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May 13, 2012

Softball team has been here before

The University of Alabama softball program has been here before. Perhaps not with quite as much momentum, roaring into NCAA play riding the crest of a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and a run-rule rout of recent nemesis Florida in the SEC Tournament title game, but Alabama has been here before. It's a credit to Patrick Murphy the Tide has had several straight stress-free Selection Sundays, and today will be no different.

Alabama will be a national seed, a host for regional and super-regional play, and while anything is possible (remember Hawaii and its Maui Magic bats), the odds are better than even Alabama will be back in Oklahoma City.

That's where Alabama hopes things stop looking so familiar. Saturday's win over Florida provided some hope in the form of senior pitcher Amanda Locke.

It would be wise not to read too much into Locke's performance since tournament motivation for any team can be a tricky thing to read, and whatever spark Florida had might have gotten was extinguished early on by UA's offensive output.

Still, Locke was solid - "even-keeled," as she put it - and that is encouraging, because every effective inning that Locke can throw (perhaps against a No. 4 seed in next weekend's regional) is an inning SEC Pitcher of the Year Jackie Traina doesn't have to pitch.

Rest assured, Alabama is going to go just as far this postseason as Traina can carry it. She's already been a workhorse, but now the Tide's fate rests squarely on her right arm. That isn't an attempt to put even more pressure on Traina. She already knows it. It is always that way on the way to Oklahoma City, and particularly when you get there. That's what it came down to last year - pitching. That's what it inevitably comes down to.

It could work out. Traina may not be the most talented pitcher in Alabama history, but she may be the most fiercely competitive. That doesn't mean she is made of iron, though. That's the reason she got an off day Saturday. And it is the reason Locke's performance was, well, a shot in the arm.

It also capped another showcase weekend for softball in Tuscaloosa. The crowds were great, the UA facility looked sparkling in the ample ESPN exposure the tournament received and the decision to move the Saturday starting time and avoid the afternoon storms was prescient. But all of it combined to put Alabama back in the position it has been in before. Now, the question is whether the Crimson Tide can move beyond.

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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