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May 12, 2012
Bama takes another title
TUSCALOOSA | Patrick Murphy wasn't waving a white flag when he sat down Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year Jackie Traina for the championship game at the SEC Tournament.
The coach of the University of Alabama softball team was setting an ambush. And the Florida Gators walked right into it.
Third-ranked Alabama attacked No. 7 Florida from the start and made a short day of it with a 10-1 mercy-rule victory to add the SEC Tournament title to its regular-season championship.
Murphy turned to senior Amanda Locke, who came into the game with all of four pitching starts this season. She pitched a three-hitter over five innings and didn't give up an earned run.
"When you give somebody an opportunity, hopefully it's giving them confidence," Murphy said, "because I have confidence in her."
Florida coach Tim Walton said he expected to see Locke, with Traina coming off five complete games in the preceding eight days, but the Gators never came close to figuring Locke out.
"Florida takes big hacks," Locke said, "so you have to keep the ball low and keep it out of the zone where they like to hit the ball. They're power hitters and they hit hard. You have to try to get the ground balls and mishits."
Murphy's plan was to start Locke, have freshman Leslie Jury ready for middle relief and Triana available to close the game if needed.
He never got to the second part of the plan.
"Amanda just kept going and going and going," the coach said, "so why mess with it? She finished it off."
Murphy's decision to go with Locke was also a message to his batters.
"You look at the offense and say to the hitters that you believe in them," Murphy said. "I think a lot of people forgot that there's offense involved too, and they've got to stop us."
It turned out that it wouldn't have mattered who pitched for Alabama on a day the Crimson Tide was locked in on everything Florida pitchers Lauren Haeger and Hannah Rogers threw at them.
UA scored two runs in the first, with leadoff hitter Kayla Braud drawing a walk and center fielder Jennifer Fenton hitting a single up the middle to set the plate for third baseman Kaila Hunt, who tripled to the wall in right field to give Alabama a
quick 2-0 lead.
"We wanted to make a statement in the first inning," said Hunt, who went 3-for-3 with four RBIs.
Florida got a run back in the top of the second when Haeger reached on an error and Kasey Fagan hit an RBI single, but by the time the Crimson Tide finished batting in the third inning it was clear that this was Alabama's day.
Even the wind favored UA. After Hunt singled in another run, right fielder Jazlyn Lunceford came up with two runners on base. With a 1-1 count, Murphy called timeout and had a quick conference with the Tuscaloosa County High product.
"He asked me which way the wind was blowing, and I looked at the flag," Lunceford said.
The crosswind was blowing out to left field, but Murphy's message was about more than the strong gusts. The coach wanted Lunceford to be ready for a pitch on the outside part of the plate.
"Be on that pitch and hammer it," he told her.
Lunceford, a left-handed batter, fouled the next pitch back, then got that outside pitch and drove it opposite field into the scoreboard for a three-run shot that pushed Alabama's lead to 6-1.
UA wasn't done. Courtney Conley drew a walk and catcher Kendall Dawson smashed the first pitch far over the fence in left field, upping the score to 8-1.
"It's just one of those days where our hitters picked really good pitches," Murphy said. "We got some good hacks in, and they fell for us today."
Alabama brought the mercy rule into play in the bottom of the fourth, with Hunt and first baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia hitting RBI singles.
The Gators loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the fifth, but Locke got a foul pop-up to end the game and touch off a celebration.
The tournament final also capped a flip in the SEC's balance of power. While Alabama won the league's regular-season title in 2010 and '11, Florida won the series with Alabama both times. The Gators had also eliminated UA from the Women's College World Series with a two-game sweep last year and sent Alabama home from the World Series two years before.
Alabama won two games out of three to take this year's series on the weekend before the SEC Tournament - winning one of those by the mercy rule - and ran the Gators out of Rhoads Stadium on Saturday.
"While that was in the back of our minds, if we let that interfere with how we play we weren't going to be successful," Lunceford said. "We couldn't let that affect us."
Alabama improved to 50-7, while Florida fell to 46-11. Haeger (14-5) took the loss. Traina, who didn't even play in the championship game, was the most valuable player of the tournament.
UA will learn whom and when it will play in the NCAA Tournament tonight when the field is revealed at 9 p.m. on ESPNU. Alabama is expected to be seeded second or third nationally and host in the regional and super-regional rounds of the 64-team national championship event.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.