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May 9, 2012TUSCALOOSA | It started on a state-of-the-art, neutral-field stadium with an Olympic flag flying overhead.
It migrated from Georgia to Tennessee to Florida, then found a rotating home that has taken it from campus to campus around the league. Over the years, 65,349 fans have flocked to see it live.
The Southeastern Conference Softball Tournament was first held on an on-campus site at the University of Alabama in 2004, and now it's back. Today through Saturday, eight SEC teams will battle for the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. But with every team virtually assured of continuing into postseason play, the stakes are more personal.
"You want to be the best of the best," Alabama senior first baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia said. "Why not? If you're capable of it, go out and get it."
As Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State play for the SEC Tournament championship over the next three days, most players are oblivious to the event's history - the hot afternoons in front of empty stands, the double-elimination grind that seemed to leave some teams too spent to succeed in the NCAA Tournament, the growth as it moved to campus sites and the boost it got from joining ESPN's television lineup.
All that matters to most participants is that the postseason is here.
"It rivals up there with Christmas," Mississippi State coach Vann Stuedeman said. "It is what everybody plays for, so motivation will not be a huge factor."
The neutral-site years
The SEC began sponsoring softball in 1997. South Carolina had a long history in the sport, and Tennessee got a leg up by starting play a year earlier than the rest of the start-up programs. Most teams played home games in public parks, well before schools began investing in on-campus softball stadiums.
At the end of that first season of play, the league's top eight teams gathered in Columbus, Ga., for the first SEC Tournament at South Commons Stadium.
"They had hosted the Olympics (softball) the year before," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "There was a lot of interest and (the fans) really supported it."
South Carolina won the inaugural SEC Tournament, and Alabama won the next year. Because the SEC was new to softball, there was no automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the winner in the first couple of years.
"We beat LSU twice (in 1998) and won the tournament," Murphy said. "We thought that would be enough to get us into the NCAAs, but when they announced the field they took LSU instead."
By the tournament's third year, Columbus had lost its Olympic allure. In 2000, the event moved to Chattanooga, Tenn.
"They didn't do a good job keeping (the stadium) up," Murphy said of Columbus. "They kind of let it go."
The event stayed in Chattanooga for two years but suffered at the gate because the nearest school, Tennessee, was struggling and didn't make the field. The city decided to let the SEC Tournament go and instead host the Southern Conference Tournament, since Tennessee-Chattanooga was a power in that league and had local drawing power.
Ralph Weekly, now co-coach at Tennessee with his wife, Karen, was the coach of the Chattanooga Mocs when the SEC Tournament was held in that city.
"I went to the first SEC Tournament up in Chattanooga, and they did a great job," Weekly said, "but the way it's grown, the television, the type of teams that we have in there now, I don't think there's any comparison."
In 2003, the SEC Tournament moved to the unlikely location of Plant City, Fla., which had converted a former baseball spring training facility for softball use. It was far away from most SEC teams, and attendance sagged.
Alabama won the championship, defeating LSU, but Murphy remembers the conditions more than the scores.
"There was a thermometer in the dugout, and I looked at it and it said 116 degrees," Alabama's coach said. "I remember looking up in the stands and there were like 140 people and they were all side by side on the top row, because that was the only shade."
Starting in 2004, the SEC Tournament moved to campus sites. Alabama was the first to host in a formula that alternates between SEC Western Division and Eastern Division schools, in alphabetical order.
"We were lucky enough to be first in the alphabet," Murphy said.
LSU won that first tournament on Alabama's field, but the highlight came in the last game on the opening day of play. Heavy rains forced delays.
"We played Auburn and it started at 11 o'clock (at night)," Murphy said. "At midnight there were 1,000 people there watching us play Auburn.
"We finished at 1 in the morning, and afterward I went to Waffle House for the first time. It was a good breakfast."
Since then, the event has rotated around the conference. Some teams have bypassed their chance to host until they finished with facility upgrades, with the understanding that schools that do so can reclaim their spot in the rotation whenever they are ready.
Such was the case with Arkansas, which hosted in newly built Bogle Park in 2010. Alabama eliminated the host team in the first round, but the Razorbacks supported the event to the end, with Alabama defeating LSU in the championship game.
"I wasn't sure anybody would show up," Murphy said. "When we took the field, nearly every seat was filled. I don't know if they came over after baseball or they just came out to support SEC softball, but they were there."
The on-campus tournaments have drawn well.
"I definitely think it was the right move," Georgia coach Lu Harris-Champer said. "I do believe it's great to have a tournament, simply in the fact that we get to prepare in that one more big environment, just to have that big environment that we're going to have this weekend in getting our teams ready for the postseason."
The SEC went from a double-elimination format to single elimination in 2006, making it a three-day event with seven total games. The format change reflected the growth of the league in stature.
"In the beginning, I think the double elimination was necessary because you could get a hot team through," Auburn coach Tina Deese said. "You were only going to get four or five institutions represented in NCAAs."
The double-elimination format, coaches figured, might lead to a team playing enough extra games against quality opposition to earn the league another bid. Now that the eight teams that make it each year are usually already considered likely to get a spot in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, playing fewer games makes more sense.
"Just to beat your pitching up and beat your athletes up in a double-elimination tournament, in my opinion, is kind of crazy to do at this point in the year," Deese said.
Said Georgia's Harris-Champer, "The double elimination, well I did like that as well because you got to play more games getting ourselves ready to go out of conference (in NCAA Tournament play), but absolutely it was a grind for your student-athletes. It's probably better not to have so many games right at that time, so getting to play one or two games is definitely better than playing five or six games."
In 2009, ESPN began televising the SEC Tournament on its family of networks. The network had seen ratings success with the Women's College World Series and earlier-round games in the NCAA Tournament and wanted to expand its coverage.
The all-sports network will televise tonight's Alabama-Mississippi State opening game and Saturday's championship game on ESPN, with the rest of the tournament carried on ESPNU.
"What ESPN has brought to the SEC has just changed the whole game," Tennessee's Weekly said.
Said Auburn's Deese, "It's grown, and TV has made it huge, the ESPN factor. Quite honestly, softball has grown with SEC softball being on ESPN so much. I think it's a great sport for TV."
The last time the SEC Tournament was held in Tuscaloosa, the venue was known as the Alabama Softball Complex. Now it is called Rhoads Stadium, and it has become a softball destination.
Ask Rachel Lawson, the Kentucky coach, who had to make the tournament field to fulfill the dream of the family of UK player Rachel Riley.
"This is a pretty cool story, but I think it shows how important Alabama is to softball in the nation," Lawson said. "Last year, when the tornadoes came (to Tuscaloosa) and, sadly, everybody had such a hard time, we were unable to go to Tuscaloosa (when the series was cancelled). One of my players, who is very sentimental in her own right - which is rare for a person of her age - was really kind of bummed. She felt terrible for the people, but she also was really bummed because her parents, the one venue they had not seen yet was Alabama.
"So I knew that my one shot to get them to see the stadium would be if we made it to the postseason, so that's been in the back of my mind all this year. I'm glad we could deliver for them."
Since 2004, Rhoads Stadium has added brickyard seating in the outfield and a plaza area on the concourse down the first-base side.
"I think it now reminds people of a small professional baseball ballpark, where you have seating all the way around you," Murphy said. "An outfielder can make the third out of the inning and she can turn around and throw it up to the people in the stands in the outfield. It just makes it more enjoyable to everybody."
Reilly-Boccia, the Alabama first baseman, is from New York. When she arrived at UA, she didn't quite understand the concept of the conference tournament. Over the last four years, she has learned to embrace it.
"I was like, why don't we rest that weekend? What does it mean?" she said. "When you have a conference like the SEC, with such passionate players and passionate fans and such great softball, it's that all-out desire and competitiveness to win.
"It's a lot of fun because you have the best of the best conference playing in one spot. I love coming out early and warming up and watching the other teams play. I like hearing about a team that wasn't supposed to win that maybe won. It's so much fun. I look forward to showing off Tuscaloosa, to showing off our fans and our stadium and have our fans get to see the best of the SEC in one place."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.