Ralph Weekly paused, letting out a sigh drenched in fatigue.
Then came a spurt of laughter.
“It’s going to be really, really great to be perfectly honest,” the Tennessee co-head softball coach said.
To Weekly’s pleasure, a 25-day marathon of a road trip has come to an end.
Film studies now move from crowded buses, hotel rooms and airplanes, to the comfort of the Lee Stadium clubhouse.
Tennessee played 21 of its first 22 games on the road, traveling coast-to-coast battling everything from rain, sleet and snow.
“We’ve simply been on the road so doggone much it’s been unbelievable,” Weekly said. “It’s nice to finally be back and rest a little.”
But the rest was short-lived.
While Weekly certainty welcomes playing 11 of UT’s next 14 games at home, his squad ushers in a new gauntlet beginning today at 6:30 p.m.
The No. 8 Lady Vols (19-3) open conference play with a three-game series against defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama (22-1).
Saturday’s game starts at 2:30 and Sunday’s game at 1:30.
Alabama has played its last 13 games at home.
Tennessee will then play consecutive weekend series against No. 4 Florida, which handed Alabama its first loss of the season Wednesday, and No. 5 Texas A&M.
“I think the road trips battle test us for the entire season,” Weekly said.
Mirror Image: The statistical similarities between the Lady Vols and the Crimson Tide are uncanny.
Through 22 games this season, both Tennessee and Alabama have registered 199 hits. UT is hitting .346 as a team, compared to Alabama’s .347.
But the parallels extend beyond the batter’s box.
Tennessee’s pitching has surrendered 80 hits this season. Alabama has allowed 81.
Against UT’s pitching, opponents hit for an average of .164. Alabama’s opponents average .160.
“It’s like looking into a mirror,” Weekly said.
Pitching Projection: Weekly firmly believes games are won and lost by pitching.
“Pitching is the key — period,” Weekly said. “It’s true whether facing Alabama or anyone.”
While Weekly wouldn’t talk specifically about which pitchers would earn starts this weekend, he did say he plans to continue the trend of utilizing all four Tennessee hurlers.
Taming Traina: Tennessee will face perhaps its toughest task of the season in heralded Alabama pitcher Jackie Traina.
Last season, the two-time All-American was named SEC Pitcher of the Year, SEC tournament MVP and Most Outstanding Player of the Women’s College World Series.
When asked how his team prepared for Traina, Weekly could only chuckle.
“All you can do is hit, hit, hit,” Weekly said. “You don’t get outside your game for any special pitcher, though.”
Brown at First: Weekly said versatile senior Melissa Brown will start at first base against Alabama.
While Brown has only started six games at first this season, she made 50 starts there last season.
Brown is hitting .259 this season with 16 RBIs.
Notebook: Tennessee announced Thursday that all three games against Alabama have been sold out. ... Today’s game and Sunday’s game will be broadcast by WNML-AM 990. ... Raven Chavanne, the Lady Vols’ All-America leadoff hitter, is one stolen base away from tying Lindsay Schutzler’s career record of 120. Chavanne has stolen 17 bases on 17 attempts this season.
Riley Blevins is a freelance contributor.