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More than most seasons in recent memory, the opening month of the current college softball season offered little clarity as to which team deserved to be No. 1. Perhaps it's time for a voice vote.
Alabama didn't offer incontrovertible proof of its own claim to the top spot during its first week of conference play in the SEC, but the circumstantial evidence looked convincing. And if you don't believe it, there are more than 12,000 character witnesses ready to vouch for the Crimson Tide.
In front of more than 12,000 fans over four home dates in Tuscaloosa last week, including a school-record crowd of 3,261 on Saturday night, Alabama swept a midweek doubleheader from rival Auburn and a three-game weekend series against top-ranked Georgia.
Alabama is used to packing the stands at Rhoads Stadium, annually fighting Arizona for the top spots in average and total attendance, but even those familiar with the place took notice this time. Senior Whitney Larsen has played in front of big crowds for four seasons and grew up coming to games from her nearby hometown of Vestavia Hills, but this impressed even her.
|In front of huge crowds, Whitney Larsen and Alabama swept rival Auburn and No. 1 Georgia.|
"The atmosphere was amazing," Larsen said. "The only other time that I felt like I played in front of that many people was at the World Series. Every single seat at Tide Stadium was filled. It's just really loud there and everybody supports you. I know it has to be somewhat intimidating for other teams, but at the same time, I think it's great for the sport of softball. I don't think there are many stadiums around the country that have even half as many people as we have. It's a great testament to coach [Pat] Murphy and what he's done for our program."
The Crimson Tide spend a lot of time building that support through community outreach, but nothing reaches people quite like winning. And it seems a lot of that so far this season has helped both players and fans shed the disappointment of two heartbreaking losses at the end of last season.
For all Georgia's other glory, including back-to-back extended stays in the Women's College World Series and the top ranking this season, the Bulldogs still haven't won a series against Alabama since 2005. They had a chance to gain a foothold on that in the first game of the series, an unexpected pitching duel between teams with two of the best lineups in the sport, but Alabama ace Kelsi Dunne held the Bulldogs to just two hits in seven innings, their fewest in a game this season, and struck out 11 in a 2-1 win.
"I really thought that was one of the best games I've ever seen her pitch," Larsen said. "She's such a competitor, and she's been like that every single year she's been here. It's been such a joy being able to play behind her. If the offense isn't doing something, then she's going to put us on her shoulders and carry everyone until we get her one run."
Dunne has indeed been a special pitcher since she arrived at Alabama and may well leave as the program's all-time leader in wins and strikeouts. She entered this season with career averages of 9.7 strikeouts per seven innings and a 3.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But against a schedule loaded with postseason-caliber opponents, she's performing at an even higher level this season -- an All-American level. Even after Georgia got to her in Sunday's finale, she is 13-1 with a 0.81 ERA this season and is averaging 11.4 strikeouts per seven innings with a 6.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
And if a stellar conclusion to Dunne's career appears to be shaping up as one key factor working in Alabama's favor, the beginning of another could be equally important. Freshman Jackie Traina staked the Crimson Tide to a 4-0 lead in the first inning of Sunday's finale with a grand slam, her 13th home run of the season. And when Georgia's Alisa Goler homered in the fifth to cut Alabama's lead to 7-5, Traina relieved Dunne and struck out four in 2.2 scoreless innings of relief. Nobody is asking Traina to be Charlotte Morgan, the double-duty All-American who wrapped up her career last season, when it comes to leadership -- at least not yet. But when it comes to being the kind of player who can bring a crowd of any size to its feet, she may already be there.
"She's a great, great kid," Larsen said. "She's got a great attitude. The main thing that everybody notices is how hard she works and how much she cares about softball, like Kelsi. I think they have a lot of similarities, in that she's highly competitive, she doesn't let anything affect her emotions. I think that's one of the greatest assets that anybody could have in the game of softball."
It doesn't get any easier, not with a midweek doubleheader at Tennessee looming on Tuesday, but 12,000 people in a week can't be wrong, can they?
• Georgia was the only top-10 team to drop three games last week, but it wasn't alone in adversity. Those top-10 teams that weren't in Tuscaloosa combined to lose nine games of their own last week -- and No. 10 Stanford didn't even get on the field over the weekend to win or lose because of rain that washed out the tournament it hosted. Perhaps we were due for a dose of madness in March. The teams ranked in the top 10 last week still have a combined 253-31 overall record, compared to a 227-41 record for the top 10 at a similar time last season.
Michigan was one of those top-10 teams to lose last week, dropping a 3-1 decision to Fresno State to wrap up its stay at the Judi Garman Classic, but the Wolverines also did something almost as impressive as Alabama sweeping three games from the No. 1 team. Michigan knocked off Arizona State and Arizona on back-to-back days in Fullerton, Calif., without allowing a run to either the Sun Devils (a 1-0 win) or the Wildcats (an 8-0 win). Senior ace Jordan Taylor posted stellar numbers in both big wins, allowing just nine hits and two walks while striking out 17 in 14 shutout innings against the Arizona schools. Leadoff hitter Bree Evans had four total hits against Arizona State's Dallas Escobedo and Arizona's Kenzie Fowler.
Oklahoma stumbled against a pair of cold-weather teams at the Judi Garman Classic, losing to Notre Dame and Penn State, but the Sooners also moved coach Patty Gasso past a milestone in style, both Arizona and Washington in addition to DePaul and Pacific. The 7-6 extra-inning win against Washington to wrap up the weekend was No. 800 for Gasso at Oklahoma. Gasso ranks sixth all time in winning percentage among coaches with at least 10 years of service. In the win against Washington, Sooners sophomore Keilani Ricketts pitched against the team she faced in a super regional last season and went all eight innings, allowing just one earned run. She also drove in four runs with two hits at the plate.
Texas is a potential beneficiary of all the top-10 losses and may move into that group in this week's poll. The Longhorns cruised to five wins at the Judi Garman, including a 12-0 run-rule win against Washington. Since losing a back-and-forth extra-inning game against Florida at the Cathedral City Classic, they have won 14 of 15 games. And they aren't just scraping by, either. Opponents scored just seven runs in five games against Texas over the week, and have scored just 11 in the aforementioned 15-game span. Freshman Rachel Fox went the distance in wins against Fresno State and New Mexico over the weekend and has nine complete games behind ace Blaire Luna -- more than the non-Luna total for Texas' entire pitching staff last season.Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.
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