Don't be stunned if Kentucky stuns Alabama softball in NCAA Super Regional | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

Kentucky softball made its only trip to the Women’s College World Series in 2014. This season may be the Wildcats’ best chance to return since then, even though Tuscaloosa traditionally is a road block that teams cannot circumvent.

Setting aside the inevitable geography puns about UK having to go through Alabama and Montana to get to Oklahoma, the NCAA Super Regional that starts Friday won’t be easy. But it also won’t be a shock to the system for a Kentucky team that has split four games with Alabama this season, winning two of three in a home series in Lexington, then losing an SEC Tournament quarterfinal at the Rhoads House.

Unlike teams that haven’t played softball in Tuscaloosa, UK will understand the situation that others only realize once the game has started. Yes, it can be hot (although this weekend looks to be mild).

But what makes the Rhoads House so daunting is not the heat, it’s the hostility. 

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“If you’re not used to that environment, it’s something that can be a little crazy, so it has to be a team like ours that’s used to playing there, that’s done it, that’s going to have a fighting chance,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said earlier this week. “Obviously, they’re a great team.”

Alabama pitcher Montana Fouts (14) reacts with teammates after closing out the game with a 6-5 win over Tennessee in the SEC Tournament in Rhoads Stadium  Friday, May 14, 2021. [Pool Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Equally obvious, though, has been the steady rise of Kentucky, among the other SEC programs. Florida and Alabama have led the way but the rising Tide (or the rising Gators, if you prefer) has tilted the balance of power ever so slightly from the West Coast. Seven of the 16 teams still playing for the NCAA championship are from the SEC, and there is a reasonable chance that five SEC teams, or more than half the field, could make it to Oklahoma City.  

That isn’t to disrespect the Pac-12, which already has had one round of grievance-airing when the NCAA pairings were announced. No one underestimates UCLA, technically the reigning champion thanks to its 2019 WCWS win. But, with all due respect to the programs at Arizona and Washington, no one would be shocked if UCLA was the only West Coast team in Oklahoma City next week. 

Softball is a different sport than football, but it has been interesting to watch the SEC grow stronger and stronger and pinpoint a reason for it. The growth has followed a very football-like geographic curve, one that includes not only the 13 SEC teams but also the more football-oriented ACC teams as well: Clemson, Florida State, Virginia Tech. I’d call that group the most SEC-like part of the ACC, although I tread carefully lest someone coached by my friend Dabo Swinney takes umbrage.

There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue at work. Does the football-driven financial success of the SEC programs (and a few others dotted around the nation) create the resources that lead to building the best facilities or hiring the best coaches? That’s not entirely limited to softball, either. Kentucky won the NCAA women’s volleyball championship last month. Ole Miss won the women’s golf title earlier this week. That can’t be entirely random.

The arms race in football, and that means arms in the facility-and-coach terms, not just the strong pitching arms of Montana Fouts or Autumn Humes, has produced an upper group of just a few teams with so much talent that competition can be difficult.

In football, there is still a gulf where you wouldn’t line up Kentucky’s roster, or almost anyone else’s, and say “they stack up pretty well” against Alabama. In softball, you can say that. Yes, Kentucky has to get past a premier pitcher in a snake-pit environment, but no one could look at this weekend and think the Wildcats don’t have a chance.