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May 24, 2012

Tide one win away from College World Series

TUSCALOOSA | The University of Alabama softball team wasn't in a forgiving mood Thursday night.

Michigan's sins were small - a wild pitch here, a walked batter there, a missed catch - but Alabama made the Wolverines pay in a 4-1 victory at Rhoads Stadium in the opening game of the Tuscaloosa Super Regional.

Alabama, the No. 2 national seed, is one victory away from the program's eighth trip to the Women's College World Series and fourth in the last five years. Michigan must beat the Tide twice today to stave off elimination.

"They took advantage of every mistake we made," Michigan coach Carol Huthins said.

The first mistake came in the second inning, when UA first baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia drew a one-out walk and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Third baseman Courtney Conley doubled to the corner in left field to drive in the run for a 1-0 lead.

That advantage was good enough for Crimson Tide ace Jackie Traina (36-2) to hold until UA's bats finally adjusted to Michigan left-hander Haylie Wagner to break the game open.

Traina, who allowed just three hits, struck out Michigan's leadoff batter in the first five innings to account for half of her strikeouts.

"It's nice when you get ahead like that and you get the first runner out," Traina said.

Alabama gave itself a comfortable cushion in the bottom of the fifth, pouncing on another Michigan mistake and getting a bead on Wagner (32-6).

It started when left fielder Kayla Braud reached on an error, with Michigan first baseman Amanda Chidester dropping a throw that could have gotten Braud for the inning's second out. Instead, Alabama center fielder Jennifer Fenton came up with her third hit, beating out an infield single.

"I think Fenton's the toughest out in softball right now," Hutchins said.

With Braud and Fenton in front of her in the lineup, Alabama shortstop Kaila Hunt might have the sport's easiest RBI opportunities. Hunt roped a double to left field to bring in both runners.

"We obviously needed to get more runs than just one," Hunt said. "We needed to have a little more support for Jackie. (Fenton) has been automatic. I needed to come through because she's been doing it all game."

Alabama made Michigan's error hurt even more when Jazlyn Lunceford poked a two-out single through the left side of the infield to bring Hunt home for a 4-0 Alabama lead.

"I just had a good feeling about that inning," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said.

The Big Ten champions didn't surrender. Nicole Sappingfield became the first Wolverine leadoff batter to reach base when she drew a walk to start the sixth inning, and this time Michigan made Alabama pay. Sappington moved to second on a groundout and scored on second baseman Ashley Lane's double to left field.

Traina struck out the next batter to end the inning and closed out the game in the top of the seventh.

Alabama had a crowd of 2,475 to cheer it on, and Michigan noticed.

"We knew coming in what an environment it is in Tuscaloosa, and, boy, on that field it is so loud," Hutchins said. "We had trouble talking to our kids at times. They couldn't hear a thing."

Alabama has won nine straight home games, taking the last two games of a three-game set with Florida to clinch the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, sweeping through the SEC Tournament and winning three straight to take the Tuscaloosa Regional.

Murphy believes his team can play better yet.

"We still have not played that perfect game where Jackie has pitched great and we've played great defense like we can," he said. "So that is always encouraging to me, and I think it is encouraging to them."

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



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