The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Memphis softball teams have never faced each other before, but Friday's meeting in the opening game of the Tuscaloosa Regional of the NCAA tournament will still have a decidedly familiar feel.
The Memphis starting lineup features three players from the Chattanooga area who played high school and summer softball against and with some current Lady Mocs.
Senior third baseman Maddie McKinley played at Gordon Lee, and former GPS standouts Jessica Phillips and Kamri Chester start at first base and in center field, respectively.
Phillips said Tuesday that for the Tigers to be matched up with UTC makes a special experience even better for her, McKinley and Chester.
"We were super excited to find out that we were in regionals, but for me, Kamri and Maddie to be playing our hometown school just makes it even better," she said. "There's so many girls on that team that we know, and we've always been competitive whether we've been playing with each other or against each other."
"It makes it more exciting, but it makes it more intense because one of us is going to lose and one of us is going to win."
Phillips has had a breakout year in 2011. A career .204 batter entering this season, she is second on the team with a .334 batting average, and she has set single-season school records in home runs (15) and RBIs (44).
"Once practice started and the freshmen came in and I saw what this team could do together, I knew that this year was going to be great," she said.
McKinley, who was coached at Gordon Lee by Dana Mull, daughter of UTC coach Frank Reed, said it will be strange playing against so many players she knows from high school days.
"It's going to be an interesting game," she Tuesday by phone. "I'm definitely going to have to put them out of my mind. They're on the other team and not my friends during the game, but after the game I'll be right back to knowing them as friends and teammates from earlier years."
McKinley, who is batting .297 this season and leads the Tigers with 13 stolen bases, said it's been exciting to be part of the first Memphis team to make the NCAA tournament.
"We've never had to practice after the conference tournament before, so we're all out here really pumped up and really excited," she said. "It means a lot with the program being so young, only six years old, and to already being invited to regionals."
Memphis coach Windy Thees said she hopes to continue to recruit players from this area.
"I was born in southern California, and my first national tournament [as a youth softball player] was in Chattanooga," she said. "And my team was supposed to win the tournament, but we lost to the Frost Falcons from Chattanooga when I was 12 years old."
"So I've always known that softball in Chattanooga is first rate. There's so much talent over there, and we'd love to get more players from there to come to Memphis."
Thees also praised Reed and the UTC program's long-term success.
"Frank Reed is such a great coach. I'm excited to coach against him," she said. "He's got history-making wins, so it's just as exciting for me to go and compete against him.
"UTC has been there for so long and it's such a good program, winning its conference year in and year out."
UTC outfielder Lauren Flores from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe said the Lady Mocs expect a tough challenge from Phillips, McKinley and Chester on Friday.
"I know they're all three really good players, so it's going to be kind of a tough matchup," Flores said. "But it may kind of feel like a high school game. I think it helps knowing who you're going up against."
When asked if there had been any trash talking between the local players on the two teams, Chester said that wasn't likely to happen.
"I haven't been trash talking to any of the girls on the team," she said, laughing. "But I know [UTC assistant basketball coach and former player] Katie Galloway. And we've had, um, a little friendly talk about it."
"It's a really cool opportunity. I've played against probably well over half of those girls, and I even go back [to Chattanooga] and sometimes watch them play. For us to be able to play my hometown school, it's a good opportunity. It's going to be a challenge, but it's a good one, too."