How Alabama softball used improvisation and hip-hop dancing to play its way to a World Series season

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

OKLAHOMA CITY — Alabama softball’s best practice moment in 2021 didn’t involve a ball, a bat or a glove.

Just dancing.

In early May, coach Patrick Murphy told the team he’d have a special guest visiting. He could tell his team was tired and needed a boost.

They went to the hitting facility, and there sat a hip hop instructor the team had worked with before. Those who knew her screamed.

“They were jumping up and down,” Murphy told The Tuscaloosa News.

They danced for about 45 minutes, one of the few team-building activities Alabama could do in a pandemic. 

Murphy sees improvising as a way in which softball and dancing can relate. 

“We talk a lot about improv in softball where every play is different,” Murphy said. “Fast runner, slow runner, big hitter, slapper, weather, field, umpire, fans. You can’t say it’s the exact same play from three weeks ago because it isn’t. If you don’t have that level of improv and thinking quick on your feet, I think you’re not going to be as good as you could be.”

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Alabama needed to improvise plenty throughout the 2021 season, which ended Monday in the WCWS semifinals. To finish 52-9, it had to navigate a pandemic, injuries and more, putting together a 20-game win streak along the way.

“I think the biggest take-away this year is just the adversity we faced,” said Bailey Hemphill, the SEC’s new all-time leader in walks. “It will help us in softball, but it's going to help us in life.”

Improvising started before the 2021 season began. In addition to uncertainty of what it would look like, Murphy had to figure out how to fit seven returning seniors after the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility.

Former athletics director Bill Battle helped with that, paying for those scholarships.

Then Murphy had to improvise again to start the season. Weather canceled the first tournament, but Murphy managed to add new games quickly to the schedule. One of those resulted in a combined perfect game in the opener as Montana Fouts and Sarah Cornell beat Alabama State.

The real nimbleness started when Alabama dealt with injuries. By mid-April, Alabama lost Bailey Dowling and Claire Jenkins to injuries for the season. Dowling was leading the team in home runs and RBIs. Pitcher Lexi Kilfoyl also missed about a month.

The injuries forced lineup shuffling, and supporting cast members such as Taylor Clark and Savannah Woodard had to step up.  Murphy kept largely the same lineup during the 20-game winning streak that began against Florida on April 18 and ended in Oklahoma City.

“The last day of the Florida series, I wrote on the practice plan, ‘Run the table,’” Murphy said. “I never thought they would.”

Eighteen of 20 wins came against ranked opponents. Three ranked victories came against Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida while winning the SEC Tournament. Fouts broke the SEC Tournament strikeout record with 39.

Hemphill, the SEC Player of the Year, also hit a home run to take the lead back from Tennessee to break Alabama’s career home run record.

Then in the NCAA Tournament, Alabama swept Clemson and Kentucky before beating No. 11 Arizona and No. 2 UCLA in the WCWS. The second was a perfect game for Fouts on her 21st birthday.

Then, the Crimson Tide had to improvise one last time with a rain delay against Florida State.

“I think we could have went further but just learned to be resilient,” Fouts said. “I think being resilient and gritty is a lot more than maybe having all the talent in the world. I think those characteristics are more important.”

Contact Alabama reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly