In 2009, Florida ended Alabama’s season, hitting a two-out, walk-off grand slam in the Women’s College World Series semi-final. In 2010, the Tide couldn’t make it back to Omaha, losing in the Super Regional on a walk-off home run to Hawaii. There was no walk-off in 2011, but instead, the Tide was stunned by Florida twice in one day – 16-2 and 9-2 losses – once again sending the Tide home empty.
Alabama enters the 2012 Women’s College World Series with the memories of the previous three years still fresh in its mind. The Tide is still looking for the first national title in program history and believes 2012 could be the year to do it.
Sophomore Kaila Hunt said the team was very confident going into this series.
“I would not want to be playing with anyone else,” Hunt said. “We have the pitching staff, we have the hitters, and everybody’s on the same page.”
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Alabama overcame a couple of early mistakes, battling back like it always has to secure an appearance in the Women’s College World Series for the fourth time in five years. The Tide beat the Michigan Wolverines 4-3 in front of 2,557 fans at Rhoads Stadium to complete the three-game series sweep in the Super Regionals.
“I am so proud of my team,” Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. “The six seniors have been incredible for their four years. I couldn’t ask for anybody better on my team and to represent the University of Alabama.”
It took a resilient effort from the Crimson Tide to come through. In the first inning, SEC Pitcher of the Year Jackie Traina gave up a solo home run to put Michigan on the board first. Then, the defense behind Traina made some critical errors.
Alabama used another strong pitching performance from right-handed ace Jackie Traina, as well as a three-run fifth inning to beat the Michigan Wolverines 4-1 in front of 2,475 fans at Rhoads Stadium, putting the Tide one win away from a berth in the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
“It’s nice to get the first one in a two out of three, this is the key,” head coach Patrick Murphy said. “Jackie gutted it out a little bit, and we had some big RBIs from Conley, Hunt and Lunceford.”
Traina allowed just three hits and only one earned run in seven innings and struck out ten batters to get her 36th win of the year. But the sophomore walked four batters, putting her in a couple of jams in the otherwise-dominant performance.
She walked two batters in the fourth inning to put two Wolverines on base, but struck out the last batter to end the inning. In the sixth inning, she walked the leadoff batter, and it came back to bite her as an RBI-double scored the runner.
But Traina shut the door in the seventh to secure the win for the Tide.
“When I walk a couple, I know I have to step it up because one hit can be a big difference in the game,” Traina said. “In those situations, you rise to the occasion.”
Alabama jumped on the board in the second inning off of an RBI single from junior Courtney Conley that scored senior Cassie Reilly-Boccia. And in the fifth inning, as Traina battled through the Michigan lineup, Alabama’s dependable top three came through to give Traina some breathing room late in the game.
Junior Kayla Braud and senior Jennifer Fenton both got on base, and sophomore Kaila Hunt scored them both with an RBI-double. The hit gave Hunt her 71st and 72nd RBI of the season.
“We needed to get a little more runs than just one,” Hunt said. “We needed to have a little support for Jackie, and I just kind of stuck with my plan. I had a plan all game, and I stuck with it and it worked for me.”
“I had a good feeling about that inning, if Braud could get on,” Murphy said. “That’s kind of how it’s been.”
Later in the inning, after swinging for the fences in her first two at-bats, senior Jazlyn Lunceford settled down, slapping an RBI single up the middle that scored Hunt.
“Jaz just got enough of the change up. It was probably a 16-bouncer up the middle and she just got enough of it for a base hit,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t take much to score.”
Game 2 will be on Friday at 3:30 on ESPNU from Rhoads Stadium. Game 3, if necessary, will be on Friday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
Jackie Traina returned to the circle to pitch for Alabama after eight days off and didn’t miss a beat, allowing just two hits and striking out ten as Alabama beat South Alabama 5-2 in the NCAA Softball Tuscaloosa Regional to advance to the Regional final on Sunday.
Her only two hits allowed were both solo home runs in the second and seventh inning, but the Tide bats more than made up for it in the win.
“It’s not a bad thing,” head coach Patrick Murphy said about falling behind early. “It showed that we could come back. I don’t think anybody panicked in the dugout. Everybody believed that eventually we could do it.”
Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy pulled senior Jazlyn Lunceford aside during an at-bat during the third inning of the SEC Softball Tournament. He told her, “Look at the wind, look at the flagpole, where’s it going? It’s going straight out to left field. If you get that outside pitch, be on time and hammer it.”
And Lunceford did just that, cranking a three-run home run off of the scoreboard in left center field that gave the Tide a 6-1 lead over the Florida Gators. Alabama continued to pile on, run-ruling the Gators 10-1 to claim its fifth SEC Tournament Championship and second in three years.
“I thought yesterday was awesome,” Murphy said. “Today was even better and more fun.”
Alabama did it all without the help of its ace pitcher Jackie Traina. Traina, who was named SEC Tournament MVP, was held out of today’s game after pitching in the Tide’s first two games of the SEC Tournament as well as all throwing every pitch in a three-game series against Florida the weekend before.
Senior Amanda Locke got the start in her place, and pitched all five innings, allowing just three hits and one earned run. And her team gave her all the run support she needed.
“Florida takes big hacks, so just trying to of keep the ball low and keep it out of their zone where they like to hit the ball. They’re power hitters, they hit hard. So you’ve just got to keep it low,” Locke said. ”It’s so great to be a pitcher and have the hitting that can put runs up there all the time.”
The win was even sweeter for Alabama, because it came less than a year after the Gators knocked the Tide out of the 2011 College World Series. Alabama had also taken the regular season series from the Gators 2-1 to secure the regular season SEC Championship.
“It is,” Lunceford said when asked if it was nice to get revenge. “And there’s no other group of people that I’d rather get the win with. We have each other’s backs, and I think that’s why we’re so successful.”
Kaila Hunt got things going right away for Alabama, hitting a two-run triple in the first inning that put the Tide up 2-0. In the third, she hit an RBI single before Alabama’s sluggers broke the game open.
Later in the third after Lunceford’s three-run shot, Kendall Dawson sent a two-run blast over the head of the ESPN cameraman in left field that put the Tide up 8-1, and Alabama never looked back.
Hunt completed her monster day with an RBI single in the fourth inning, her third hit and fourth RBI of the day. Cassie Reilly-Boccia added the tenth run later in the fourth with an RBI single of her own. Florida came up short in the top of the fifth, ensuring the run-rule win.
“You’ve got to give credit to the top of the lineup,” Hunt said of her performance. “I don’t really have a good weekend if the top of the lineup doesn’t get on. So I give a lot of credit to Braud and Jen and Locke hitting before me. It’s a team win, for sure. I don’t do well if they don’t do well.”
The win capped one of the most successful seasons in Alabama softball history – it’s just the second time that Alabama has won both the regular season and SEC Tournament titles. But regular season and SEC accolades aren’t the focus for Murphy and his team any more. The focus now shifts to the post-season, where the Tide is still looking for its first College World Series win. Alabama finished tied for third in 2008, 2009 and 2011. And a stunning, walk-off loss to Hawaii in 2010 denied Alabama the chance to even play in Oklahoma City.
And so as the the championship hats were handed out at Rhoads Stadium on Saturday, the Alabama softball team left happy, but not yet satisfied. The Tide is guaranteed a spot in a regional round, which will be held in Tuscaloosa, where the real season begins.
“One thing that really keeps this team strong is the bond that we have,” Locke said. “It’s easy to come out every day and play a game every day and play against the best teams in the country because our team is such a unit. We play together and we play for each other.”