TUSCALOOSA — Take a step inside the Alabama clubhouse at Rhoads Stadium and it's not hard to see where the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide softball team get its motivation from.
On the dry-erase board in the team's meeting room is a massive 8, meant to serve as a constant reminder of exactly where the rest of the Southeastern Conference expected Alabama to finish the season, as the league's eighth-best team according to the preseason poll as voted on by SEC coaches.
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Of course, that's not how things played out this season as the Crimson Tide (50-6, 18-6 SEC) enters this week's SEC Championship Tournament in College Station, Texas, as the No. 1 seed after securing the program's sixth regular-season conference title following a series-sweep at No. 5 LSU last weekend.
"We walk into the clubhouse every single day and we're reminded of it, but we just use it as fuel," junior center fielder Elissa Brown said last week. "We're proving everyone wrong and what we can do, what we've known we can do for the longest, and it's really awesome the way we're performing right now."
Top-seeded Alabama will play the winner of Wednesday's first-round game between No. 8 Georgia and No. 9 Arkansas at 4 p.m. Thursday at Texas A&M's Davis Diamond.
The Crimson Tide has previously won the conference tournament five times (1998, 2003, 2005, 2010, 2012), including twice after also claiming the regular-season crown.
The last time Alabama claimed both the SEC regular-season and tournament championships was also the same year it won the program's only Women's College World Series national championship in 2012, when it finished a program-best 60-8 overall and 23-5 in the conference.
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Of course, with 50 wins during the regular season, the Tide is already three wins ahead of its 2012 pace before entering the SEC Tournament. Alabama's 50th victory in 2012 came in a 10-1 run-rule win over Florida in the tournament title game.
"It'd be a huge, huge accomplishment for this group," longtime Tide head coach Patrick Murphy said of securing the SEC Tournament's No. 1 seed last week, prior to its series at LSU, "especially when we have a brand new infield, brand new right fielder, three new pitchers that have pitched the majority of the game, so it'd be a heck of a feat."
It's quite the turnaround from its prior two seasons when the Tide averaged 41 wins and 19 losses, including double-digit conference games. Last year, Alabama finished 36-20 overall and 12-12 in conference play, entering as the SEC's eighth-seeded team.
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Much of the turnaround can be credited to freshman ace Montana Fouts (14-3), who won her program-record fourth SEC freshman of the week honor this season on Monday after throwing nine shutout innings over two games at LSU, including notching her fifth save with two scoreless innings of relief in the series-clinching 4-3 win Saturday. Also helping matters is a strong group of upperclassmen, including seniors Reagan Dykes and Courtney Gettins, as well as talented juniors in the speedy and sweet-swinging Brown, powerful designated player Bailey Hemphill and quality No. 2 pitcher Sarah Cornell, who is 20-1 this season after transferring from Hofstra in the offseason.
"From the beginning, we knew this team was special, we had a lot of new people -- transfers and the freshmen -- that have made a big impact for us this year, and we just mix well together," Brown said. "We all like each other, we're just a bunch of friends playing ball. I think that (was what was) special from the beginning and it's just transferred over to the end of the season, and I'm just really proud of how we've been performing with each other and ready to move forward."
For Alabama, moving forward means trying to win another SEC Tournament title and secure a Top 8 national seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. Following its sweep of LSU, which slipped out of contention for a national seed with the ninth-ranked RPI, the Tide have the nation's seventh-best RPI, and should only strengthen its case with a win or two this weekend in College Station.
"Whoever you're going to play on those last three games is going to be a boost for your RPI, regardless of who it is," Murphy said. "It's happened to us every year and that tournament is like a World Series, except it's one-and-done. That's kind of the fun part of it, you have to play well to advance, and hopefully it's going to help us down the stretch."
And should the Tide lock in another Top 8 national seed this weekend, it would be just the latest affirmation of how wrong the rest of the conference was when it projected the Crimson Tide as the SEC's eighth-best team way back in mid-February.
"We can taste it," Brown said. "We're just really excited, none of us have been in this position before and we're extremely excited to be in this position, so we're just going to keep playing ball."
This article is written by Alex Byington from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.