By JEFF LATZKE
After years on the cusp, Patrick Murphy and Alabama finally broke through and brought the Southeastern Conference its first Women's College World Series championship last year. Now, there's a budding tradition to uphold.
Murphy kept a watchful eye as Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide won back-to-back titles, emerging as the most powerful of the SEC's mighty football teams. Before that, the women's gymnastics team also repeated as NCAA champions.
Suddenly, it seems like just one championship isn't enough at 'Bama.
"This is the glory days of Alabama athletics, for sure," Murphy said.
Murphy can only hope to keep up the trend, and he might have the squad to do it with ace Jackie Traina and slugger Kaila Hunt surrounded by a bunch of speedsters — as many as seven that Murphy says could have the green light to steal at any given moment.
The first games of the 2013 season were scheduled for Thursday, with Alabama and many other teams opening up Friday. It's the Crimson Tide's crown to defend, another step in the sport's gradual growth from a West Coast phenomenon to a one where the title is up for grabs to any number of programs across the nation.
Oklahoma, which lost the championship series 2-1 to the Tide, is loaded once again with 2012 national player of the year Keilani Ricketts both on the mound and in the middle of a potent lineup. Two-time national champion Arizona State, California, Tennessee, Oregon and Missouri are all near the top of the preseason rankings, and it's impossible to count out traditional powerhouses UCLA and Arizona.
Those two programs won 20 of the first 28 NCAA softball titles, but neither has been among the eight teams at the Women's College World Series over the past two years. In a sign of the sport's increasing parity, 12-time champion UCLA was upset at home by Hofstra in last year's regionals.
"From the West Coast to the Southeast to the Northeast, it's everywhere. Really, it's anybody's game. It's anybody's season," said Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, whose Sooners were the easternmost team to win a title back in 2000. "It just really comes down to who's hot at the right time and who's making plays."
For years, a single player — the pitcher — could be a dominating force in softball. From Lisa Fernandez to Cat Osterman, offenses rarely had a chance and games frequently ended 1-0 or 2-1. Changes to the rules and bats a few years ago briefly swung the pendulum in the opposite direction — to the point that UCLA won the 2010 championship by a score of 15-9 — but softball now seems to be settling on a middle ground.
It's becoming a sport that offers opportunities for an increasing number of athletic women who can impact the game with their speed and hitting ability, as well as their pitching.
"We don't need to be playing 11-10 games, so we have to be careful with the technology and the equipment. I think it's a delicate balance between people loving seeing home runs and purists who love to see that 1-0 game," Murphy said. "That's fast-pitch softball, where one mistake will lose a game for you."
Murphy said that doesn't mean there isn't plenty of excitement in a game that ends 5-4, like the decisive Game 3 of last year's championship series.
Who gets to the finals will be decided over the next 3½ months, eventually through a playoff run that's more of a grind than ever.
"It's anybody's series," Gasso said. "You might rank us, but that doesn't mean anything. It really doesn't. It's really coming down to who can get it done and who can execute. It's all about the end of the season."
Cal will do its best to move on without two-way star Valerie Arioto and navigate the Pac-12, which has had four different teams win national championships in the past six years. Just being the best team in the SEC will be the first challenge for Alabama, with the addition of past champion Texas A&M and frequent World Series combatant Missouri joining an already loaded league that has placed Tennessee and Florida in the finals in recent years.
Then there's the motivated group at Oklahoma led by Ricketts, who had 457 strikeouts, a 1.08 ERA and also swatted 17 home runs last season. The Sooners, playing on practically a home field at the World Series stadium in Oklahoma City, won Game 1 of the finals and led before Alabama rallied following a rain delay in Game 3.
"Definitely, it hurt a lot. That was the most pain I'd ever been in in softball," said Ricketts, a senior. "Just being one game away and one run away from winning it all. It just brings a lot of motivation going into my last year."