Alabama softball steps further from 2020, takes fast train to Oklahoma City for WCWS 2021 | Hurt

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News

The weather was perfect in Tuscaloosa on Saturday afternoon, but you could tell which way the wind was blowing. There will be another gust in Oklahoma City on Thursday, and not just because the breeze comes in from the Plains with characteristic regularity. 

With every step – from Alabama softball's  Super Regional sweep over Kentucky to the first-round game with Arizona (41-13) in the Women’s College World Series on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN) – the fog of 2020 seems to be blowing away. The memories of that lost season will remain. No wind can touch that. But the fact that softball has made such a resounding return changed the perception.

The interest in softball in 2021 wasn’t just high. It was higher than ever. The crowds that Alabama (50-7) attracted over the weekend drew national attention.

Given Alabama’s long history of full houses, saying Saturday was the largest is a strong statement. Plus, it wasn’t just in Tuscaloosa. There were big crowds all weekend at Missouri and Oklahoma and would have been the same at UCLA if local regulations had allowed. In part, it was timing with the Memorial Day weekend and the gradual reduction as the threat of COVID-19 seems to recede even though it has not disappeared entirely.

More:Alabama softball sweeps Kentucky to make Women's College World Series for 13th time

A year ago, Alabama coach Patrick Murphy was trying to manage a confused group of young athletes and deal with his own thoughts as well in an unprecedented time. Now, he seems re-energized, speaking out as an ambassador for what might be the fastest-growing sport in intercollegiate athletics. He appeared on ESPN, urging athletic directors to invest in softball, not because of some social equality issue but also because its bottom-line growth potential is so promising. 

Every sport, college or pro, had to work around the coronavirus pandemic. Alabama football, thanks to strong conference support and an institutional determination to somehow make it happen, didn’t miss a football season in 2020. One of the hypotheticals for future historians whether they consider the strong case of 2020 Alabama as the “greatest college football team ever” will be “what if that team had never played at all.” Softball did lose a season, or at least had one truncated. So did other spring sports. So did men’s and women’s college basketball, although they had been through a full regular season and established an identity. 

Few, if any, programs bounced back the way Alabama did. One can pick and choose various criteria, but here’s a bit of trivia: by advancing to Oklahoma City, UA became only the second program ever to participate in the College Football Playoff, the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and the WCWS in the same academic year, joining 2016 Oklahoma. There were other successes, and here’s a belated shout-out to the rowing team for its first NCAA appearance.

At some point, roughly around the time the national anthem is played before the Alabama-Arizona game, the Crimson Tide focus has to shift to winning a title. The field is geographically balanced with few weak links, although it would have taken a very good analyst (better than me, for sure) to project the only two SEC entrants as Alabama and Georgia. UCLA and Oklahoma are both giants in the sport, but Alabama has faced similar odds in its long Oklahoma City history.

The final words before that, though, belong to Murphy: “Invest in softball.” Not just because it might make money, not because it fits a television-friendly format, not because Montana Fouts and Bailey Hemphill are superstars in their way, like DeVonta Smith or Najee Harris, Herbert Jones or Luisa Blanco. If nothing else, invest in it because it’s been a positive story in a time when everyone seeks positive stories,

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports or via Twitter @cecilhurt.