TUSCALOOSA — Close losses, a banged-up ace pitcher and youth at key positions derailed Alabama softball’s 2013 season.
Crimson Tide coach Patrick Murphy said that All-America pitcher Jaclyn Traina was only about 60 percent during last season’s stretch run, when she was a junior. That, coupled with a young roster, contributed to the Tide falling one round short of reaching the Women’s College World Series and posting a 45-15 record.
“We almost overachieved because (Traina) was battling the fatigue and everything,” Murphy said. “We had so many new people that it really just didn’t click for us.”
After sweeping Nebraska in the NCAA Tuscaloosa Super Regional, Alabama (50-11) is back and looking to recapture the magic it had during its 2012 national championship run. The Crimson Tide will begin play in the WCWS in Oklahoma City, Okla., on Thursday against Tennessee or defending national champion Oklahoma.
“We really thought we had a chance this year if a Jadyn (Spencer), a Danae (Hays), you know, some of the freshmen (from last year) came back and really played to their potential,” Murphy said. “I think they all did because they were much better this year. You add in a healthy Jackie and you add in a Sydney Littlejohn into the mix, and it’s 50 wins.”
This year, Traina rebounded and was named the Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Year, an honor she also took as a sophomore. This team also features the SEC Coach of the Year (Murphy), an All-SEC first-team outfielder (Haylie McCleney) and two second-team selections (infielder Kaila Hunt and catcher Molly Fichtner).
This week’s trip to the WCWS will be the ninth in school history, and Alabama has had plenty of recent success in Oklahoma City. In addition to the championship in 2012, the Tide finished third in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
“Playing at the World Series is the pinnacle of Division I softball,” said Hunt, a senior second baseman. “We made it back there two years, then we didn’t, and now we made it back again. It’s not easy to go three out of four years. I mean there are only eight teams that get to go. … So it’s an honor to go there because, obviously, it’s the best of the best.”
While Alabama is built around its seniors (Traina, Fichtner, Hunt, catcher Jordan Patterson and infielder Ryan Iamurri) and the leadership the group provides, this team also gets big contributions from its younger players. In Game 1 against Nebraska, freshman Marisa Runyon tied the game with a home run in the seventh inning before freshman Peyton Grantham won it with a homer in the 12th. Those were just two of many spectacular plays some of the Tide’s younger players have made throughout the postseason.
“Being a freshman, it’s such a special moment,” Runyon said. “Our seniors have worked so hard for so long. I’m beyond excited for my first time going. All the hard work this year has finally paid off really means a lot to us and the whole team.”
Now comes either Oklahoma or Tennessee. Alabama has played either team this season. The Vols weren’t on the Tide’s league schedule this year.
Alabama beat Oklahoma in the WCWS finals in 2012, and Tennessee eliminated the Crimson Tide in last year’s Super Regional.
Sports Writer Marq Burnett: On Twitter @Marq_Burnett.