Softball | Alabama advances to top-5 series against Florida

Here’s why players like Montana Fouts “live for” matchups like this.

Robert Cortez, Staff Reporter

Montana Fouts chose to wear crimson and white her freshman year of high school because of high-stakes games this weekend’s Southeastern Conference matchup, when No. 3/3 Alabama (32-5; 11-4 SEC) and No. 4/5 Florida (30-5; 10-2 SEC), will cross paths in Tuscaloosa.

“I talk about all the time that we just live for these moments, and that is why we’re here,” junior Fouts said. 

The past 12 regular-season champions have either been the Crimson Tide or the Gators, and each program is in good position to win the conference again.

The series looks to be evenly matched in the pitching circle, as Florida and Alabama each obtain a 1.59 ERA for a second-place tie in the conference. However, the Crimson Tide could have an edge with Fouts (13-2; 1.62 ERA), who is the reigning SEC and D1 Softball Pitcher of the Week thanks to her performance this past weekend against No. 10/10 Arkansas. Fouts did not allot a single earned run and struck out 23 Razorbacks in her 14 innings of work. 

She credited her success to the hours spent in the bullpen and numerous practices. 

“Just relying on all the hard work and practices we’ve had ever since we were eight [years old],” Fouts said. “I think everything leads up to that and just trusting in my stuff.”

Like Fouts, Florida ace junior Elizabeth Hightower (14-2; 1.40 ERA) has been named SEC Pitcher of the Week a pair of times this season and has given up seven home runs on the season. In Hightower’s last five appearances, she has given up 10 earned runs and obtains a 17-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Hightow is similar to Alabama graduate pitcher Sarah Cornell (2-0; 2.58 ERA), as she throws a heavy dose of screw balls and will mix in a rise ball and curve ball. 

“A really good screw-ball pitcher wants to get it in, on you and almost force you to make a quick decision,” head coach Patrick Murphy said. “You have to decide very late if you’re going to swing.”

Both the Alabama and Florida offense sit in the middle of the conference in batting averages and are not known for hitting the home-run ball. Both programs have only combined for 58 long balls this season. 

Florida junior Charla Echols is the only player on either roster with double-digit home runs, 10, and the next closest player is graduate student Bailey Hemphill with eight. Echols was predicted to be named the SEC Player of the Year by Division 1 Softball and has made a case for the accolade with a .374 batting average, .488 on-base percentage and a team-leading 39 RBIs along with her 10 home runs. 

While Echols is making a case for SEC Player for the Year, Hemphill has been climbing up the UA program record books all season. The Lafayette, Louisiana native became the all-time leader in walks during the Texas A&M series, has the second most RBIs and is only two home runs shy of tying four-time All-American Kelly Kretschman for a program record 60. Murphy has stated in the past that Rhoads Stadium is the house that Kretshcman built, but after the career Hempill has had, Murphy light-heartedly stated that “maybe we need to rename it the house that Bailey built.” 

Some of these Alabama and Florida student athletes do not only play at the highest level collegiately, but have also played for one of the best teams in the world, the United States Junior Women’s National team. Five players from each roster have represented the United States in the past and seven of which were on the team in the summer of 2019 and won gold at the U-19 Softball World Cup. Fouts believes this will provide an extra competitive environment inside of Rhoads stadium.

“We like to compete especially against our friends and I think that it’s going to be a really fun weekend,” Fouts said. 

First pitch is set for Friday, Apr. 16, at 6 p.m. CT and will be steamed on the SEC Network Plus. Game two of the series will be on national television on ESPN at 1 p.m. CT and the series will air on the SEC Network at 1 p.m. CT.