Alabama wins at speed of sound
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama's Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton cover as much ground in as little time as any two teammates in college softball, one reason the Crimson Tide are just a victory from a return to the Women's College World Series after a 4-1 win against Michigan in the opening game of the best-of-three Tuscaloosa super regional Thursday.
But even Braud and Fenton have nothing on the speed with which Alabama reached the point where it puts on the best show in softball.
To appreciate the scene that surrounded the game at Rhoads Stadium on Alabama's campus, consider what things looked like the first time the Wolverines came to town to play the Crimson Tide. That was in 1997, when Big Ten powerhouse Michigan was coming off back-to-back appearances in the World Series and Alabama was coming off, well, nothing. The Crimson Tide were one of several SEC schools competing in softball at the varsity level for the first time that year.
Recently enough that it came only a few months before moviegoers first saw Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet set sail in "Titanic," Michigan swept a doubleheader from Alabama at Munny Sokol Park, a public field five miles and a river from campus and roughly a million miles from softball relevance.
"There were probably 50 people and three dogs in the outfield at that game at Sokol Park -- you couldn't believe it," recalled Alabama coach Patrick Murphy. "It's come so far in a short amount of time, it's just amazing."
There were officially 2,475 fans at Rhoads Stadium on Thursday. There weren't any dogs to be seen, or much room for them to roam had they been there. It wasn't even a particularly large crowd for Alabama, perhaps held down by the looming holiday weekend and weather that could charitably be described as sultry, but it was plenty big enough to make its presence felt. And more to the point, heard.
"We knew coming in what an environment it is in Tuscaloosa," Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. "And boy, on that field, it is so loud. We had trouble talking to our kids at times."
Hutchins hastened to add that she didn't think the atmosphere unnerved her team. For good reason. While one more win would give Alabama sole possession of second place on the list of World Series appearances among schools from outside the state of California or the Pac-10, the one school guaranteed to remain ahead of it on that list is Michigan (the Wolverines have nine; the Crimson Tide have seven). The last of those trips for Michigan came in 2009, when the seniors on the current team helped beat Alabama in the opening game for both teams in Oklahoma City. This isn't a team or a program likely to be intimidated by a big stage.
The top of Alabama's lineup, on the other hand, can cause any opponent to feel a little queasy.
"I think Fenton's the toughest out in college softball right now," Hutchins said. "She's tough, but [Fenton and Braud] both are. They really pressure you, so you've got to make the plays. There's no room for error; they really make you be perfect."
For the first four innings, Michigan darted and dodged. Fenton, Alabama's No. 2 hitter, singled in the first inning and doubled in her second plate appearance in the third, but Braud was already in the dugout both times after outs, having been retired on a fantastic defensive play by third baseman Stephanie Kirkpatrick in the first inning and a fly ball in the third. Courtney Conley gave Alabama a 1-0 lead with an RBI double in the second, but that was all the Crimson Tide managed in those first four innings against freshman pitcher Haylie Wagner, which left the door open far wider for the underdog than the crowd or the home team wanted.
With one out in the bottom of the fifth, Braud reached when Michigan first baseman Amanda Chidester couldn't close her glove on a throw from Wagner. Fenton then hit a hard shot to third that Kirkpatrick couldn't do anything with. Kaila Hunt followed with a double down the line on which both runners scored easily, Jazlyn Lunceford drove in a third run in the inning and the Crimson Tide had all the breathing room they needed.
It's easy to listen to the crowd at Rhoads and recognize the difference between that and the sounds of friends and family at Sokol. It's easy to look at the video scoreboard, the outfield wall with murals of program legends and the terraced "Brickyard" seats beyond center field and right field, where fans set up camp on blankets or in lawn chairs, and appreciate how much has changed from a time when Murphy set up temporary fences before games on fields shared with rec leagues. But the atmosphere at Rhoads isn't the cause of Alabama's success; it is the effect. The crowds come because Murphy is one of the best minds in a sport he once barely knew.
A former baseball player and high school coach in his native Iowa before he entered the world of softball in 1990 as an assistant at what is now Louisiana-Lafayette, Murphy was initially more Earl Weaver than Mike Candrea.
"My favorite play in softball was a three-run home run," Murphy said recently of his early philosophy. "And I waited and waited and waited and waited sometimes."
Alabama reached the NCAA tournament in just its third season, Murphy's first after a promotion from assistant to head coach, but in that first regional he watched his team leave runner upon runner stranded on base against a Missouri team that won with a squeeze play. When their paths crossed later that summer, Candrea, who has led Arizona to eight national championships, counseled that even a good lineup was likely to get shut down at some point in the postseason if it lacked the ability to manufacture runs. It stuck with Murphy. Hunt's double Thursday night wasn't exactly small ball, and Alabama still leads the SEC in walks and ranks second in the nation in home runs, setting the stage for plenty of three-run home runs. But Murphy's lineups increasingly have included players who can do things like pressure opposing infielders into mistakes with nothing more than two bounces and speed. Players like Braud and Fenton.
"I like lefties that are triple threats," Murphy said. "I don't really want just a slapper or a hitter; I want them to slap, drag and hit. I think that's been a big key because if the big righties are getting shut down, the little lefties can put it in play and beat it out. To me, that's the biggest reason to have slappers is because you are going to face a good pitcher someday, and if you just need to put the ball in play, they're going to get on."
Braud and Fenton do that as well as any combination currently playing the college game, perhaps as well as any since former Arizona greats Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion in the early-to-mid-2000s.
"Those two were, to me, the top two," Murphy said of the former Wildcats. "They were just incredible. Jen and Braud are close. And I think Jen and Braud are both true triple threats. They can both hit home runs, they can both drag and they can both slap and beat it out."
What they did Thursday night showed why Alabama thinks it has a team that can take the final step and win a national championship. The atmosphere in which it happened said everything about steps already taken.
"We were here 11 years ago for regionals, same stadium, but it wasn't anything like this," Hutchins said. "This just continues to grow and grow and grow. I don't think when I started in 1975 playing as a college athlete you could envision this, any of it. These stadiums, these environments, ESPN, I mean, it's just unbelievable. It's fantastic."
Murphy put it another way when he recalled his words to third base umpire Dani Carson-Newman early in the game: Welcome to softball heaven.
And as long as you aren't trying to keep Braud and Fenton off the bases, it kind of feels that way.