It’s hard to compete for oxygen with a historically talented squad riding a record win streak and aiming for its third straight championship. But don’t be mistaken: No. 1 Oklahoma is not alone at the Women’s College World Series. There are seven other teams competing right now in Oklahoma City. And the Sooners’ next opponent can offer some of their steepest competition.

Don’t sleep on No. 4 Tennessee.

It’s no surprise the Lady Vols are here: They boast one of the best sluggers in the country in senior Kiki Milloy and a pair of aces in Ashley Rogers and Payton Gottshall. But they’ve raised the bar in playing some of their best softball of the year so far this postseason. After cruising through regionals and super regionals (they went 5–0 and outscored their opponents 42–6), they continued in similar fashion in their first game of the WCWS on Thursday. Against No. 5 Alabama, Tennessee romped to a 10–5 win, jumping out to an early lead it never relinquished.

That sets up a matchup with Oklahoma on Saturday, which naturally presents a challenge. But Tennessee feels confident—because of its recent wins, yes, but also because of how it got them.

Senior Payton Gottshall transferred to Tennessee from Bowling Green after being named the MAC’s Pitcher of the Year last season, and has paired with Ashley Rogers to give the Lady Vols a powerful top of the rotation.

Bryan Terry/USA Today Network

Their double-digit outburst on Thursday didn’t hinge on production from Milloy, or star infielder Zaida Puni, or from anyone else near the top of the lineup. Instead, it was their last few hitters who did the bulk of the damage. It was No. 8 hitter Katie Taylor who knocked in the first runs of the game, hitting a double in the second inning, and it was No. 6 hitter Jamison Brockenbrough who connected in the third for the first home run of the day. No. 9 hitter Destiny Rodriguez contributed a few key hits to finish 2-for-3. Eight of Tennessee’s 11 hits ultimately came from the bottom five hitters in the lineup. And that’s just how they like it.

“I just told them in the locker room,” Tennessee coach Karen Weekly said after the game. “The mark of a good team, a team that can compete for championships, is the bottom of the order. Everyone is going to have studs at the top of the order. But it’s those kids that don’t get the publicity, their name’s not always in the headline, what do they do? My gosh, you look at the bottom of our order … They sparked us. They were the heroes.”

The star of this lineup is, unquestionably, Milloy. She led Division I this year in home runs (25) and slugging percentage (.993) and sat near the top of the leaderboard in a slew of other key stats. (Milloy was 1-for-3 with a walk on Thursday and scored twice.) But there’s more to this roster than just Milloy. To keep advancing, Tennessee will need to keep getting this kind of production from the bottom of its lineup. That it could do so against a tough Alabama pitcher in Jaala Torrence on Thursday should be a reassuring sign.

Yet the pitching should be the most intriguing part of Tennessee’s face-off with Oklahoma. There were two programs in Division I with a team ERA under 1.50 entering the WCWS: There was Oklahoma, leading the country at 1.00, and then Tennessee, at 1.48. In other words? No one could ask for a better pitching matchup.

Both teams are blessed with multiple quality options—Jordy Bahl, Nicole May and Alex Storako for Oklahoma, and Rogers and Gottshall for Tennessee—and can offer several looks to attack different hitters. These teams are largely unfamiliar with one another: They did not play each other in the regular season. But it’s worth noting there are two Oklahoma transfers on this Tennessee roster. There’s Puni, who transferred last year and quickly found a home at the top of this lineup, and there’s Mackenzie Donihoo, who was a crucial piece of the Sooners’ championship run in 2021. Now, she’s at the core of the Lady Vols.

“She’s a firecracker,” junior Rylie West said of Donihoo. “From day one, she’s been loud, she’s talked. It starts in practice. She’s a competitor in practice, so she’s made us better in practice, and you guys just get to see it on the field.”

This is Tennessee’s first time at the WCWS since 2015—meaning it’s the first trip here for much of this roster. When they walked onto the field to practice for the first time in Oklahoma City on Wednesday, the players were dumbstruck.

“We were like, in awe, almost,” Milloy said. “Not almost. Yeah, I was in awe.”

But the Lady Vols still found a way to look perfectly at home on that field on Thursday. They’ll try to do the same against a historically tough opponent on Saturday.