celebration

Murray State shortstop Sierra Gilmore hugs Head Coach Kara Amundson (left) as the rest of the Racers erupt in joy Saturday after defeating Belmont, 5-2, in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship game at Oxford, Alabama. Now, the Racers are returning to that state to participate in their first-ever NCAA Tournament.

MURRAY — The state of Alabama and Murray State’s softball program will write chapters together once again this weekend when the Racers head to Tuscaloosa to play in their first-ever NCAA Tournament.

In fact, it was only Saturday that the Racers last spent time in that state, a venture that ended with a first-ever Ohio Valley Conference Tournament championship and an extension of the record for most single-season wins – now up to 40.

“Alabama has been good to us this year. Maybe we can get two in a row this time,” said Murray State Head Coach Kara Amundson, whose team won the OVC title at Choccolocco Park in the town of Oxford, about an hour east of Birmingham. Murray State started its title run by winning its first two games, putting it in position to play two games, if needed, to win one in the title round. That advantage proved big as the Racers dropped Saturday’s first game to Belmont before coming back to beat the Bruins in the second game.

The Racers are playing Stanford in today’s first game, which may bode well when it comes to fan support. Traditionally, fans of the Southeastern Conference schools will throw their support for supposed underdogs in games their own team is not playing. 

That could mean Bama fans will throw their support to the lower-seeded Racers against  PAC-12 power Stanford as Bama faces Chattanooga at 2:30 today, followed by the Racers and Cardinal at 5:30.

That would be a nice change from the last time Murray State rubbed elbows with the program that won it all in 2012 and has been in contention since then several other times. That was in 2019 at an event hosted by Troy in the southeastern section of the state. 

It may have been deemed a “neutral” site, but it was a decided home-field edge for the well-supported Tide, ranked ninth in the nation, as they took  two games from the Racers, the first by a 12-0 in five innings.

However, the Racers were much more competitive against Bama in their next game, falling 16-10 in game the Racers led 3-1 and had tied at 3-3 in the third inning before the Tide scored four times in the fourth.

Murray State, though, came right back, scoring three times in the fifth before the Tide flexed its muscle the rest of the way. 

Bama is not the only SEC school located in that state. Not too far from Troy resides Auburn, though not as traditionally successful as their neighbors west of Birmingham, the Tigers have had some good moments, which makes the results of a February 2021 visit to Auburn quite impressive for the Racers.

They did lose both games, but by very close margins of 1-0 and 3-1. And the two big guns for the Racers this year in the circle, Hannah James — 2022 OVC Pitcher of the Year — and Jenna Veber, whose efforts earned an All-OVC Second Team selection, were very good in those games, combining to allow only three hits in both games.

Speaking of James and Veber, they have history with some of the players from other teams who will be playing in Tuscaloosa.

“Jenna told me that one of the pitchers she played against in high school (during her days in Oswego, Illinois near Chicago) now plays for Stanford (Regan Krause, who is from Pontiac, north of Bloomington),” Amundson said, marveling at how two players from small towns in Illinois will now meet again on a field in Alabama in the NCAA Tournament.”I think it’s incredible to have that happen, but it shows the size of the sport. From the smallest, little communities, so many can play at this level. I think it’s incredible.”

James’ history is probably more significant. A star pitcher at East Jessamine High School in Nicholasville, she helped her team to a 38-6 record in 2016. One of the teams she faced in the state tournament was East Carter, led by a tall, fire-balling right-hander named Montana Fouts. 

That is the same Montana Fouts, now Bama’s leading pitcher, who threw a perfect game in last year’s College World Series best-of-three championship series with UCLA. Bama went on to lose that series, but Fouts is still regarded as one of the top pitchers in college softball.

However, on that day in Owensboro, James got the best of Fouts as East Jess beat the Comets, 7-4, as James scattered seven hits, while her teammates touched Fouts for 11.

Today’s game can be viewed on ESPN+ and will also be broadcast locally on WNBS 97.9 FM.