Given the program that Patrick Murphy has built, any University of Alabama softball season that ends anywhere except Oklahoma City is a disappointment in some ways. Softball bears the football burden, with championships being the standard by which they are judged. Murphy probably wouldn’t want fans that thought differently.
This year’s team didn’t make it — but it’s hard to remember any Alabama team, even the best ones, that fought any harder in the postseason to get back to Oklahoma. The Crimson Tide had a difficult draw, even at home, and had to win two classic games against Minnesota to get to Gainesville in the first place. What awaited Alabama there — not in The Swamp itself, but just across the street — was the No. 1 seed Florida and the No. 1 power pitcher in the country. The Crimson Tide pushed that draw as far as it could, to the final out of the third and decisive game. At that point, Alabama couldn’t quite overcome a two-run first inning by the Gators, an inning highlighted by a run that scored when Alexis Osorio hit a Gator batter on an elbow adorned with thicker protective armor than Tony Stark’s.
Would Alabama — with WCWS-level pitching from Osorio and Sydney Littlejohn — have fared better with a higher seed? There’s no way to be certain, but it’s tough to imagine a steeper path than the one through Gainesville. UA brought the No. 16 seed on itself with stretches of inconsistent offense.
The longest of those dry stretches came during the 20 games or so that second baseman Demi Turner missed because of a broken occipital bone. Injuries aren’t an excuse. Every team in every sport encounters them at some point, and not every team can overcome them. It is fair to say though that Turner was a significant loss, both in terms of production and leadership. Could her presence have sparked a couple of additional wins, and a better draw? That’s only speculation, but that does seem possible.
Littlejohn, a senior, will be missed, even though Osorio returns in the circle. Chandler Dare and Marissa Runyon will be missed but the returning nucleus is strong and the expectations for the recruiting class are high. There will still be a homefield advantage and Murphy will still schedule at a championship level.
The best memories of the 2017 team came in the stretch run. No, there is no Oklahoma City trip this week but there is something to be said for a team that believed it could get there. The buzzword around Alabama athletics during a tumultuous past week has been “stability.” That doesn’t always mean winning every game, or every tournament. It does mean having a program that’s capable of getting there if everything goes well, year after year. That’s the sort of program that a Nick Saban or a Patrick Murphy has built — and it is fair to mention Mic Potter, Dennis Pursley and Jay Seawell as well. Avery Johnson is taking steps in that direction, and Dana Duckworth. That doesn’t mean that any are satisfied with falling short. It means that their programs are on the right path to get back in the fight, again and again.
This year, it would have been easy for Alabama softball to shrug off a bad year, to let the national record streak of Super Regional appearances lapse. Instead, the Crimson Tide fought — and fought hard. The dividends on that may be an important part of seasons to come.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.