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May 14, 2012TUSCALOOSA | The new No. 1 is starting to look a lot like the old No. 1.
Kayla Braud, who hits atop the University of Alabama's batting order and wears a No. 1 jersey that reinforces the spot, came into collegiate softball with a national-record 103-game hitting streak. She batted .505 as a freshman and .436 last year as a sophomore and was cruising along with a .500 batting average 14 games into this season. After that, her production steadily fell, with 12 hitless games and just 10 multihit games over the next 33 contests.
Her average fell as low as .347, a number most hitters would covet. For Braud, it felt like a disaster.
"I've never struggled, but it was a really good opportunity for me to put in the extra work and be a better player than I was before," the Eugene, Ore., native said.
The UA left fielder's average has taken a turn for the better, and just as the Crimson Tide is entering postseason as the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Over Alabama's last seven games, a span that includes a series victory over Florida to clinch the Southeastern Conference regular-season title and a three-game sweep through the SEC Tournament, Braud has batted .381 with two doubles, eight runs scored, five steals and five walks.
The turnaround started when Braud took up Alabama pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle, a former UA All-American, on an offer to help.
"She finally asked me and we've been hitting early before practice," VanBrakle said. "She was slumping and she was having a hard time not being on base as much as she'd like to."
Soon after she began putting in the extra work with VanBrakle, Braud saw improvement.
"It was just kind of, for me, it was about finding the comfort and being comfortable in the box again," Braud said. "Steph really helped me get there. I came on days off and I came before games and before practice. She threw me some crazy pitches and she threw me her hardest, and it just made me confident I can go out and hit any pitcher, because if you can hit Steph, you can hit off of anybody."
The UA coaching staff also provided encouragement. Assistant coach Alyson Habetz had a video made of Braud's highlights to show her things she was doing well. After a bad game at the plate, Braud got a text from VanBrakle: "All great athletes come out of a slump," it said. "You're going to be fine. You're a big-time player."
Now Braud is starting to feel like one again.
"It was really all about going back to basics," she said. "Sometimes you get too caught up in wanting to do well so bad, I wanted it very bad for my team and I wanted to do well for my team, but it almost made me a little bit anxious in the box. I had to go back to being calm and playing my game."
Braud's play on defense has also improved. She provided the double play in the first round of the SEC Tournament against Mississippi State - making a sliding snowcone catch and popping up to throw all the way to first base for the second out - that ended up as the No. 1 play of the day on ESPN's "SportsCenter." It's a long way from her freshman year at second base, when she developed a mental block that resulted in 13 errors. Former UA assistant Vann Stuedeman, now head coach at Mississippi State, likened the defensive meltdown to the one former Los Angeles Dodger Steve Sax suffered through in the 1980s.
"She couldn't throw it to first base," Stuedeman said. "Bless her heart, we tried everything. She's a resilient competitor, and so we put her in the outfield and she embraced it. She'd never played outfield a day in her life and she embraced it and said, 'This is where I'm going to play, this is where I can contribute.' And hats off to her and Alyson Habetz, the outfield coach, they have worked hard."
In two years in left field, Braud has made three errors while robbing several batters of base hits with her fielding range.
"I've forgotten about infield, honestly," Braud said. "That's one of the things that's so great about playing on this team is (Habetz) takes so much pride in playing the outfield. A lot of teams don't focus on the outfield as much and just put whoever they can in the outfield, but with Aly that's just as important as any infielder. She pushes us every single day in practice to make that play, to be our best. It's not just going through the motions, but to play the outfield and be the best we can."
Could Braud make the throw from second now?
"I don't know," she said. "I always wonder that, but I'm happy where I am now, so I don't think I need to even worry about that. I'm an outfielder, converted."
Alabama believes its old No. 1 is back.
"I think you can see a confidence in her that wasn't there a month ago," VanBrakle said. "She looks good and the box and you can tell she feels good. There's no doubt."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.