Sydney Littlejohn got the call just before warm-ups.
With the SEC title on the line, the freshman pitcher was informed that she would get the start. Though not rattling, nerves no doubt settled in — but she went out and delivered.
That evening might best reflect the Rusk native's entire 2013-14 school year.
First, she stepped onto the University of Alabama campus relatively unknown. Then, she competed for a role with the well-known and 2012 national champion Crimson Tide softball team.
And, finally, she became an SEC champion and provided one of the year's most recognized postseason performances — then, topped everything by playing in the Women's College World Series.
Not bad for a collegiate newcomer.
"It was a new level of competition and whole new level of taking care of yourself in what you do on the field and what you do off the field," Littlejohn said this week. "It's everything in Rusk bumped up level-wise. It was a great experience. I wouldn't have believed you if you would've told me five years ago that my freshman year we would go to the World Series and play for a national championship."
Littlejohn finished the year 11-2 with nine starts and 29 overall appearances, led the Crimson Tide with a 1.49 ERA and allowed 22 runs (19 earned) on 65 hits with 64 strikeouts. She helped form a stellar rotation alongside senior All-American Jaclyn Traina, who finished 26-5, and junior Leslie Jury, who went 16-6.
No doubt, compiling memories came abundantly in stride for Littlejohn, a 6-0 right-hander and former All-East Texas selection.
On May 2 in Columbia, Mo., Littlejohn threw a complete-game four-hitter in a 3-1 victory against No. 15 Missouri that captured the Crimson Tide's fourth SEC title in five seasons. Barely hours before the game, which went extra innings, she was informed that the night's outcome would be in her hands.
"Coach came up to me and said, ‘Syd, it's your turn," Littlejohn said. "I'm like, ‘What?' It was great team building for me. They just really showed me that they had my back."
Another season highlight occurred in early April against No. 11 South Alabama, which entered the matchup with one of college softball's top pitchers — Farish Beard, who led the nation with a 0.43 ERA. In helping the Crimson Tide claim their 16th win in 17 games, Littlejohn allowed only three hits in a four-inning start to spearhead a 3-0 victory.
"It was one of those moments I knew I would see what I was made of," Littlejohn said. "It was my time to step up. It taught me a lot about how to get ready for the bigger games."
Less than two months later, Littlejohn was called to the circle in the fifth inning in Game 1 of a super regional against Nebraska — in relief of Traina, who's uncharacteristic start helped put the Crimson Tide in a 4-0 jam. In a dazzling performance nationally televised on ESPN, she threw the final eight innings of a dramatic 6-5 win (12-inning game) — a struggle that went well into the night — and allowed no runs on three hits.
"I'm not a person who likes that kind of game because I'd rather blow everybody out if I could," Littlejohn said. "But that was probably one of the most memorable games. … After every out I was jumping up and down."
Thanks in large part to Littlejohn's Game 1 heroics, Alabama went on to sweep the best-of-three series and earn a return trip to the WCWS, held in Oklahoma City. The Crimson Tide advanced all the way to the championship series, but was swept by SEC rival Florida Gators — a team that played its best at the right time.
"I'm still kind of bitter about it; it was heartbreaking," Littlejohn said. "It just shows that we can still make it to the championship and we definitely have a shot of winning it. In a way it was a great experience — going through all the hardships — and the end result, I'm not going to lie, was heartbreaking for myself and for the seniors."
That said, "I'm so excited about next season," she added. "I just want to get to the fall and get the season started."