The season ended as it did last year, if one didn’t look deeply.
The Alabama baseball team wrapped up another year with a loss in its final regular-season game. For most teams in the Southeastern Conference, postseason play — a trip to Hoover, probably an NCAA berth as well — lies ahead, so the last game on the schedule isn’t an ending at all, just a transition into another phase of the season.
For the Crimson Tide, after a 10-8 loss to a strong Ole Miss team meant handshakes and hugs for teammates, some of whom have put on an Alabama uniform for the last time.
There was a different air after the final game of 2018, though. There was still disappointment, certainly. Alabama is a proud program and while a 9-21 record reflected some improvement, it is by no means acceptable to the players or coaches, any more than it is palatable to the fans.
But the 2017 season ended in doubt and confusion. Although no one knew it at the time the final out was recorded, a coaching change was imminent, the final straw in a season that wore on the players and seemed to have sapped their fighting will at the end.
This year, while there was no sense that the program was near its destination, there did seem to be confidence that the journey is headed down the right road under new coach Brad Bohannon.
“From Day 1, it was organic,” said Alabama junior infielder Cobie Vance. “It’s tough to say that when the wins and losses don’t show it but we never gave up.
“Last year, we would get down and then we would hit the panic button. This year, we had a lull at mid-season but we kept on competing and we were playing cleaner baseball down the stretch. With what is coming back and what is coming in, I think it’s something people can look forward to.”
Bohannon, for his part, wasn’t ready to break down the 2018 season piece by piece, not after an emotional loss that saw Alabama rally on four different occasions — and bring the potential winning run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth — before finally falling 10-8 to the Rebels, a likely NCAA Regional host .
How emotional was it?
“I told the team that I hope I’m the head coach here (at Alabama) for 25 years, but this will always be my first team,” Bohannon said. “I told them I really appreciate their effort. They gave us everything they had.”
The rebuilding process won’t be instantly finished in 2019, either. Alabama loses some experienced seniors and, as is the nature of the sport, will lose more players in the June draft. Vance, for one, will evaluate his draft status before making a final decision on whether to return. There is young talent on the way but, as Bohannon noted, the SEC experience will be missed.
There is, however, a new atmosphere that will carry over among the players.
“We had our ups and downs,” Vance said. “But from Day 1 with the new staff, it felt like family. They made us feel important.”
The next step, maybe in one year, maybe in a couple, will be for that feeling to reflect itself in the standings and have everyone else, including its conference opponents, feel like Alabama is important once again.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225