Alabama's title a milestone for SEC
OKLAHOMA CITY -- First came the rain. Then came the deluge.
Mother Nature could claim credit for the former. The latter was all about Alabama.
In the span of half an inning that took nearly half an hour to complete, as rain poured down and loosened Oklahoma ace Keilani Ricketts' grip on the ball, more than a decade's worth of frustration, heartbreak and missed opportunities poured out of Alabama's dugout, raced through its fans and loosened the Sooners' hold on the national championship.
For a relative newcomer to the world of college softball, Alabama waited a long time for a chance to hold a trophy in Oklahoma City.
"I felt like if we kept going or coming back, we could win one," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "It just took eight times to get here, and it was eighth time the charm."
Trailing by three runs and struggling to make headway against a pitcher in Ricketts who seemed destined to use her time here to complete a climb into the pantheon of all-time greats, the Crimson Tide scored four times in the bottom of the fourth inning taking a lead they never relinquished. Alabama's eventual 5-4 win in the decisive game of the best-of-three championship series earned it the right to call itself the first SEC team to win a national championship and just the third team to rally to win the final series after losing the first game.
This one couldn't have happened any other way for a team that went from experts on having their hearts broken -- exiting the postseason on walk-off home runs twice in the past three seasons -- to a team that played without a care in the world in the biggest moments. The Crimson Tide didn't want to wait any longer. They just wanted to play.
After sitting through a near three-hour rain delay before the game, Alabama looked helpless in the first two innings against Ricketts. The national player of the year looked nothing like the pitcher who hit five batters and didn't finish the second game of the championship series a night earlier. She struck out the side on 13 pitches in the bottom of the first, crushed a home run that nearly cleared the grandstand in right field when she came to the plate in the top of the second, and then struck out two more in another 13-pitch inning in the bottom of the second.
When Oklahoma's Lauren Chamberlain added a two-run home run in the top of the third inning, momentum was all on the side of the Sooners.
The inning that changed everything started harmlessly enough. Alabama's Kaila Hunt lined a single into left field for her first hit of the championship series, but Ricketts retired the next two batters, the only damage a wild pitch that allowed Hunt to move to second base. But as the rain started to fall harder, Ricketts lost her grip on the ball and the game. She walked Kendall Dawson, and another wild pitch in the sequence allowed Hunt to take third base. Another wild pitch on the first ball she threw to Amanda Locke allowed Hunt to score Alabama's first run and cut the deficit to 3-1. Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso approached the umpires about the conditions, and after consulting with NCAA director of championships Sharon Cessna, they halted the game to let a band of heavy rain pass.
"Honestly, I just wanted to pitch through it," Ricketts said. "I wasn't really focused on the rain. I didn't realize it was affecting the way I was pitching, even though I was throwing a lot of wild pitches. I was just so focused on trying to get through it, even though the rain kept coming down, and it was affecting the way I was pitching."
Gasso wanted the game paused. Murphy, with momentum on his side and Ricketts on the ropes, made it clear he didn't. While Oklahoma's players sat in the dugout and Gasso donned a raincoat during the delay, most of Alabama's players gathered on the grass in front of their dugout, in the rain in what seemed almost protest, and exchanged cheers with the block of Crimson Tide fans behind them. With each passing minute it seemed Alabama's players and fans grew louder. With each passing minute, it felt more and more like something had shifted.
A break that should have dulled Alabama's energy and quieted a crowd that waited so long instead underscored the diverging paths the two teams were on.
Murphy didn't get his wish, and it might have been the best thing that happened to his team on the night.
"In my opinion, I think it was probably one of the worst things they could have done for their momentum," Hunt said. "It just kind of got us fired up. We just wanted to play. I think with us, it goes back to we're one heartbeat -- 20 on 1, that was one of our sayings. So it was 20 people against Keliani in the circle. I think we really bought into that. When they tried to stop the pitching, we just kind of got fired up and went with our fans and they joined in."
Play resumed after a delay of 13 minutes, the tarp never placed over the infield. Jackie Traina, deservedly, was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, pitching every inning for her team and coming up with big hit after big hit, including an RBI single to drive in her team's final run. But there may not be a more important hit in program history than the single Locke came up with when play resumed. She struggled throughout the series to handle Ricketts' changeup, but in a moment when an out would have rendered so much else moot, she came through with a single that scored a run and kept the rally going for Courtney Conley's RBI double and the subsequent error on ball off the bat of Jazlyn Lunceford that allowed Conley to complete the four-run rally.
A prodigious power hitter in her five years on the roster, Locke's last hit in an Alabama uniform barely cleared the infield. Just like she wanted.
"We were doing cheers in the dugout and all that, and I had everybody in my face just saying get up there and just crush it," Locke said. "She was having trouble with the ball a little bit because it was wet, so I was kind of being a little more patient, but then she started getting the strikes in there. I was really just shortening up and trying to put the ball in play. I wasn't trying to do too much with it because there were two outs."
That the players involved in the most important sequence of events in Alabama softball history were from Georgia (Hunt), Florida (Dawson), Texas (Locke), Missouri (Conley) and Alabama (Lunceford) is no minor detail. This was a win for one team, for one emerging superstar in Traina who just seemed to get better as the moments got bigger in the postseason and for one group of seniors who steered the ship all season. But the first championship for a SEC team was always going to be about more than one team, and no roster was better equipped for those duties than one that reflected its region.
The streets around the stockyard district south and west of downtown Oklahoma City looked like an annex of Tuscaloosa on Wednesday afternoon. Blue and orange flags adorned cars throughout much of the city in anticipation of the Thunder playing for a spot in the NBA Finals, but crimson and white flags on cars with Alabama plates were more prevalent amid the pickup trucks and livestock trailers around Cattleman's, a steakhouse institution near the stockyards. When you win at Alabama, fans will travel, just as they go to games at home in numbers unmatched anywhere in college softball.
It doesn't seem like much until you consider there were cars and trucks parked nearby that rolled off the assembly line before there was a softball team at Alabama, let alone a program capable of competing for a championship. The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta were a major milestone for the growth of softball in the South in general and specifically in spurring the SEC to finally join the world of college softball, as Alabama did in 1997. It wasn't that long ago, but it became much more a part of the past Wednesday night.
Growing up in Georgia, all Hunt remembers of those Olympics is the vague memory of her dad driving visitors around as a volunteer. In the world she grew up in, softball was always a fixture of the sporting landscape, from her earliest years through choosing from any number of colleges in the South eager to give a scholarship to a shortstop with All-American power at the plate.
There was always just one thing hanging out there, one annual failure in Oklahoma City that invited skepticism about a conference and its brand of softball.
"Not necessarily looked down on, but it definitely is kind of an underdog thing," Hunt said. "You can't blame anyone because we hadn't really ever won it -- no one in the SEC had ever won it. So you can't really blame them until you can prove them wrong. I wouldn't necessarily say it's looked down on, but I definitely think the South and the East Coast are kind of the underdog in a sense."
The only way you prove otherwise is by going out and playing. And by the time the fourth inning rolled around Wednesday night, Alabama was tired of waiting to do just that.