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May 26, 2012

Tide's caravan moving on to Oklahoma City

TUSCALOOSA | The caravan rolled into the University of Alabama softball program four years ago. In a couple of days, it will roll to Oklahoma City for the third time to play in the Women's College World Series.

The caravan came from near and far: Jazlyn Lunceford and Olivia Gibson from Tuscaloosa County High and Tuscaloosa Academy, respectively; Kendall Dawson from Plant City, Fla.; Jennifer Fenton from Kennesaw, Ga.; and Cassie Reilly-Boccia from Yorktown Heights, N.Y. They were the freshman class of the 2009 season.

"We came in together and we were called the caravan," Fenton explained. "We always called ourselves the caravan because we rode everywhere together, we were always, always together. That's what made us special."

The class got even more special with the addition of Amanda Locke of Mesquite, Texas. Locke arrived at UA the year before but sat out her first season as a redshirt. Her freshman season on the field coincided with the arrival of the caravan.

"We call ourselves the caravan, so she makes a joke and says, 'Well, I'm the bus driver,'" Fenton said. "We love Amanda. We're so glad she's a part of our senior class."

Together, they have won an average of 53.5 games per season, and their final year isn't over yet. Their .846 winning percentage over the last four years is tops in the nation for any group of seniors. They have won back-to-back-to-back Southeastern Conference regular-season championships, and twice won the SEC tournament title. They have won four NCAA regionals and twice played in the semifinal round at the World Series.

They are, UA coach Patrick Murphy believes, far greater than the sum of their parts.

"They're much better kids, teammates, workers, than they are athletes," Murphy said. "They're good softball players, obviously, but they're much better as a group. They know their roles and they play them to perfection."

The key, said the coach, is chemistry.

"There's just not that many classes that get each other like sisters, and they do," he said. "From the very beginning, we all recognized it. There's something special about them."

Having six seniors on a 20-player roster requires a delicate balance. Leaders could step on each others' toes, but with this group it hasn't happened.

"There wasn't one person who stood up and said, 'I'm going to be the leader,'" Reilly-Boccia said. "It was this person became a vocal leader, this person kept leading by example, this person would be someone that we needed to hold other people accountable, so everyone fell into very specific leadership roles."

Kayla Braud, a junior outfielder, has watched the seniors grown into those roles. Each, she said, brings a different form of leadership. Here is her take on how they lead:

On Reilly-Boccia: "She does the right things, she says the right things, she plays the game right. What Cassie brings to this team is the supreme wisdom of the game, and she shares that with other people."

On Fenton: "She's a vocal leader who's going to hold you accountable. That's what we need sometimes, somebody to tell us how it is, and Jen does a great job of doing that respectfully."

On Lunceford: "Jaz is the leader by example. She is the kind of person that plays all-out, all the time. She's one of those that you watch and say, 'I want to play just like her.'"
On Locke: "She has emerged as kind of the mom, in a sense. She's going to take care of you, she's going to be there, she's going to talk to you and help you through your problems, but at the same time she's strong for this team."

On Dawson: "Kendall is the leader on the field. Her presence behind the plate (at catcher) is just unmatched. She has a calming presence."

On Gibson: "Olivia is our person who is just happy all the time. She's joyful and in a good mood and brings everybody together in helping us understand that it's not always about softball, that there are other things that are important."

All of that leadership, all of that ability, wouldn't mean as much if the players didn't mesh.

As Fenton put it, "We became one."

They will play at the World Series together, their last experience as a senior class. And when they do, they will remember the common ground that molded them into a unit.

"We really love playing with each other, we love playing for each other," Fenton said. "No one has any intent of doing it for themselves. We're going to do it as a team. We just have fun together, that's what it is. We love playing softball and we love doing it together."

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



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