From the opening weekend of the 2021 season, when Alabama softball was supposed to start the season at a tournament in Texas only to have it cancelled because of ice storms, this Crimson Tide team faced adversity.
Whether it was season-ending injuries, weather delays and cancellations, or playing an entire season through a pandemic, Alabama was challenged all the way to the semifinals of the Women's College World Series. There was always something.
"The biggest takeaway this year is just the adversity we faced," Alabama fifth-year senior Bailey Hemphill said. "It will help us in softball, but it's going to help us in life all that we faced."
Days after a perfect game at the WCWS against the reigning national champions, Alabama had two chances at one win to advance to the championship series for the first time since 2014.
Instead, in an elimination game that was pushed back a day due to weather delays in Oklahoma City, Alabama found itself down 8-0 in less than three innings against No. 10 Florida State.
The deficit was too large to overcome, and the chapter finally closed on the 2021 Crimson Tide with an 8-5 loss to the Seminoles. The disappointment was evident from players on the field, during the postgame press conference and with the subsequent social media posts.
While the immediate reaction to losing twice in the semifinals from both fans and players was sorrow, and that was valid, upon reflection, Patrick Murphy's Team 25 accomplished a lot, including several group and individual feats that will go down in Crimson Tide lore.
Among them, the coach consistently called it his grittiest and most resilient for what everyone went through off the field to end up as the No. 3 national seed and eventually one of the final four teams left in college softball at the WCWS.
After dropping the regular-season series to Florida, with a 2-0 loss in the opener and a subsequent 9-2 defeat, Alabama sat at 11-6 in SEC play. Murphy challenged the team to play better and the players responded with a 20-game win streak starting on that Sunday. It lasted through the rest of the regular season, the 2021 SEC Tournament, regionals, super regionals, and the first two games of the WCWS before it came to a screeching halt against the Seminoles.
Perhaps the biggest team accomplishment, outside of making it to the WCWS, was winning the SEC tournament championship for the first time since 2012. To get to do it in front of the Rhoads Stadium crowd made it all the more special.
This team also upheld Alabama's streak of super regional appearances, extending it to 16 straight seasons.
After sitting at 11-6 in conference play, the Crimson Tide finished 18-6, one game out of first place, with series sweeps over Auburn, Texas A&M, Georgia and Ole Miss.
Individually, Montana Fouts' perfect game against No. 2 UCLA on her 21st birthday, the first at the WCWS since 2000, was one of the best performances in program history. Legends in the sports world tuned in to watch the final outs of Fouts' historic performance including Joe Namath and Terrell Owens.
"Just the adversity we faced, we're going to learn from that because we made it so far with that," Fouts said. "I think that we could have gone further, but just learned to be resilient. I think being resilient and gritty is maybe more than having all the talent in the world."
Hemphill smashed her way through the Alabama and SEC record books with her bonus season. The 2021 SEC Player of the Year finished as Alabama's all-time home run leader with 64. Her 237 career walks are the most in SEC history. In 2021, she led the SEC in walks, on base percentage, and RBIs.
In her final game in an Alabama uniform, Hemphill had three RBIs including a two-run home run.
Hemphill was one of seven "super seniors" who got to use their extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after the shortened 2020 season. Some, like Hemphill, Elissa Brown, Taylor Clark and Alexis Mack, were steady presences in the starting lineup. Krystal Goodman and Sarah Cornell were always ready when called upon and needed, but were faithful supporters in the dugout cheering on teammates when not in the circle. Claire Jenkins provided the leadership on the infield before tearing her ACL against Florida.
Murphy said these seven were assets to the program both on and off the field.
"Not a problem off the field," Murphy said. "I mean, just great young ladies — classroom, practice, weight room, you name it. Never had issues with anybody."
During the 20-game win streak, Alabama looked completely dominant at times behind the arms of Fouts, Goodman and Lexi Kilfoyl, aided by a balanced offensive attack that showed both speed and power.
The offense, defense and pitching all made mistakes that were costly in Monday's loss to Florida State leaving the biggest question surrounding Team 25 being "What if?"
What if true freshman Bailey Dowling didn't go down with a season-ending injury just two weeks into SEC play when she's leading the team in home runs?
What if LSU held on to a seventh-inning lead in super regionals, and Florida State never even advanced to the WCWS?
What if a weather delay didn't happen in the middle of the first matchup against Florida State that killed Alabama's momentum and pushed the second game to another day?
What if KB Sides didn't get thrown out at third to end the fifth inning in the elimination game with Alabama trailing 8-5, and the Crimson Tide could potentially tie the game with one swing of the bat?
What if a well-rested and momentum-filled Alabama team got to meet up with No. 1 Oklahoma in the championship series?
What if the COVID pandemic didn't give all 2020 spring an athletes an extra year of eligibility, allowing all seven seniors from the 2020 team to play in 2021? Would Alabama have had anywhere near the same success?
These type questions could be asked after any sport season that doesn't end quite how it was desired to.
So now the biggest question surrounding Team 26 in 2022 is "How?"
How will the players respond to coming up just short of the ultimate goal in Oklahoma City?
How will Alabama replace the production, talent, experience and leadership of players like Hemphill, Cornell, Goodman, Brown, and Mack?
How challenging will it be to defend the SEC tournament title?
How might the offense grow to continue backing the pitching of Kilfoyl and Fouts?
How will Murphy manage the comings and goings of the ever-growing transfer portal?
How many days till the start of a new season?
It's undeniable the extensive amount of experience Alabama is losing between the seven super seniors, and the regular seniors who are ending their softball careers or transferring. But a lot of key players also got valuable experience at the WCWS including Fouts and Kilfoyl.
After the season-ending loss, Murphy said there will be at least two more years with them anchoring the pitching and his aim to see them back in Oklahoma City.
They alone provide a strong foundation can be built around.
"It was great to see them have tremendous outings here," Murphy said. "We hope to be back to finish out their careers here."