Preview | Softball to host its first SEC series on Friday

Here’s why defense will make the difference

Robert Cortez, Staff Reporter

Two top-25 teams in No. 2/3 Alabama softball (22-1; 3-0 SEC) and the No. 19/21 Tennessee (19-3, 1-2 SEC) will take the field inside Rhoads Stadium beginning Friday, Mar. 19, for the second conference series of the season. 

“I’m super excited for it and [for the chance] to play in front of our fans who are completely awesome,” freshman Bailey Dowling said. 

Both Alabama and Tennessee opened up their conference schedules against another ranked opponent. But unlike head coach Patrick Murphy’s squad, the Lady Vols dropped their home series to the No. 12/12 LSU Tigers. LSU is a common opponent; Alabama swept its two games against the Tigers back in February in the Easton Bama Bash. 

Each of the three games in the weekend series could result in a pitchers duel as both squads contain some of the top pitchers not only in the conference, but in the country. Both pitching staff are tied for the conference lead in holding opponents to a .149 batting average and have given up the fewest walks in the conference. Tennessee’s junior Ashley Rogers (9-3; 1.03 ERA) is the ace of the Lady Vols staff, while Alabama is led by a two-headed monster in the circle in junior Montana Fouts (8-1; .98 ERA) and sophomore Lexi Kilfoyl (9-0; .38 ERA). 

Rogers has tallied a conference-leading 107 strikeouts, thanks to her riseball. A riseball has a backwards rotation that allows it to gain elevation as it approaches the plate. Two-time Olympian and ESPN softball analyst Michele Smith said Rogers is “one of the top riseball pitchers” in the game. 

In a press conference on Tuesday, Murphy said the best way to be successful against Rogers and her riseball is “to lay off it” and “have really good plate discipline.”

“So the best advice is just don’t swing,” Murphy said. “If it’s a really good riseball, it’s probably out of the zone to begin with.”

Murphy described Fouts and Kilfoyl as a “winning combination.” Fouts, who touched 76 mph in game three, throws up in the zone and can bring the heat. Kilfoyl locates down in the zone with her drop ball and can mix in the changeup. 

This past weekend against Auburn, Kilfoyl collected a win in both game one and game three, which earned her the SEC Newcomer of the Week title. This award is new to the conference and is given to a player who was a freshman in the 2020 season. 

Kilfoyl was not the only Crimson Tide player to receive an honor. Graduate student Bailey Hemphill was named the SEC Co-Player of the Week for the first time in her career. Hemphill carried a .666 batting average, .833 on-base percentage and belted two home runs this past weekend. 

“I think the way Bailey was hitting was just contagious to everybody,” Murphy said. 

Hemphill was not only productive in the batters box, but she also delivered behind the plate as catcher. At last weekend’s Auburn matchup, she went against the third-best base-stealing team in the SEC and threw out three of the four attempted base stealers. Hemphill will be going against an even better base-stealing team in Tennessee, as it leads the conference in steals, 44. This past weekend, Tennessee was perfect on the basepaths, successfully stealing four bases on as many attempts.  

Alabama also stole four bases this past weekend and ranks just behind the Lady Vols in steals, 40. Steals will be key this weekend, since the pitching talent on both teams will create a scarcity of runners on base throughout the game. 

First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT on Friday, Mar. 19, and will air on ESPNU. Game two on Saturday, Mar. 20, is at 2 p.m. CT and can be streamed on the ESPN app, while the series finale on Sunday, Mar. 21, will be back on ESPNU at 1 p.m. CT.