Former Dalton High School pitcher Alli Swinford remembers her first major game as a freshman for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

The 2016 Daily Citizen-News Softball Player of the Year took the loss in her first start against a Southeastern Conference opponent when the Lady Mocs fell to Ole Miss on that early-March day last year. She pitched two innings, gave up four hits and six runs, but now she said it's all just a memory.

"It was definitely something I never thought would happen," Swinford said. "Starting in a game like that is unheard of for a freshman, but it has been starts like that that have propelled me to be the pitcher I am now."

This season as a sophomore, Swinford is joined by fellow Dalton native Sidney Swantic, a freshman outfielder who graduated from Southeast Whitfield last spring. The two recently helped the Lady Mocs to their 14th title in the Southern Conference and are in the NCAA Tournament.

Their first opponent -- Ole Miss.

With Swinford's 10-3 record in the circle and Swantic playing left field in 30 games this season, Chattanooga (37-15) plays as the No. 4 seed in the Oxford Regional against the Lady Rebels at 7 p.m. today. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3. The tournament is double-elimination and the teams are also paired with Southeast Missouri State and Louisiana.

Swinford isn't scheduled to start tonight, but will be available in relief. She said the chance to relive her first big game is a special one.

"You don't get better by playing schools that are on your same level," she said. "I've pitched in that circle at their place, and to have a second chance is something people should look out for. I'm a totally different pitcher now."

Though Chattanooga has a history of success, the Lady Mocs haven't won the conference since 2015. Swinford picked up the win in the tournament final last Saturday against the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, pitching all five innings and allowing three hits and one run.

It boosted her season statistics to a 1.49 earned run average in 75 innings pitched, which ranks her 30th in Division I for the best ERA in the country. After having hip surgery last May, Swinford said she is surprised to be having such a great season.

"To be honest, I expected this season a bit of a downer and definitely one that wasn't going to be easy," she said. "It truly feels amazing and even after I had a great freshman year getting a lot of playing time. I didn't expect this season to be as amazing as it has been and it's a testament to the coaches we have here supporting us.

"It puts into perspective how blessed and thankful I really am. I wouldn't be where I am without everyone who has helped me along the way."

Swantic agreed the success this year has brought to her and her fellow local teammate has been something special. The duo didn't know each other before Swantic arrived at UTC, but have since become close friends along with the rest of their teammates.

"It's been a season of great reward but also one of a lot of hard work," Swantic said. "Even though I didn't know Alli beforehand, it was nice to know someone who had been through everything and had plenty of friends. The more we talked about it, we found out we were friends with some of the same people.

"We have a lot in common, but I think that the whole team is like family. There's not one we don't genuinely care about. We've all been together though those hard days of practice, and I think that friendships are made in the grind of it all."

The pair said they have had plenty of support this season from former teammates and coaches, receiving texts and encouraging messages regularly. They both said it means everything, especially coming from a small town.

"It's crazy the support we've had," Swinford said. "I feel like the city of Chattanooga is rooting for us, but the city of Dalton is rooting for Sidney and I personally."

They each know they have the support, but heading into tonight's game there's only one thing on their minds.

"I'm beyond excited -- I cannot wait for everything," Swantic said. "We're ready to represent Chattanooga, and we are going to try to win. It's as simple as that."

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