TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It sounds like something out of video game. You get through all the tough spots and struggle through some very difficult stages, only to have a final showdown against a mirror image of yourself.
That’s what the Gainesville Super Regional feels like for the University of Alabama softball team. At stake is a spot in the Women’s College World Series, with the Crimson Tide needing two wins in three games against college softball’s biggest boss of all, No. 1-seeded Florida.
ESPN will show the entire series beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.
Even though the two Southeastern Conference schools/rivals didn’t meet during the regular season, they know each other very well. For example, in 2014 they played for the national championship.
Specific to this matchup, the teams are very similar in how they play.
“They have such a strong pitching staff,” sophomore catcher Reagan Dykes said. “That’s what they rely on and what we rely on also. Both teams are looking for that timely hitting.
“I don’t think there’s going to be tons of hits and tons of base-runners. But if you get that one quality at-bat at the right time it’s going to go for that team.”
Led by sophomore right-hander Kelly Barnhill (23-1), who has the best ERA in the nation at 0.35, the Gators boast the best ERA in college softball at 0.71. Senior left-hander Delanie Gourley (20-4) has an ERA of just 0.71, and junior right-hander Aleshia Ocasio’s is 1.17. Plus the Gators have a fourth pitcher they can call on, left-handed freshman Katei Chronister.
As a team, Florida is batting .308, but opponents have only managed .146. The most runs the Gators allowed in a loss this season have been five.
But 16th-seeded Alabama isn’t scared of Florida, or its 53-7 record — anything but.
To begin with, Alabama couldn’t have faced a better pitcher in terms of preparing for Florida than Minnesota’s Sara Groenewegen, who despite having a 0.64 ERA the Crimson Tide beat twice, 1-0.
Barnhill brings similar heat, while Gourley has a comparable change-up. That kind of contrast is normally very hard to get ready for, but that’s almost all Alabama saw last week, practices included.
Plus, Alabama couldn’t have a better scouting report on the Gators. Former Alabama standout Charlotte Morgan is the pitching coach for Oklahoma State, which faced Florida three times at their regional. The Cowgirls won one, 1-0, with a single, wild pitch and double the difference, but their ace wasn’t to pitch the decisive game.
“You’re not going to get many chances,” Murphy said, predicting that both teams will be playing aggressive as any run could be the difference.
The same formula of strong pitching, good defense and some timely hitting worked for Alabama during the Tuscaloosa Regional. As a team it only hit .195 over the three games, which was a credit to Groenewegen as much as anything, but junior Alexis Osorio (22-7, 1.21 ERA) and senior Sydney Littlejohn (17-8, 1.24) were stellar on the hill. Neither gave up a run.
“I think our pitchers are throwing the best that they have all season, for sure,” Murphy said. “Both are at the top of their game.”
Plus, the Crimson Tide made no errors.
Alabama also has won the last two series played in Gainesville, including last season when the Gators were ranked No. 1. With Littlejohn notching both wins, Alabama won the opener 2-1, lost the second game 3-2, and had a 3-0 shutout in the finale.
Florida went on to finish the regular season at No. 1, only to lose a close game in the SEC Tournament and was bounced in the Super Regional by No. 16 Georgia, 3-0 and 3-2.
One has to believe that Florida is desperate to avoid a repeat, while Alabama hopes to keep riding its recent success after a month-plus of seeing nearly everything that might go wrong do just that.
Having survived everything from numerous injuries to walk-off losses, the Crimson Tide believe they’re a different team peaking at the right time, which was only confirmed by knocking off Minnesota, ranked No. 1 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, and No. 3 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.
“Why not take the hard route?” Dykes said. “If we’re going to make it to the World Series, take the hard route. I’d rather do that than anyone saying ‘Oh, they got it easy.’
“So I know we’re ready to go.”