TUSCALOOSA — The night before, when a tenacious Texas volleyed back with seven runs over two innings in Friday evening’s 7-5 loss, Alabama’s usually responsive bats fell mostly silent, as 12 of its final 14 plate appearances ended in outs.
The feeling felt within the Crimson Tide dugout after usually friendly momentum swung ferociously in the opposite direction was a strange sensation for a team that opened the season with a program-record 33-game win streak — not suffering its first loss until late March — and only trailed in a combined total of 22 innings leading up to last weekend.
Of course, that only led to an even bigger retort in Saturday’s Tuscaloosa Super Regional final, when eighth-seeded Alabama answered the Longhorns’ game-tying effort in the top-half of the third inning with a five-run explosion on back-to-back two-out home runs from KB Sides and Bailey Hemphill.
“Every game that we’ve lost, we just come back even stronger and even more relentless, just gritty,” Sides said following Saturday’s decisive 8-5 victory over Texas to help Alabama advance to this week’s Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City. “That was the main thing, not to (think) our backs were against the wall. We’re on our home field with the best fans in the country and you just have to stay under control.”
That feeling of exerting control in the face of adversity has been a calling card for the Crimson Tide all season long . It was personified by not only Alabama’s ability to respond every time Texas mounted any sort of a comeback effort Saturday, but in how freshman ace Montana Fouts persevered after surrendering a fifth-inning grand slam to send down eight of the final 10 Longhorns by either groundout or flyout.
“It was so hot, and props to Tana (Fouts) for working her butt off out there after giving up that grand slam,” Sides said of Fouts, whose eight earned runs allowed versus Texas on Friday and Saturday were the most the SEC Freshman of the Year has surrendered in back-to-back games all season. “But for her to come back on this stage and shut it down with no runs scored after that, was incredible.”
Despite the way Fouts was pitching in the circle Saturday, the plucky Tide never appeared satisfied with its multi-run advantage over the Longhorns, working in a couple of insurance runs in the fourth and sixth innings on two-out RBI-singles from unsung sophomore Maddie Morgan (3-for-3, 3 RBI in the game).
“They’re very, very resilient and it’s one of the best qualities a team can have,” longtime Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said Saturday.
Added Texas third baseman Shannon Rhodes: “From postseason on, no one’s going to lay down. I think you have to have that mindset that everybody’s going to compete and everybody wants that trophy at the end, and there’s only going to be one team standing. So you have to expect a dogfight, and that’s what we got (from Alabama).”
It’s that same mentality that Alabama has attacked this entire season, one that started in February with much of the rest of the Southeastern Conference believing the Tide were no better than the league’s eighth-best team.
Of course, using the No. 8 — or more precisely “Domin8” — as its battle cry all year, including as it entered the postseason undervalued as the eighth seed, a highly motivated Alabama has proven it is a far better team than anyone outside its own locker room even thought possible, once that is more than capable to competing on the biggest stage in college softball.
“Last night I texted my mom like, ‘I’m not leaving this field unless it’s for us to go to OKC, you’ll have to drag me off this field,’” Sides said Saturday. “It’s just my mindset, I’m fighting every time, every single pitch. If she throws it over the plate, I’m crushing it.”
Added Morgan: “We just refuse to lose, especially on our home turf.”
But now the Tide must do it away from the friendly confines of Rhoads Stadium as it makes its return to the Women’s College World Series at USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
As if one final challenge as the No. 8 national seed, Alabama (57-8) must face No. 1 Oklahoma (55-3) at 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the final game of the opening day of play, with the winner set to play the winner between fifth-seeded Florida and No. 13 seed Oklahoma State at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Thursday night’s loser would play an elimination game against the loser from the earlier game between the Cowboys and Gators.
With both Oklahoma — whose home stadium in Norman is about 27 miles away from the famous WCWS site — and Oklahoma State on its side of the bracket, the Tide understand the benefit of having a supportive crowd at its back is probably out the window this weekend. Not that it’s anything Alabama hasn’t faced before in previous trips to the Sooner State.
“When we got to the World Series in Oklahoma, Norman is 30 minutes away — it’s basically a home game for Oklahoma,” Murphy said. “We dealt with it in ’12, we dealt with it in ’14, and it’s just part of the deal. There will probably be 1,000 people cheering for us, 1,300 cheering for them. It’s just, they’re just really lucky geography-wise, because that’s where the World Series is going to be until like 2030. If anybody here has a lot of money and wants to build a stadium in Birmingham, let’s do it. But, until then, you just have to deal with that.”
Alabama’s return to Oklahoma City is its first since a three-year run between 2014-16 and is its 12th all-time WCWS appearance in 23 years as a program, while the Big 12’s Sooners will be making their 13th all-time WCWS appearance, including eighth in the last nine years.
“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast and very deep. One of the best clubs I’ve seen,” first-year Texas head coach Mike White said of Oklahoma. “But if Alabama plays their game, they’re got power too. It’s going to be an interesting matchup, and what it’s going to come down to is the team that makes the plays or doesn’t make the plays, makes the pitches or doesn’t make the pitches. It’s always that way.”