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May 30, 2012

Tide, Vols take rivalry to big stage

OKLAHOMA CITY | The Fifth Thursday in May doesn't have the same ring as the Third Saturday in October, but one of the greatest rivalries in college sports will play another chapter tonight in the opening round of the Women's College World Series.

Alabama vs. Tennessee on the softball field may not be as steeped in history as it is in football, but the rivalry also has meaning on the diamond - especially when it plays out on the sport's biggest stage.

"We all know, whatever sport you're playing, I don't care if you're ranked or not ranked - football, basketball, softball, whatever - it's a big rivalry and all my friends and classmates back home know it, we all know it," Tennessee catcher Ashley Andrews said.

"Everyone's been so geared up for it. They're excited."

Alabama holds a 31-16 edge in the all-time series. The Crimson Tide and the Lady Vols have split doubleheaders the last two seasons, but Alabama has won seven of the last nine meetings.

On the field, the rivalry is competitive. Off the field, there is no acrimony.

"It's a good rivalry. It's a respectful rivalry," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said.

When Tennessee co-head coach Ralph Weekly was inducted into softball's Hall of Fame last year, Murphy hosted the party at his suite at the National Fastpitch Coaches' Association convention. He allowed Tennessee managers to decorate the room floor-to-ceiling in orange.

"He said, 'That's OK, just take it down when the party's over,'" Weekly said. "It was pretty amazing for Alabama to do that for Tennessee. Patrick Murphy is as great a gentleman as you'll find in this game."

Murphy extended his hospitality again this season after Tennessee played UA in a doubleheader in Tuscaloosa. The Lady Vols were scheduled to open a weekend series at Mississippi State two days later, so Murphy allowed UT use of Alabama's indoor hitting facility.

"The bus drove up and I was greeting them," Murphy said, "and I got on the bus and I said, 'Look, I probably wouldn't do this for everybody, but I really appreciate the way you guys play. You're classy, you respect the game, you respect the opponent, you've never done anything dirty in the tenure that Ralph and Karen have been there.' I just wanted the whole group to know that I appreciated that. It's true, win or lose they're classy."

The respect is mutual.

"I know along with me, the coaching staff and our teammates respect Alabama so much," Andrews said. "We always love playing them, we always have great games with them, so we're really excited. All their players are class acts and their coaches are great. We know it's going to be a tough game every time we play Alabama."

Alabama defeated Tennessee 3-2 in an 11-inning classic in the first game in Tuscaloosa on March 21. UA ace Jackie Traina threw 195 pitches and hit a walk-off home run to end the game. Tennessee won the nightcap, 5-2.

Traina is looking forward to the rematch.

"It was a great two games," she said. "Both teams had a lot of fun. Tennessee's a great team, and it's always fun playing a great team like them."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.

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