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June 10, 2012

Title legitimizes SEC softball

Chants of "Roll Tide" filled ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City after Jackie Traina struck out Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts for the final out at the Women's College World Series on Wednesday, sealing the University of Alabama's first national championship in softball.

After a short time, there was another chant: "SEC, SEC, SEC."

Alabama's dramatic national title win did more than bring home a trophy to Tuscaloosa. It was also a breakthrough for the Southeastern Conference, giving a league that began playing softball in 1997 its first national championship in the sport. If that seems like a long time, it isn't.

"You look historically, they did it very quickly," said retired coach Sue Enquist, who led UCLA to 11 national championships. "If you look at the progression of sport and what transpired in other sports, and how long it takes for a conference to get up and running if they haven't had a sport, I believe they've done it very quickly."

For Alabama, the national championship quest truly began in 2000, when the Crimson Tide made its first trip to the World Series in just the fourth season of the program. UA was an upset winner of the NCAA regional in Tempe, Ariz., knocking off Arizona State on its own field to earn Alabama's first trip to Oklahoma City.

"It was the first win we'd ever had against a Pac-10 team," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy recalled. "We play the home team on their field, twice, and beat them twice.

"I had a really good feeling that year. I remember telling them in the hotel, 'It's destiny.'

"We had kids step up that weekend. We hit a walk-off home run to win the first game. We hit the ball really well that weekend."

In its first-ever game at the World Series, Alabama took a 1-0 lead over national powerhouse UCLA into the fifth inning before committing two errors that allowed the Bruins to come back for a 4-1 victory.

"We had UCLA on the ropes," Murphy said, "and we made one small mistake. All of us learned stuff that first year. I learned a lot. It was a heck of an experience for the program."

Something else happened in the 2000 season that was more important to the program's long-term success than reaching the World Series. After playing games at Bower and Sokol Parks for three seasons, UA opened its own on-campus ballpark, now known as Rhoads Stadium.

"That was the biggest difference-maker in our program's history because the girls could finally have something that they could call home, and we could take recruits there," Murphy said. "That was the deal-maker in terms of our success."

Jennie Finch, one of softball's all-time great players, visited Tuscaloosa that season as a member of the Arizona team. She saw Alabama later that year at the World Series, and wasn't surprised.

"You saw they play hard, do what it takes and find a way to get it done," said Finch, who was in Oklahoma City for the World Series as a member of the advisory board for the Capital One Cup. "It was awesome to see my (future Olympic) teammate Kelly Kretschman kind of lead that era in the beginning of Alabama softball and lead them here."

Alabama rode the arm of pitcher Shelley Laird to the World Series the first time, but UA didn't return the next two years.

"As a coach, I'm thinking, 'Is this the only time we go? 'It was a heck of an experience (in 2000) and we loved everything about it, but in the back of your mind, 'Are we going to get back there?'" Murphy said.

Alabama did return in 2003, '05, '06, '08, '09 and 2011 before finally winning the national championship in its eighth appearance.

If all those previous trips, including runs to the semifinals in 2008, '09 and '11, seemed disappointing to Alabama fans, they looked different to others outside the program.

"I think what's surprising is it's so competitive, it's so hard," Enquist said. "If you know the history of what it takes to do what Alabama did, it is impressive.

"I'm more impressed with Alabama being sustainable champions and being so close to it so consistently. Everybody's focused on, 'They haven't won it, they haven't won it, they haven't won it.' I'm more focused on, 'They're there, they're there, they're there.'

"I'm a Pac-12 girl, I've always been a Pac-12 girl, I will always been a Pac-12 girl, but I'm also a fan of excellence. Pat Murphy couldn't get closer to being there every year, and to have his players play the game and respect the game and appreciate the game with such energy and consistency, it's impressive."

Before Alabama broke through, Tennessee and Florida (twice) made it to the championship series in Oklahoma City but failed to win the national title. UA's national championship victory may make it easier for SEC teams to win at the World Series in the future.

"If they've never won it, if there's a mystery that there's something you don't have," Enquist said, "even in your deep, deep bone marrow of your confident self, that mystery lives in you. 'What is it we didn't have, what is it we didn't do?' Then this happens and what it does is clear that negative thinking, it clears that doubt, and now coaches and players can focus on how to get it done rather than on that mystery."

Alabama's national title may elevate the SEC's softball stature with fans, but insiders saw it coming.

"To the general public that's fallen in love with our game, the SEC will be anointed as a softball powerhouse," Enquist said, "but if you're inside the softball community, we all know the SEC has arrived. They arrived a long time ago. If you're in the softball community, the SEC is legit."

Becoming the first SEC team to win it all wasn't Alabama's only first. According to softball historian Bill Plummer, UA is the first team to win an NCAA championship with a roster devoid of California players.

Murphy's philosophy in building the program from the ground up was to recruit primarily players from the region.

"When we started we wanted 'GRITS' - Girls Raised in The South - because they knew all the rivalries in the SEC," Murphy said. "At the time, the SEC was brand new in softball and people didn't realize what Alabama-Auburn was all about or Alabama-LSU and Alabama-Tennessee or Alabama-Florida. And the kids in the South, they knew the SEC. They knew it because of football.

"When softball started, it was very easy to stay regionally. It was Texas, Alabama and Florida (as a recruiting ground) for a long time. Those three states really helped us, and Georgia really got good."

Alabama's 2012 roster included Kayla Braud from Oregon, Cassie Reilly-Boccia from New York, Courtney Conley and Jackey Branham from Missouri, Jadyn Spencer from Iowa and Chaunsey Bell from Indiana, but the majority of players came from SEC territory - including local products Jazlyn Lunceford, Olivia Gibson and Jordan Patterson.

Wherever they have come from over the years, Alabama softball players have made an impression. The same style and energy that captured the 2012 national championship has been evident all along.

"Of course I'm an Arizona fan, but you watch Coach Murphy and you watch Alabama and it's hard to not just fall in love with what they're doing with the program," Finch said. "It's just such a first-class program. It's fun to watch because they're ballers, and you love it."

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



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