After a long, cold winter most of the country is longing for some signs of spring. This weekend, the collegiate softball season will open – a sure indication we’ll soon be enjoying warmer temperatures and watching the flowers bloom.

Defending Division I champion Alabama will lead off the season at the UNI-Dome Classic beginning Friday in a three-day, six-team tournament hosted by Northern Iowa. Although, the 30-degree temperatures in Cedar Rapids may not exactly be welcoming, there will be a nice and cozy atmosphere inside the UNI-Dome as Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy returns to his alma mater.

“It worked out that the weekend was free and Northern Iowa was hosting a tournament,” Murphy said. “I’ve know their coach for years and we’re good friends, and he has wanted us to come up for many years. It’s going to be a great trip for us.”

Friday Illinois 4 p.m.
Friday Northern Iowa 8 p.m.
Saturday Drake 4 p.m.
Saturday Green Bay 6 p.m.
Sunday North Dakota State 11 a.m.

Sophomore infielder Jadyn Spencer will also get to play for a “hometown” crowd, as Cedar Rapids is right next door to where she grew up in Waterloo, Iowa.

“I think half of Iowa is going to be there,” Murphy said. “One of things we do as a program is when we’re recruiting kids we tell them we’ll try to go as close as possible to their hometown at least once during their playing career so all their friends and family can just get in the car and drive less than an hour.”

The Crimson Tide returns three pitchers and four to five position players from last year’s squad, which compiled a 60-8 record and won the first softball national title in Southeastern Conference history. While Alabama did lose six seniors from the championship team, Murphy replaced them with five enthusiastic freshmen.

“I could literally flip a coin at almost every position,” Murphy said. “We’ve had two complete teams every time we’ve scrimmaged and it’s never been the first team against the second team. Each kid brings something great to their position … the depth has been incredible. When you have good depth, that brings competiveness to practice and the practices have been awesome. It’s been Red versus White for about three weeks now, but once we play on Friday we’re the Crimson Tide and we’re all together.”

The Tide welcomes back All-Americans Kaila Hunt and Jackie Traina. Last season, Hunt led with an SEC-leading 21 home runs and 77 RBI last season, while Traina posed a dual threat on the mound and at the plate. Traina, who played with Team USA during the summer, posted a 42-3 record and 1.87 ERA last spring, while batting .319 with 10 home runs.

“[Traina] ended the year hitting in the four-spot for us, and was probably our most competitive hitter in the last month of the year,” Murphy said. “We’re looking for good things from her batting, but also from her pitching. She won 42 games for us last year, and she could do it because she’s in shape, but we would love to have the other ladies on our staff to get about 15 to 20 wins because that would help out Jackie [Traina] in the end.”

Alabama begins the season as the preseason No. 1 in two national polls and was picked to win the SEC title once again. The Crimson Tide will play two games on Friday starting with Illinois at 4 p.m., followed by a match-up with host Northern Iowa.

No. 1 Indiana hits the road this weekend for a pair of Big Ten match-ups as the Hoosiers look to not only keep control of the top spot in the national rankings, but also widen their lead in the league standings. IU travels to Illinois on Thursday and then heads to Columbus for a top-10 match-up with No. 10 Ohio State – a game highlighted on everyone’s Big Ten schedule. The Hoosiers probably do not want to get too far ahead of themselves as Illinois – losers of three in a row – is looking to pull an upset and snap IU’s six-game winning streak. In Columbus, Ohio State will be looking to bounce back from Tuesday’s overtime loss to Michigan and remain in the hunt for a regular season title. However, the Hoosiers are pretty strong on the road, winning their last five Big Ten away games. Indiana and Illinois can be seen on Thursday at 7 p.m. on ESPN, while you can catch the Hoosiers and Buckeyes on Sunday at 1 p.m. on CBS.

Delaware looks to push CAA win streak to 29.
Delaware Athletics

• The No. 20 Delaware women’s basketball team looks to continue its winning ways in Colonial Athletic Association play this weekend as the Blue Hens head out on the road for two games. The Blue Hens are riding a 13-game winning streak into Thursday’s contest with last-place Towson as they attempt to stretch their regular-season CAA winning streak to 29 games.

If Delaware gets past the Tigers, James Madison is next up on Sunday. The Dukes are nipping at the Blue Hens’ heels in second place in league play, one game behind Delaware in the standings with a game against UNC-Wilmington on Thursday. JMU has won seven consecutive games, and are paced by Precious Hall, who shot almost 53 percent in two games last week. The Dukes, however, will have to face senior All-American Elena Delle Donne, who leads the Blue Hens with 25.3 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

• There are two key series in Division I men’s hockey this weekend, as the top two teams in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association face off, while there will be a top 10 battle in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

No. 3 Miami (Ohio) currently sits in first place in the CCHA and is looking to stretch its five-game winning streak in a two-game series at No. 6 Western Michigan, which trails by one point in second place. Games are scheduled for 7:05 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

After a week off, No. 1 Minnesota travels to No. 8 St. Cloud for a crucial WCHA series beginning Friday. The Saints have a three-point lead ahead of second-place Nebraska-Omaha in the regular season conference race with five weeks remaining and are unbeaten (8-0-1) in their last nine WCHA contests. Meanwhile, the top-ranked Gophers are looking to make up some ground in the standings as they trail the Saints by five points and sit in third place. Minnesota has played two fewer league games at this point in the season, but that will even out by tournament time.

• The No. 1 Wartburg wrestling team will host No. 14 Coe in the Iowa Conference Championship Dual on Friday, in a meet that will determine the conference champion. All-conference wrestlers will be determined by the top three Iowa Conference finishers in each weight class at the NCAA Regional meet on March 2. Wartburg enters the dual with an 18-0 record as they seek to claim their 21st consecutive IIAC championship. The Knights’ 20 consecutive conference titles is the longest streak in Division III wrestling. The match will be co-head coach Jim Miller’s final home event as he will retire at the end of the season.

• The two-time NCAA title defending women’s gymnastics squad heads to Gainesville, Fla., as No. 5 Alabama visits No. 1 Florida on Friday in a Southeastern Conference meet. Despite a loss to Georgia last week, Alabama is coming off a season-best 196.950 score against the GymDogs. Florida topped Arkansas last week with the second-best score in the nation this year (197.575). The Gators have two of the nation’s top five all-arounders as Kytra Hunter ranks first with a 39.688 and Bridget Sloan ranks fifth at 39.488.

• The defending NCAA Division II baseball champion, West Chester, opens the season with a three-game series at Lander in Greenwood, S.C., beginning Friday. WCU enters the season ranked No. 5 in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association (NCBWA) preseason poll and the top-ranked school in the Atlantic Region. The Golden Rams concluded 2012 on a 12-game winning streak.

WCU’s pitching staff will be led once again by junior right-hander Joe Gunkel, who went 10-1 with a 2.07 ERA in 12 starts. At the plate, designated hitter Jordan Wlodarczyk is the team’s top returning hitter. He is coming off a season in which he batted .348 with 11 doubles, 29 runs scored and 32 RBI.

Jerica Coley has scored in double-digits in the last 22 games and is responsible for 41.5 percent of the offense.
Florida International Athletics

Holy moly, it’s Holy Coley! Last week, Florida International’s athletic media relations department launched a web site dedicated to promoting junior guard Jerica Coley’s All-America campaign. features news and updated statistics on the Panthers’ star, who currently leads the nation with 25.4 points per game. Coley, who is also promoted with the hash tag #HolyColey on Twitter, has now scored in double-figures in 22 consecutive games, including 10 30-point performances this season. The native of St. Petersburg, Fla., garnered Associated Press All-America honorable mention honors last season and is responsible for 41.5 percent of the Panthers’ offensive production, including 33 points in FIU’s 65-55 defeat of Florida Atlantic on Wednesday.

• The San Diego State women’s basketball team is on fire. The Aztecs are riding a seven-game winning streak following a 64-40 defeat of Boise State in Mountain West Conference action on Wednesday. With the win, the Aztecs maintained a share of first place in the league race with Fresno State, setting up a match-up between the MW’s co-leaders on Saturday. SDSU looks to avenge its only conference loss of the season against the Bulldogs in a nationally-televised contest at 8 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. 

• The Catholic men’s and women’s basketball teams are collectively having one of the best seasons in school history with a combined record of 41-3 this year. CUA is one of just six schools in Division III basketball to have both programs ranked in the top 25 as the men boast a No. 8 ranking, and the women are holding steady at No. 13. The men’s squad is 20-2 and sits on top of the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Regional rankings heading into Saturday’s match-up with Scranton. Meanwhile, the Cardinal women are off to the best start in the 54-year history of the program with a 21-1 mark, and need just two more victories to break the school record for wins, which they set last season. The women have won seven consecutive and hold a one-game lead against Moravian in the Landmark Conference standings. They also play at Scranton on Saturday.

Follow Amy Farnum on Twitter: @NCAA_Amy