Alabama vs. Texas
Schedule: Thursday 8 p.m.; Friday 8 p.m.; Saturday 1 p.m. (if necessary)
Where: Rhoads Stadium
Records: Alabama 55-7, Texas 45-15
Radio: 93.3 FM
The story of the 2019 Alabama softball team begins where the 2018 season ended.
The Crimson Tide had just been blanked 6-0 by Washington in the Seattle Super Regional on May 20, ending its season.
Sitting in a hotel room some 2,500 miles from Tuscaloosa, head coach Patrick Murphy held one final meeting with the 2018 senior class and afterward walked them to the door and brought in the returning players.
Team 23 was already at work, planning for the future.
At the Team 23 meeting, Elissa Brown said it. She said, ‘This senior class is going to bring us back.’ And we bought into that,” said Alabama first baseman/catcher Bailey Hemphill.
The Crimson Tide is back in a super regional this season, and this time it’s not 2,500 miles away. Alabama, the No. 8 overall tournament seed, hosts Texas, the No. 9 overall seed, at Rhoads Stadium in a best-of-three series starting Thursday at 8 p.m. Game 2 is Friday at 8 p.m. and an if-necessary game is 1 p.m. Sunday.
This is the first time Alabama has hosted a super regional since 2016.
“We had to do some things different,” Murphy said. “We didn’t want to play on the road, once again. Two years doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but to us it was a huge deal. Especially since we’ve been to 11 World Series.
“The best path is from home to Oklahoma City.”
Completing the puzzle
The path didn’t look too promising at the onset. Alabama lost six seniors, including its ace pitcher and half the middle infield.
There were veterans returning in the four seniors: pitcher Courtney Gettins (P), utility player Caroline Hardy, starting catcher Reagan Dykes and starting left fielder Merris Schroder. There was also stability with outfielders Brown and Kaylee Tow. Hemphill was back, too.
The rest of the defense was a big concern. Pitching was an even bigger question mark.
The players knew it, too.
“Each class has a class dinner the first two weeks of school,” Murphy said. “Seniors come to my house. A few days later the freshmen come over. Sophomores go to (pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle-Prothro’s) house and the juniors go to (assistant coach Alyson Habetz’s) house.
“We have these class dinners with a small setting. We have an itinerary with things like role playing and team building. As classes get older it’s more leadership driven. With the senior class we have about 12 questions we ask. We want to see if we are on the same wavelength. We asked them what will this team’s biggest question mark be. We had eight answers — four players and four coaches. It was split down the middle. Four said pitching staff and four said the infield.”
It was obvious positions needed to be filled and some inexperienced players were going to have to do it. Claire Jenkins played mostly third base last season but was moved to shortstop. Maddie Morgan, who started just 13 games last season, took over at third base.
“The other part of the puzzle — was Kaylee Tow going to stay in the outfield or were we going to move her to first to free up more catching time for Bailey?” Murphy said. “When KB (Sides) started to show she could do it, the pieces of the puzzle fit where she played right field, Tow played first and Skylar (Wallace) went to second base. That meant Bailey was more of a DP/catcher and Reagan was either catcher or DP. Then against Mississippi State, Tow got hurt and that moved Bailey to almost full time at first base.”
The pitching dilemma took care of itself.
Alabama lost an ace in Alexis Osario, but gained an entire pitching staff. Alabama got big-time recruit Montana Fouts and also landed some big-time transfers including Krystal Goodman and Sarah Cornell.
Land of the rising Tide
One of the biggest issues with building a team is chemistry. Some teams have it and some don’t, and it can make or break a team’s season.
The Crimson Tide team was on board with that philosophy since that hotel meeting in Seattle. But it’s one thing to say it and another to actually do it.
Alabama was put to the test early on an 11-day summer trip to Japan to play doubleheaders against New Zealand and Great Britain.
“We had three-a-day practices and we lifted weights before lunch,” Murphy said. “We did that for eight days in a row. It was a long, hard eight days. Traveling together 13 hours on a plane, spending 12 days and nights with the team — you are either going to get along or it’s going to be a long trip.”
Murphy actually saw the beginning of something special with Team 23 in the days leading up to that Japan trip.
“When we came back from about a month and a half to start practicing for Japan, that’s when it all started,” Murphy said. “That’s one of the biggest keys to the whole season — that week and a half of practices before we left for Tokyo. We kind of set the tone for the whole year. The freshman and the new kids got to see what we were all about and got to know me. It was a huge bonus for us.”
The positions and pitching rotation were pretty much set, and the team’s overall attitude was solid. With the season about to start, Alabama got some news.
They didn’t take it well.
Coming off a 36-20 season and losing so many key starters was enough for Alabama to be picked to finish eighth in the Southeastern Conference.
Since that prediction in mid-February, Alabama has placed a huge No. 8 poster on the wall in the team’s clubhouse.
That just fueled a Crimson Tide team that was already confident and eager to prove 2019 would be something special.
It started out very special.
Alabama won its first five games in Troy at the Trojan Classic, including a nine-run rally in the seventh to beat Murray State 16-0.
Alabama won all five games in the Hillenbrand Tournament in Tucson, Arizona, including a win over then-ninth-ranked Arizona.
The Tide came home to host the Bama Bash and Crimson Classic, winning all those games to race out to a 20-0 start. They won the next five, including a come-from-behind win against Missouri. Alabama trailed 7-0 early and fought back to win 14-8.
“I think with a young team if you get off to a good start, that confidence starts to build,” Murphy said. “I’ve seen it at other teams at other programs. Sometimes with a hitter if they start out cold or slow, that could stick with you for an entire season.
“There were some games where it could have gone either way. Every time we would win, they really didn’t settle or take a day off. They continued to work harder. That was the biggest takeaway for me was that you are 25-0 and could be satisfied, but it was really cool this group wasn’t. One of the games down in Troy we got down 7-2 and scored 16 runs and won. Against Missouri we were down (7-0) and we looked godawful. But for the most part they played and responded like they should.”
Alabama won 33 straight games and shot up to No. 3 in the rankings. The streak ended with a 4-3 loss at Texas A&M on a walk-off hit.
The streak was over, but the message was clear — Alabama was a contender and not to be taken lightly.
Alabama swept LSU in the final regular-season series to lock up the SEC championship, its sixth overall and first since 2014. The Crimson Tide lost in the SEC Tournament to Florida but felt good about earning a top 8 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Then that pesky 8 showed up again.
Alabama gathered about the TV in the team clubhouse to watch the NCAA Softball Selection Show to find out where it would be seeded. The top four seeds were revealed and then, a stunner. Florida, which Alabama swept during the regular season and was seeded sixth in the SEC tourney, earned a No. 5 seed.
The No. 6 seed came up on the screen — no Alabama.
No. 7 was listed — no Alabama.
Alabama’s name finally flashed on the screen at No. 8.
“It was a little surprising considering we had nine top-10 wins and one loss, and that was in the (SEC) championship on a neutral site,” Murphy said that night. “I’m pretty sure it was our non-conference schedule. But when you take care of business in the conference and win it by four games and lead from start to finish, I thought that would carry a little more weight. Obviously not.”
When the No. 8 seed was revealed, the No. 8 poster that was hung throughout the regular season went back up on the wall for the postseason.
“The number eight has been a motivational factor for us since the beginning of the season,” Murphy said. “So what the hell? We might as well use it again.”
Before the team gathered at the clubhouse for the NCAA selection show, Murphy asked his team to text him the answer to a simple question: What makes Team 23 special?
“I’m being honest, about 15 of the 19 answers were something along the lines of ‘I’ve never been on a team where everyone is truly happy for everyone’s success.’ One of the pitchers wrote, ‘We are not trying to be the number one pitcher, we are trying to be the number one team,” Murphy said.
That attitude has been a driving force behind Alabama’s success in 2019. It revealed itself during the Tuscaloosa Regional against Arizona State. With the game tied 4-4, Murphy sent pinch-hitter Caroline Hardy to the plate with the bases loaded. Hardy is not a starter and has been used sparingly this season. The senior got down in the count 0-2 but on the third pitch, smacked a three-run triple to center field to give Alabama the lead and the momentum.
“We talk about it all the time,” Murphy said after the 7-4 win. “When it’s your time, blessings will be bestowed upon you. (Hardy) has stuck with it all year — never complains, is the ultimate teammate. She would get robbed and we would say blessings are coming. And today she got them. Couldn’t happen to a better kid.
“There is a word that describes our program. If you come into our clubhouse you will see it. It’s mudita. It’s a word that means having vicarious joy in someone else’s success. If you and I are competing for the same shortstop position and I win the spot and I hit a home run to win the game. In mudita terms you are going to be the first one out of the dugout and at home plate celebrating with me. Opposite is envy and jealousy. To me those are the dirtiest words in a team sport. You don’t want it anywhere near your clubhouse. If it creeps in, it could ruin a team. From the very beginning this team has had it. It’s tough to get, but once you have true mudita, it’s the coolest thing in the world.”