I contributed a print story to The Anniston Star to preview the Crimson Tide softball team’s upcoming weekend series with the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge. The Thursday night game will be televised on ESPN2.
Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy has a distinct demeanor about him: fun-loving and funny when he is just around his players in the team lounge, but intimidatingly serious in practice and even more so in games.
His hijinks have both paved the way for a music video made by the team to go viral on the way to last season’s national championship and for a crowd of 4,002 and Saturday’s win over Mississippi State, a national attendance record for the sport, stand on their feet in a key moment.
There’s something about late April. He cracks. He is unable to keep himself from smiling when a serious situation is afoot.
“This is the time where it should be the most fun of the year for the student-athlete,” Murphy said. “They’re getting down to the nitty-gritty in academics, finals next week, and then they basically become a professional softball player. And that’s what they should want: at the end of the year, they get to focus on nothing but softball.”
With just six regular season games left, Murphy likes where his team is, actually on national championship pace.
“I told them the other day that we’re almost at the exact same spot that we were last year,” Murphy said. “I think we still have to eliminate a lot of walks, a lot of freebies, silly errors, just sloppy defense at times.”
The Tide bats are coming on with perfect timing, as Alabama has scored eight runs in five of its last six games, four of them being double-digit showings.
“I think this weekend when we run-ruled (Mississippi) State, everyone in the lineup had at least a hit or they walked once,” Murphy said. “That’s what we’re looking for. We don’t want one hole in the lineup where one person goes 0-4 and the person in front of her and behind her goes 2-3, because the offense stalls.
“I tried to relate it to them as the (football) team is driving down the field, they get to the 20, and AJ (McCarron) throws an interception. It stalls the offense, gives it right back to the other team.”
Coming with the higher stakes, hand-in-hand, is higher pressure. More weight on the shoulders of the players replacing six senior starters on last year’s team.
Of those six, three are freshmen: center fielder Haylie McCleney, right fielder Andrea Hawkins and first baseman Leona Lafaele, and another, catcher Molly Fichtner, is in her first season with the Tide after transferring.
“A lot of the upperclassmen, our seniors, are doing a good job,” Murphy said. “They’re kind of warning them what’s about to hit. It’s not going to be like, ‘Oh, we have another series coming up.’ No. It’s Regionals, Super Regionals, it’s the SEC Tournament. This is where it’s almost do-or-die time.”
One of those senior leaders, left fielder Kayla Braud, is going back to her experience being an underclassman in the postseason to lead her younger players through it in her final go-around.
She’s also not above stealing from those before her, either.
“Cassie Reilly-Boccia, when she was a senior, she said she wanted to give as much knowledge as she possibly could, and I look at it the same way,” Braud said. “I trust them to step in and do what they know they need to do, they’ve been playing softball all of their lives. At the same time, I want them to not make the same few mistakes that I did, so I’m going to be there to help them.”
Murphy added, “They just need to play like they have all year. It might be the SEC Tournament, it might be LSU-Alabama, but it’s still the same game. No need to press, no need to do anything different.”