OKLAHOMA CITY — To the traffic passing by on I-35, it appears to be a mere stadium. To those in the know, it’s a shrine.
“This is the cathedral of softball, in my opinion,’’ Ralph Weekly said Wednesday, gesturing to an empty ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.
“This is the place that every child who plays softball wants to be.’’
Weekly’s Tennessee Lady Vols are one of eight college teams who earned the right to be in that hallowed place this week at the Women’s College World Series.
But, wouldn’t you know it, the Lady Vols have to scoot over and share a pew Thursday with an old, familiar nemesis.
For the second consecutive year, Tennessee had to fight past an SEC rival (Alabama) in a Super Regional just to get to the WCWS. For the second consecutive year another SEC rival is waiting when they got here.
Wednesday, Florida shared the press-conference podium with Tennessee. Thursday at 2:30 p.m. ET, the No. 2 seed Gators (57-7) share the green, manicured cathedral with the No. 7 seed Lady Vols (49-10).
A sell-out crowd and a worldwide ESPN audience will be watching to see who advances to a winners’ bracket game Friday against either Washington or Nebraska and who sinks into the mire of the losers’ bracket.
“I feel more for the kids, when it comes to that,’’ said Karen Weekly, who shares co-head coaching duties with her husband Ralph.
“As a coach, I’m not scrambling around to get a scouting report on an unknown opponent. But I think it’s more fun for the kids, and I imagine Florida would probably say the same thing, to see somebody different in postseason play.
“So it’s unfortunate for two years in a row our kids have seen the same faces in Super Regionals and the first round at the World Series.’’
Karen Weekly was correct. Florida did pretty much say the same thing.
“It’s tough to come all this
way to play an SEC team,’’ said 2013 SEC coach of the year Tim Walton, “but if I did it every year from here on out, I’d do it every time.
“It’s exciting, but in the same sense we know how good Tennessee is.’’
The Gators and Lady Vols have met 63 times, with Florida winning 43.
Eleven of UT’s 20 wins came in the Monica Abbott Era (2004-07). Since Abbott recorded the final strikeout of her NCAA record-setting career, Florida has won 17 of 20.
While the teams might not be thrilled to tangle yet again, the crowd and ESPN viewership should be in for a treat — the past four UT-Florida games have been decided in eight innings.
That includes the 2012 SEC tournament match and three regular-season games this year in Gainesville back in March. Florida took two out of three this year.
“We’re very closely matched,’’ Karen Weekly said. “When you look at the numbers in those games, they’re just dead even.’’
There are few secrets between the two teams. The Lady Vols expect to face All-America pitcher Hannah Rogers. The Gators will see a Renfroe, but UT wasn’t saying Wednesday whether it will be Ivy or Ellen in the circle first.
The truth is that neither team is terribly surprised to run into the other in the final strides toward a national title.
“As for whether we’d rather play Florida or not play Florida,’’ said UT All-American Raven Chavanne, “I don’t think it really matters.
“When it comes down to it, we need to focus on ourselves and playing the game the best that we can.”