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May 19, 2012

Hunt paces Tide into regional title game

TUSCALOOSA | Kaila Hunt had a game plan when she came up to the plate in the third inning Saturday at the NCAA Tuscaloosa Regional.

After going down without swinging in the first inning, looking at a called third strike, Hunt told herself it wasn't going to happen again. Hunt worked the count full, then fouled off three two-strike pitches that appeared to be out of the strike zone. Finally, she cranked a two-run home run that bounded off the scoreboard in left field.

Hunt's homer gave Alabama a lead that it never surrendered in a 5-2 victory over South Alabama in the winner's bracket semifinal.

The victory advanced the Crimson Tide (52-7) to today's championship round. Alabama will move on to next week's super regional round with one victory today, and must lose twice to be eliminated. UA's afternoon victory left Georgia Tech, Tennessee-Martin and South Alabama to play into the evening to earn the berth opposite the Crimson Tide in the title round.

"This was the important game," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "They have to battle it out."

Alabama had to battle a bit early against the Jaguars (40-16) before Hunt's homer put UA in command. The Crimson Tide's first four batters were struck out by USA's crafty lefty, Hannah Campbell.

Murphy had seen enough.

"I called timeout and told Cassie Reilly-Boccia that I wanted the ball in play," Murphy said. "I didn't care what happens, put it in play, and she hit the single up the middle.

"I think that sometimes in a big game like this it just takes one person to get it done, then it is a little relaxing sort of thing."

South Alabama took a lead in the bottom of the first inning when third baseman Christin Crocker hit a solo homer to left field to make it 1-0.

The lead lasted all of four batters. Danae Hays got a lucky one-out double when Jaguars right fielder Blair Johnson slipped in the grass trying to field a fly ball that fell for a hit. Hays moved to third on Kayla Braud's groundout, and scored when center fielder Jennifer Fenton singled to left field, tying the game.

Next came Hunt.

She looked at a ball and a strike, then fouled one off to the left side for her second strike.

The next pitch was a ball, high and outside.

The one after that was way outside, but Hunt fouled it off anyway.

Same pitch, same result, as Hunt fouled it off again.

"When I got two strikes, I was just trying to protect the plate," Hunt said. "The at-bat before (in the first inning), the umpire had called it.

"It is not necessarily the pitch that I want to hit, but I can't leave it up to the umpire with two strikes."

Campbell then tried to jam Hunt inside, but she fouled that one into the dirt to stay alive.

Hunt let the next pitch, chin-high, go. Then she unleashed the home run to put Alabama ahead 3-1.

"She brought me the pitch that I liked," Hunt said.

Hunt would have had another home run had it not been for South Alabama left fielder Alyssa Linn. Fenton singled to right to lead off the fifth inning, stole second and moved all the way to third on an errant throw on the steal.

Hunt lifted a 3-1 pitch over the fence in left field, but Linn climbed the wall, reached over and made a blind snag for the out. Fenton tagged up and scored on what turned out to be a sacrifice fly to make it 4-1.

"You have to tip your hat to her," Hunt said of the catch.

UA added another run in the same inning on Jackie Traina's RBI triple up the middle for a 5-1 lead.

Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year Traina (34-2) only gave up two hits on the day, both of them home runs, with 10 strikeouts and just one walk. The other home run came off the bat of Haley Hopkins in the seventh inning.

"I'm incredibly proud of my club's effort," South Alabama coach Becky Clark said. "I thought they played hard. I don't think they were intimidated. They stepped on the field to win and played all seven innings."

Campbell (24-11) left after the fifth inning, giving up five runs on seven hits. Katy Neal held Alabama to one hit the rest of the way.

The home regional victory was the 18th in a row for the Crimson Tide, dating back to a 2007 first-day loss to Tennessee Tech. It also allowed Alabama to play from behind, if only for a brief spell.

"It is not a bad thing," Murphy said. "It showed that we could come back. I don't think that anyone panicked in the dugout. I think that everyone believed that eventually we could do it."

Reach Tommy Deas at tommy@tidesports.com or at 205-722-0224.



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