‘Team 24’ prepares to open 2020 softball season

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‘Team 24’ prepares to open 2020 softball season

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James Benedetto | @james_benedetto, Assistant Sports Editor

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It’s been more than 240 days since Alabama softball last appeared in the winner-take-all elimination game against Oklahoma in the College World Series.

During that span, Tuscaloosa invented more ways to do road construction, the university’s parking services doled out approximately 36 million parking tickets, and the city erected a commemorative statue to celebrate Tuscaloosa’s 200th birthday. 

As these events would suggest, things are a bit different than they were eight months ago. For Alabama, the changes were felt instantly when the team was ranked No. 1 in the preseason polls by D1Softball.com and ESPN.com. It’s the first time Alabama was ranked that high in the preseason polls since 2013, the year after it claimed the national championship.

“We’re gonna take it as ‘Thank you,’ but we still have to play our game and not worry about what the outside world is doing,” senior outfielder Elissa Brown said. “[Coach Patrick Murphy] always says ‘Be the man in the arena.’ Just because you named us No. 1, we’re just gonna play to our abilities and not worry about what the critics say.”

Last season the critics spoke loud and clear, as the team was projected to finish eighth in the SEC according to the preseason coaches poll. A rallying point began with that poll, as the team would go on to win 60 games and make it all the way to semifinals at the Women’s College World Series. As Alabama’s 2020 campaign kicks off in Tallahassee, Florida, this weekend, it returns 12 members that gained plenty of postseason experience last season. Although the names are familiar, Alabama will be different this season. 

Versatility

One player who will not don the Crimson Tide jersey this season is senior shortstop Claire Jenkins. Jenkins tore a ligament in her knee during fall practice after she started 69 games at shortstop last season. 

With the hole at shortstop, Murphy said he has tried different players in different spots throughout the infield during spring practice. As the spring progressed, Murphy made the move to put sophomore Skylar Wallace at shortstop. Wallace, who started 68 games at second base, was named to the 2019 SEC All-Freshman Team after a season where she hit just under .300 and posted a .939 fielding percentage.   

“[Wallace’s] communication has gone through the roof, just because she moved one spot over,” Murphy said. “And now she’s kind of telling everybody what to do and where to go and how to do it, which is what you want out of a shortstop.”

Murphy stated that Jenkins’ “calming steadiness” as a leader has also been a key factor to Wallace’s adjustment to the position.

“If you come out to practice, the first thing you notice that right behind Skylar is Claire,” Murphy said. “And she’s talking to her after every play – which is what you want, obviously, in your leader – and just saying, ‘Maybe position this way, this way’ or whatever, ‘This is what I might do.’ So we’ve loved her doing that.”

Graduate transfer Alexis Mack has also made a position change, taking over second base after being brought in as an outfielder. The versatility also carries over to hitting for Alabama, as two pitchers, senior Sarah Cornell and freshman Lexi Kilfoyl, are expected to bat this season.

“Just the ability to interchange, there’s going to be a lot of fun,” Murphy said. “A kid like Kilfoyl, she could play first. She’s gonna hit, she’s gonna pitch, and she looks really really good fielding the ground ball. [Senior Bailey Hemphill] can play first, catcher and could play third base if I really needed her to.” 

Looking ahead

As Alabama gears up for its four-game showcase against North Carolina and No. 9 Florida State on Friday and Saturday, all eyes will be fixed on its veteran pitching staff led by sophomore Montana Fouts

Fouts dominated in her freshman campaign, posting a 1.39 ERA in 24 starts. Her performance earned her SEC Freshman of the Year, NFCA Second-Team All-American and an invitation to try out for the U.S. Olympic Team. After pitching nonstop into October, she was given some time off after returning to Alabama.

“I’m just really excited about this year, because I know how much I love it and how much I love being out there,” Fouts said. “I’m excited to take away things from last year, just being able to learn game by game, just taking that [into] next season.”

Fouts and the rest of the pitching staff will be tested early in the 2020 season, as both the Tar Heels and the Seminoles advanced to the regional round a year ago. UNC is led by senior Brittany Pickett, who is a three-time All-ACC First Team pitcher and will be expected to start in one of the two games against Alabama. 

Florida State also has experience in the circle with senior pitcher Caylan Arnold. Arnold pitched for Tennessee last season and posted a 2.26 ERA in 21 starts.

“We kind of went for broke,” Murphy said. “The first nine games really are probably against NCAA teams. Three in the World Series, Florida State just missed it, [made it to] Super Regionals. So that’s how I look at it. And, obviously, you want to win every game because they’re all important, but I think it’s just gonna be great competition. The first two weekends are going to be great.”