Exciting finishes set in top leagues
SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 ready for fireworks to end regular season
Most college students across the country are going to be immersed in finals at some point in the next two weeks. Some will cram all night to get ready for that History 343 exam, having passed on opportunities for numerous study groups in deference for a night out with friends or a chance to play another game of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Others will be more prepared, having taken the time to study the textbook, learn the material and get a good night’s sleep before opening that bluebook – or whatever electronic form test taking has evolved into these days.
Like their classroom buddies, softball players are going to be doing the same -- both in the lecture hall and on the diamond. And hopefully they have studied well because they're on one doozy of a collision course with the toughest test of the year.
During the next 11 days three of the top conferences -- the same ones that produced all eight Women’s College World Series teams a year ago -- will complete the regular season. And it’s too close to call which teams may head into Selection Sunday (May 13) with a regular-season league title in hand.
|Category||Team (Rank)||Team (Rank)|
|Batting Ave.||Alabama (10th)||Florida (31st)|
|Home Runs||Alabama (1st)||Florida (11th)|
|Scoring||Alabama (2nd)||Florida (23rd)|
|ERA||Alabama (38th)||Florida (4th)|
|Season Stats: Alabama Florida|
|National Team and Individual Leaders|
|Division I Record Book|
With three games remaining, the SEC has a one game seperating Alabama and Florida, with the teams facing off this weekend for a winner-takes-all series in Tuscaloosa, Ala. It’s the only league of the three that also has a conference tournament, which runs the following week.
In the Pac-12, California is two games in the win column ahead of defending national champion Arizona State and each have two losses. They have a season-ending showdown on May 10-12 in Berkeley, Calif.
And the Big 12, which boasted four of the eight squads in Oklahoma City in 2011, will have the other marquee matchup this weekend with first-place Oklahoma playing host to second-place Texas. With the change schedule, there is no Big 12 tournament so the final standings may not be sorted out for another week.
It’s a lot of firepower squaring off this late in the season. How powerful are they? Consider:
• All six teams are in the top eight of both the latest RPI and the NFCA Coaches’ Poll
• Cal leads the way as the No. 1 team in the coaches’ poll, a spot it’s held since March 27, and is tops the RPI
• Arizona State also took a spin atop the NFCA poll in the preseason with several key players back after rolling to the championship last June. Florida held the mantle for the first two regular-season polls of 2012 and Alabama had it for four weeks after that before giving way to the Golden Bears.
But how’d they get here? The numbers, as they say, don’t lie.
In the NCAA statistics through April 30, all six teams were in the top 25 in the country for winning percentage, scoring and home runs. Five of them (minus Florida, which ranks 31st) were in the top 25 for batting average and three – Oklahoma, 1st; Florida, 4th; California, 6th – were in the top 10 for ERA. Breaking down the individuals would be tedious, but to say the least, it’s not a stretch to find a national player of the year and newcomer of the year candidate on each squad.
In the end, it makes for an exciting couple of weekends, starting Friday in Tuscaloosa.
The atmosphere should be electric as Crimson Tide fans have embraced the program, which has seven WCWS berths to its credit since 2000. In fact, Bama had a crowd of 3,940 at the second game of the South Carolina series, when reportedly more than 250 fans were turned away at the doors because of that pesky thing called a fire code.
That enthusiasm for the team doesn’t go unnoticed by Alabama coach Patrick Murphy. He’s quick to point out the knowledgeable fan base and how it makes the atmosphere for big games in Rhoads Stadium feel like the team is already in Oklahoma City.
And he believes a highly anticipated series like the one with Florida coming so late in the season is perfect timing, considering the momentum it could create.
“Florida has been one of the best teams in the country the past five years and it's a special situation when we play them,” Murphy said. “It’s a tough three-game series. Hopefully we’ll have almost 4,000 people at every game.
“Florida is a top-five team and then you bring in seven other teams the next weekend [for the SEC tournament], to me, that’s almost like the [Women’s] College World Series in itself. It’s single-elimination, lose and you go home. Then the next weekend starts the NCAA Regionals. We have two weekends back to back that are going to prepare us for the next two or three [weekends] hopefully down the road.”
Florida coach Tim Walton agrees about the atmosphere.
“This is what college softball is all about. I can tell you what they do at Alabama for their softball program, they do it right. They do it really right. And the kids enjoy it, the fans enjoy it and the coaches enjoy it,” Walton said Tuesday following his team's first practice during finals week. “It’s going to be a big-time atmosphere, just like if it were in Gainesville this weekend. Same exact thing, big-time atmosphere, we do it right here, too.”
The difference may come down to experience. Sure, both teams were in OKC last year, with the Tide rolling through the winners’ bracket to Sunday before Florida beat them twice to advance to the championship series. While there is talent back on each side, the coaches see their own teams as completely different from a year ago.
Despite losing Kelsey Dunne, a four-time All-American in the circle, Alabama is a veteran squad with six seniors. Still, youth has its advantages and one for the Tide is sophomore Jackie Traina. With Dunne gone, Traina is the Tide's ringmaster and one of the SEC’s dominating sophomore pitchers. She is second in the country with 29 wins against just one loss. Before that setback two weeks ago at Georgia, she had won 28 consecutive games dating to last year.
On offense, Murphy often states the need for speed, power and average is greater than ever. To that end, he charged his strength coach last July with getting the team ready by setting a goal of leading the nation in home runs and stolen bases. Entering the week, they’re first in homers with 83 and sixth in stolen bases with 107.
While his offensive philosophy evolves every season depending on the roster, there was one thing in his past that spurred him to seek out a more balanced offense.
“You know, in the beginning of my career, my favorite play in softball was the three-run home run. And I waited several times for it and we lost because of it,” Murphy said.
Florida can match up well with the Tide, especially in the circle where another sophomore, Hannah Rogers, is back and looking like an All-American again. She has a 25-4 record and is seventh nationally with a 1.03 ERA.
Center fielder Michelle Moultrie is the rock the offense is built around, and not just because she’s the only senior on the team. She has hit .403 this season with 10 home runs and 21 stolen bases, continuing her meteoric rise on the national scene that started last spring and evolved into one of the top storylines in OKC. During the 2011 WCWS, she hit four home runs, after entering having hit just two in the regular season.
With only Moultrie's veteran voice -- Florida has seven true freshmen, a redshirt-freshman and three sophomores on its 16-person roster -- the young Gators have been erratic at times. They’ve lost three of their past four games including two at home last weekend to Kentucky.
A series this weekend against Alabama may be just the thing to jumpstart a run deep into the postseason.
“This is what our kids need. And if they can’t get fired up enough to play in Tuscaloosa, Ala., playing one of the best teams in one of the best venues in one of the best conferences in the country, then maybe it’s all for naught,” Walton said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out with our team. It’s just ‘Hey, play hard, go out there and enjoy it.’
“We’ve practiced hard all year, we know the game, we’re getting better with the game. Now it’s going to come down which team can execute, which team can pitch, play defense and get a hit with runners in scoring position the most.”
Don’t get Walton wrong, though. He’s still extolling the virtue of patience as he tries to get his squad to buy into the ‘one game a time’ approach.
“I can tell you sitting in this chair I’m not any more fired up for Alabama than I was for Ole Miss, Arkansas or Tennessee,” Walton said. “We’re not putting any more stock into it. I just think the venue, the atmosphere, it’s such a great place to be at the end of the season, it just all makes it worthwhile.”
It’s what they’ve been studying for all year and now is the time to see how well they know the material.