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Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2012 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his Top 20. Check back daily for updates.
No. 3 Alabama
Last year: 53-11 overall, 19-6 SEC (lost in Women's College World Series)
Who returns: Like the rest of her teammates, Jackie Traina would surely love to forget Sunday at the Women's College World Series last season. Needing one win to reach its first championship series, Alabama instead lost back-to-back games against old rival Florida, with Traina, coming out of the bullpen, among the pitchers who couldn't solve a Gators lineup that hit seven home runs and scored 25 runs in just 12 innings.
But for evidence of why Traina enters her sophomore season as both the ace in the circle and the kind of player who can lead Alabama back to the World Series, consider last season's super regional.
Alabama was staring at a second consecutive super regional exit at home when Traina came out of the bullpen in a scoreless third game against Stanford with runners on first and second and one out in the fourth inning. She retired the next two batters without a ball getting out of the infield. An inning later, she fanned USA Softball Player of Year Ashley Hansen, one of just five times in more than 220 plate appearances that Hansen struck out. And with the game still scoreless in the sixth, Traina singled and eventually came around to score the game's only run.
Painful World Series lessons aside, she's a player who seems to crave the biggest moments, no small thing for the best player and No. 1 pitcher on a team with its share of haunting disappointments.
The returning outfield of Kayla Braud, Jennifer Fenton and Jazlyn Lunceford is as complete a group as there is in the country. Those three combined to steal 109 bases last season, and Fenton has the same kind of power potential as another SEC speedster, Florida's Michelle Moultrie. First baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia, designated player/pitcher/first baseman Amanda Locke, third baseman Courtney Conley, middle infielder Kaila Hunt and catcher Kendall Dawson all started at least 40 games in 2011. Locke (1.053 OPS) and Reilly-Boccia (.977 OPS), in particular, are proven middle-of-the-order hitters.
Who departs: The Crimson Tide only lost two players to graduation, but good luck finding two players anywhere who offered more combined value to a program. Kelsi Dunne went 29-5 with a 1.42 ERA as a senior and finished her career with a 113-22 record, winning at least 26 games in each of her four seasons and throwing more innings than all other Alabama pitchers combined. Whitney Larsen made 243 starts in four seasons, slugging better than .500 each season and establishing herself as an asset with the glove at shortstop by the time she was done.
Who arrives: Freshman pitcher Leslie Jury arrives with an All-American resume in high school and travel ball, not to mention a 6-foot frame and a top pitch speed as high as 72 mph. Freshman Jadyn Spencer also figures in the pitching mix. Coach Patrick Murphy noted Spencer measures up with Amanda Locke as a pure power hitter, which anyone who has seen Locke in batting practice can attest is a bold suggestion. Freshman Danae Hays is in a three-way race for the two middle infielder positions.
Former Alabama All-American Stephanie VanBrakle debuts as the new pitching coach, an addition that could be significant given the obvious comparisons between VanBrakle and Traina as two-way threats.
Preseason question: Move along, there's nothing to see here?
Credit to Alabama for not erasing the historical record, but three successive headlines in the news archive from the 2011 season on the school's athletic website still stand out eight months later.
June 9, 2011: Softball Head Coach Patrick Murphy Resigns to Take Head Coaching Job at LSU; June 12, 2011: Patrick Murphy Returns as Alabama Softball Head Coach; June 14, 2011: Alabama Softball Season Recap.
It was an interesting June for the Crimson Tide, to say the least.
With limited space, this isn't the place to delve deeply into the hows and whys of Murphy's change of heart after initially leaving the program he essentially built from scratch into a Tuscaloosa institution that regularly draws more than 2,000 fans per game. There's time for that down the road. What is relevant is what effect the whole saga will have on a team with such an abundance of returning talent this season. And setting aside any hurt feelings, doubts or confusion, veteran experience could be the team's best asset in getting on with its business.
Alabama's six seniors have experienced no end of disappointment in the past three postseasons. Twice they've watched seasons end via walk-off home runs, and that was before last season's collapse. Not to mention the far more significant adversity of the tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa last spring. Whatever the internal dynamics between players and coach -- strong as ever, strained or indifferent -- those seniors have their motivations.
"We have six seniors that are just awesome kids, any way you look at," Murphy said of Dawson, Fenton, Olivia Gibson, Locke, Lunceford and Reilly-Boccia. "They're just great kids, great leaders, really good people and really good softball players. They have really handled the team well. They all have different leadership styles, and everyone is good in their own way. There have been very few problems or issues; the team chemistry has been great. It's just a fun team to coach."
Alabama hosted a softball camp the week after Murphy gave up the LSU job and returned to the Tide. The coach called his players individually and encouraged any who had questions to meet with him at that time. He said only Lunceford did, wanting to hear the story from him. Time will tell, but perhaps the true value of Murphy's work over the previous 13 years is that for most of the seniors on the Crimson Tide roster, Alabama softball is simply bigger than one person.