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May 18, 2012TUSCALOOSA | To get to this weekend's NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional as the nation's No. 2 overall seed, the University of Alabama softball team had to play its way through a demanding Southeastern Conference schedule and one of the toughest out-of-conference slates in the country.
Along the way, UA toughened itself with two demanding stretches that revealed what the team was made of inside. Alabama hopes to draw on that experience as it plays through the postseason.
The first tough spot came over a period of 24 days in March, when Alabama played 18 games. That included a getaway to Oregon for a homecoming trip for junior outfielder Kayla Braud, where Alabama defeated Oregon, a team that ended up with the No. 11 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a game against Portland State that was rained out after a couple of innings (and a game that would have stood as UA's 19th in that 24-day span).
The heavy load of games, which included midweek contests with Oregon, Tennessee and Auburn as well as game-packed weekends, hardly tells the story. Alabama's nightmare trip to Oregon from Kentucky, where UA had finished up an SEC series, tested the Crimson Tide.
"We played Kentucky for three games, and two hours later we're trying to get on a plane to Houston," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "That's delayed. It takes four hours to leave Kentucky. We don't get to Houston until 4:30 in the morning, to a hotel, and nobody slept. It was a bad beginning of the trip. And then to go out there and not get to Oregon until 2:30 in the morning, a day late, and then to play Oregon and beat them was really a huge, huge accomplishment.
"In the back of my mind, I knew it was going to be tough. The weather was weird, it was colder, we'd been on a plane for how many hours. For them to do what they did was incredible."
Alabama started that weekend with a long bus ride to Kentucky. By the time UA had flown to Oregon through Houston and made it back home, the team had logged 4,770 air mile and another 750 or so on buses.
"We had a lot going on: a lot of people got sick, there was a lot of bad weather, plane flights delayed and everything," senior outfielder Jennifer Fenton said. "We worked on four or five hours of sleep, that's it. Even though sometimes we have to play through tough times, we can do it. We've pushed ourselves to the limit and we've fought through it.
"I really think it helped us work on succeeding through adversity."
More recently, Alabama took two games out of three from nationally-ranked Florida, flew to New York for a homecoming game at Hofstra for senior first baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia, then doubled back in time to win the SEC Tournament -- again beating Florida in the championship game.
That trip spanned 1,730 air miles and a few more hours on the bus. By last weekend's championship game, UA was worn out.
"A lot of us were either sore or tired," Fenton said. "We just knew we had one more game to do, we had to play Florida on our own field and we were not going to let them beat us on our field for the SEC tournament title. That was motivation enough, playing in front of our crowd at home.
"After all we've been through this year, I think we're very mentally tough and we're very prepared to play anyone with the right mind set. We can do it."
Players began to realize in March that the demanding schedule had an upside.
"We talked about in the middle of the season how this was going to pay off later on, that you're not always going to feel 100 percent, especially in a 65-game season," Reilly-Boccia said. "You're not going to be feeling great every game, it's how much of what you have that you give. You want to give all of whatever you have. I think we've been able to win on our 'B' days. We don't always have to have our 'A' game to win.
"Sleeping in a hotel, not getting the nutrition you're used to, not getting the same rehab you're used to, not being able to be in the weight room -- that's definitely tough, but we've been successful despite the odds. That's going to help us."
The long road trips and short breaks between games aren't the only things that have contributed to UA's mental toughness. Sophomore pitcher Jackie Traina pitched five complete games in eight days during the end-of-season run and pitched back-to-back games in a doubleheader at Auburn in March as well as two out of three games over the weekends.
Traina's toughness has spread throughout Alabama's lineup, Murphy said.
"It definitely rubs off on people," the coach said. "Her intangible this year that she said she was going to bring to the team was that no matter what was going on around her on the field, she was going to bring a calmness and a great presence to the infield. She's done that every time she's taken the mound.
"I think it spreads among the team. She is the leader of the pack in that respect. When the pitcher can do it, anybody can do it. There's a lot of pressure on her, it just shows to everybody it doesn't matter what your role is -- if she can do it you can do it, and she's done it all year long."
Playing through adversity, playing with little rest and sometimes going more than a week without a practice, UA players have gained in confidence. They believe the toughness they have built is going to pay off in the postseason.
"It's going to help us to be home the next couple of weeks and it's definitely going to help us a lot at the World Series," Reilly-Boccia said, "because you're tired after every game at the World Series. Just being able to play your best when you're still tired is going to be important."
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.