OKLAHOMA CITY -- When it comes to Tennessee vs. Alabama in softball, there are few surprises. Both of these Southeastern Conference powers know each other nearly as well as they know themselves.
So when they face off in the opener of the 2023 Women's College World Series on Thursday at Noon ET on Oge Energy Field at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex, they both know they need to come with their very best.
Yes, the Lady Vols already have taken three of four contests from the Crimson Tide this season, most recently when they held them off for a 7-6 victory in the SEC Tournament earlier this month. UT also has the better record at 49-8 overall and 19-5 in the SEC regular season, while also running the table to capture the SEC tourney title. Bama (45-20 overall, 14-10 SEC) is a 4-seed.
But three of their earlier four meetings were each decided by two runs or less, with the only outlier hardly a blowout when Tennessee took the opener of a three-game series, 5-1, way back in March. Bama won the next game in that series, 4-2, before the Lady Vols secured the series with a 7-5 win.
"I just think it goes to show the strength of our league and how competitive it is," Tennessee pitcher Ashley Rogers said. "Because, I mean, it's tooth-and-nail every single time. You don't have an 'off weekend' at all. Anyone can beat anyone.
"It's so tough in the SEC. You can have one great weekend or a day, then bounce back and face a completely different team. You always have to have your 'A' game on every single time you step on that field, especially in the SEC."
Thursday's matchup will be an all-SEC showdown to open the WCWS. It seems fitting.
Both coaches said on Wednesday at WCWS Media Day that neither senses a significant advantage or disadvantage for either team because of their familiarity with each other. It just is what it is.
"It works both ways," Tennessee's Karen Weekly said. "There is no advantage that we have on Alabama, no advantage that Alabama has on us. I think it alleviates a little bit of the uncertainty that you feel when you watch a team on film, but then step in the batter's box and it looks a little bit different than it looked on film. It kind of takes that part away from it.
"I think you can talk pros and cons all day long. I think one of the reasons where we are right now, this team has done a really good job of being in the moment and not thinking that what happened yesterday is going to help or hurt tomorrow. I think that's why they were able to do so well in the SEC juggernaut and then flip that when they got in the tournament and take it one game at a time. They really put things in the past."
Alabama's Patrick Murphy agreed with his counterpart. But while insisting that Tennessee enters as the favorite based on its accomplishments already this season, by no means does he think his team cannot compete.
"We know each other, we played each other in Fayetteville at the SEC," Murphy said. "We played early in the SEC (regular season), like March 17th, I think it was St. Patrick's Day. They're way different from what they were then, as are we, but the players are similar. Our lineup is different, their lineup is a little bit different.
"Honestly, their pitching staff is very strong. They double dipped in the SEC. They won the regular season and the tournament, so they're the favorite. They're the favorite in this game. We're the underdogs big-time. I feel like we're like the little engine that could. But either way, I think it will be a really entertaining game."
When Tennessee won 7-5 to clinch the regular-season series in March, Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts suffered through arguably her worst outing of what otherwise has been an another outstanding season in a five-year career for the graduate student. She gave up four hits and five runs, although only two were earned, in just 2.2 innings. Now her and her catcher, Ally Shipman, insist that Fouts used that rare off outing as motivation to turn it up a notch for the rest of the season.
"I could just tell by her commitment and focus after that series," Shipman said of Fouts, who is coming off a hyperextended knee injury but has pitched well in relief since suffering it during the SEC Tournament. "There was a look in her eyes that said I'm going to compete and I'm going to get better for the team. And she did that, and she did it really well."
Asked what she has been doing differently since that March outing, Fouts replied: "I would say mentally trying to be a little bit sharper, physically a little bit sharper, bring more to the table. I felt there were a couple things I could work on. I think I just took the series and learned from it. I feel like that's what we all did as a team. "
Meanwhile, in the same game when Fouts struggled, Rogers earned her 10th consecutive win of the season by throwing the final 5.2 innings in relief. Rogers comes into Thursday's game with an 18-1 record for the season and an astounding 0.75 earned-run average. Furthermore, the Lady Vols also have been getting strong pitching from transfer Payton Gottshall, who gave up just two runs in seven strong innings of relief in their SEC Tournament win over the Tide.
So some thing may be different this time around. But many things will remain the same.
"We talked this week," Weekly said. "Alabama is going to be a different team tomorrow than they were last time we faced them. We're a different team than last time we faced them. Our players have done a great job of treating each day as new, recognizing even if that is a team is somebody we faced, they're going to be new and different this time."
Murphy added: "We always have good games between Tennessee and Alabama," Murphy said. "It could go either way."