawn Gaffin.
“She said don’t look up at the stands, just focus on the game,” Rainey Gaffin said. “If I made more out of the situation than it was meant to be it was going to cause me trouble.”
While Gaffin had to leave Oklahoma City without a championship ring, she is certain the experience was formative. She believes she has a more intimate understanding of the World Series and will be better prepared the next time she is in the tournament.
Her coach could not have agreed more with her evaluation.
“Considering most girls never get to even play in a World Series, this was a great experience for her,” Vols skipper Ralph Weekly said. “I expect it will only continue build her confidence.”
The true impact of the World Series on Gaffin’s play is yet to be seen. But one effect of making it that far her first year of college competition is not in dispute, her motivation.
“I know where I want to be for the next few years,” she said. “After playing in the World Series, everything else looks bland.”
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