OKLAHOMA CITY -- Alabama's six seniors weren't the stars Sunday afternoon in the biggest game of their lives. They weren't the ones who fueled a win against California that sent the Crimson Tide to the championship round of the Women's College World Series for the first time in program history; those leading roles instead were played by two sophomores with bright presents and brilliant futures.
But as good as sophomores Jackie Traina and Kaila Hunt were and will be, this was a win that had everything to do with those six seniors.
To understand what one win meant to Alabama, you have to first understand four losses.
And to understand why six seniors had as much to do with this team playing for a championship as anyone, you have to first understand four losses.
Three years ago, Alabama thought it would play for a championship. The team already had crafted one of the sport's all-time moments when a freshman, Jazlyn Lunceford, hit a pinch-hit grand slam in a World Series elimination game against Arizona State.
A day later, the Tide needed just three more outs against rival Florida to force a winner-take-all game for a spot in the championship series. Instead, with two outs and one strike on their side in the bottom of the seventh, a walk-off grand slam ended their season.
Two years ago, Alabama was on a march to redemption. The Tide rolled through the regular season with such ferocity that they claimed the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. No. 16 Hawaii gave it a scare in a super regional, but Alabama held a 4-3 lead with two outs in the bottom of the seventh and appeared ready to return to the World Series. Instead, a two-run walk-off home run silenced the crowd in Tuscaloosa and ended Alabama's season.
One year ago, Alabama finally caught a break. After struggling for so many years to stay in the winner's bracket in the World Series, the Crimson Tide won their first two games and had two tries to beat Florida once on Sunday to advance to the best-of-three championship series. Instead, in the most tortuous of all the heartbreaks, they spent the better part of the afternoon and early evening watching the Gators circle the bases, losing twice by a combined margin of 25-4.
Kendall Dawson, Jennifer Fenton, Olivia Gibson, Amanda Locke, Lunceford and Cassie Reilly-Boccia had to peel off their uniforms after those losses, had to answer the questions and accept the well-meaning condolences long past the point of wanting to be reminded of the reason for them. It's hard to imagine a class that experienced more adversity on the field. Or a group that responded better.
"It was a lot," Reilly-Boccia said. "It was a lot of devastation when you think about losing two seasons in a row on a walk-off. And you just work so hard to get somewhere, and then when you don't get there, it's such a huge letdown. But at the same time, I really don't think we'd be in the championship game had we not went through that as a senior class or went through that as a coaching staff.
"We've gone through so much adversity, I think it's only helped us along the way."
Against that backdrop, seeing their coach leave for a rival after last season, only to reconsider days later and return, barely registers a blip on the radar. A team with every reason to fracture on or off the field this season, Alabama instead seems bound together like never before in a businesslike approach to the sport and a collegiality away from the field.
"If there are some unhappy campers on your team, it's going to show up in a hurry," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "This is one of the most together, team-chemistry-wise teams we've ever had. And it all starts with the seniors because they know their roles and they shut their holes. They don't complain. They do exactly what I ask them to do, and they're great, great kids."
Five of the six seniors start on a regular basis, and even if underclassmen Traina, Hunt and Kayla Braud get most of the attention and more of the All-American accolades, all five are key contributors. Locke's home run Friday against Arizona State was the difference in a 2-1 win that kept Alabama in the winner's bracket for Sunday. Dawson picking Cal's Danielle Henderson off first base to derail a potential rally was a key moment Sunday, and Lunceford's home run -- complete with a re-enactment of the chest bump she and Murphy exchanged three years ago -- made the outcome a fait accompli.
But the sixth senior is no less a part of the story of why this team is playing Monday. Gibson has just 21 at-bats in 18 appearances this season, consigned by sharing a position with Dawson to spend most of her career watching from the dugout. Each year Murphy asks every player to name the intangible she is going to bring to the team. Each year, Gibson submits the same answer.
"Not hits, not strikeouts, not great plays, but she's going to be love and joy to the team," Murphy said.
It doesn't matter if those contributions are more valuable, less valuable or equally valuable when put up against Traina's strikeouts in the circle, Hunt's home runs or Fenton's defense in center. The contributions are valuable for what they are because it's one player filling her role.
On what Murphy said is the largest roster he has ever carried, every player does that. The seniors aren't jealous that the younger players get the headlines. The stars aren't resentful that it's the seniors who have the final say on all team matters. On that kind of team, someone like Gibson is a leader.
"She teaches people how to play that role of not starting," Reilly-Boccia said. "She's the reason why any junior or sophomore or freshman who hasn't had playing time isn't upset about it. She's the reason why everyone has this good mood and we have the 'Bama beats' and we're up in the dugout. That's all her. You don't hear about that in the newspaper. You hear about the statistics; you don't hear about Olivia Gibson making sure everyone in the dugout was on the same page and that no one was upset after an at-bat.
"It's huge. I don't think she has any idea what role she played in the success of the team."
It's likewise difficult to understand how sizable a role the seniors as a whole play in the success of the team.
On her first day on campus in Tuscaloosa, Reilly-Boccia met Lunceford, her new roommate. A New Yorker who sounds like it, Reilly-Boccia could barely understand a word Lunceford, a Tuscaloosa native, said. The same was understandably true in reverse. It more or less took Fenton and Dawson, whose Southern accents fell somewhere north of Lunceford's, to get the communication flowing.
From such a start came a group that understands each other better than any Alabama team before and is playing later in the season because of it.
"I really wish I could just go back and watch our class get to know each other again," Reilly-Boccia said. "The coolest thing about being a part of Alabama softball was you got on campus and you didn't know anyone but you had a family right away."
If you need evidence of just how true that is, turn on the television Monday night. If you understand these six seniors and those three losses, you understand it took a family to get here.