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Laura O'Dell photo contributed by UTC Athletics / The UTC softball team celebrates after hearing its name announced during an NCAA tournament selection show party Sunday evening at Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux in downtown Chattanooga.

At 7:12 Sunday evening, a roar filled the jam-packed Walk-On's Sports Bistreaux on Broad Street that was so loud it traveled all the way to the nearby Tennessee Aquarium.

At that moment, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga softball team — having been guaranteed its 12th NCAA tournament spot by virtue of Saturday's Southern Conference title victory over UNC Greensboro — learned it would face sixth-seeded Alabama at 4 p.m. Eastern on Friday in Tuscaloosa, which is but a 3 1/2-hour drive down Interstate 59 from the UTC campus.

"We've played there before," Mocs coach Frank Reed said of the Southeastern Conference foe, one of 12 SEC schools to make the 64-team field and one of five that earned a national seed as one of the 16 site hosts for the double-elimination regionals. Alabama did so despite losing five of its past eight games.

"I know they have a great pitcher," Reed said of the Crimson Tide's Montana Fouts, who's 22-6 this season. "I know they've lost a few here late. I'm just glad our fans won't have a long trip to watch us play."

No matter what happens next weekend in T-town — the other two teams in the regional with Alabama (41-11) and UTC (29-25) are Murray State (40-16-1) and Stanford (36-19) — it didn't take Reed long to rank where his 11th trip to the NCAA tournament ranks against the previous 10.

"It's got to be No. 1," he said of Saturday afternoon's 9-7 SoCon tournament final win against the Spartans, the league's regular-season champions, on their home field — a win made even sweeter by the 7-2 hole the Mocs erased in the seventh inning.

"It just all came together for us. We've come back before from five runs down. But five runs down in the top of the seventh in a championship game? I don't think we've ever done that. And even then, we still had to win it in the eighth. I still haven't had a chance to watch the replay by myself. It's all been sort of a blur."

It was a struggle all season, but not necessarily an unpleasant one for the 74-year-old Reed.

"Every team has its own identity," he said. "We've got a young team. We're basically a .500 team. But this team's also a special group, has been all season. The ones who aren't playing are always cheering for their teammates. They genuinely like each other. They're always pulling for each other."

If such chemistry on the field wasn't always obvious, once the play matched the effort, the results were amazing.

The Mocs will bring a seven-game winning streak to their contest against Alabama. They swept their final league series of the season a little more than a week ago at Western Carolina, then won four straight games in Greensboro — including two over the Spartans.

Do the math and that's seven wins over nine straight days away from home.

"I was almost sad to come home," Reed said. "We got back at 2 o'clock Sunday morning, and it was raining when we unloaded the bus. I almost wish we could have stayed on the road and gone straight to the NCAA tournament. This team, it seemed like the longer we were on the road, the closer we came together."

Reagan Armour, who became the first player to hit three homers in a SoCon championship game, agreed with her coach on the value of the time away from home.

"You get 21 girls together for nine days, and you're never going to run out of stuff to talk about," the Ringgold, Georgia, resident and Heritage High School product said with a smile. "Some years we've gone to Clearwater (Florida) to play over spring break and we'll be gone as much as 14 days. With finals over and all, that's what those nine days were like — they were kind of like another spring break."

Added star pitcher Brooke Parrott, the Central High School product who won all four games in Greensboro, posting a shimmering 1.12 ERA in the process: "I definitely think it brought us closer together. We ate every meal together instead of with our families."

Thanks to Kaili Phillips, the University of Tennessee transfer and Silverdale Baptist Academy alum who swatted two homers at the SoCon tourney, the Mocs also have a new teammate of sorts in the rainbow-colored piñata now known as Jose.

"Kaili asked me after the tournament what we were going to do with it, and I said we're keeping it," Reed said. "It's in the dugout with us the rest of the way."

Added Parrott: "It's definitely brought us some good juju."

Good juju is nice. Good hitting is better. Whether you want to credit it to the long road trip, Jose the piñata or Reed once again proving he still has that coaching magic after 21 years leading UTC, there's no denying these Mocs are swinging the bats a whole lot better than they did during an eight-game losing streak in the middle of the season, especially Armour.

"I've watched those three homers a good number of times," she said Sunday evening. "I don't even remember the third homer in the eighth. I think I'm still in shock."

Shock is what they can still do to the NCAA softball community if they can somehow stun Alabama, Murray State and Stanford to advance to a super regional.

Said Reed of his instructions to his team prior to the SoCon tourney: "I told them they'd rocked it in the classroom with their team GPA of 3.529. Now it was time to rock it on the field."

For four games this past week in Greensboro, that GPA on the field rose to a perfect 4.0.

Said Reed of the possibility of that excellence continuing: "Let's play and see what happens."

When you can win from five runs down in the top of the seventh on the SoCon regular-season champs' home field, it would seem anything can happen from this moment forward.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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