Hannah Saad | @hannah_saad21
A blue blood of softball in the Southeastern conference is No. 3/4 Alabama (29-4; 9-3 SEC) and will head to Fayetteville, Ark. to face a program trying to match its elite status, the No. 8/10 Arkansas Razorbacks (32-3; 12-0 SEC).
The series will have big implications on the conference standings and looks to be a must win series for preseason favorite Alabama if it is to stay in the hunt for a conference title. The Tide is already three games behind Arkansas due to the Razorbacks’ perfect 12–0 start to conference play. For graduate student Alexis Mack, the opportunity to hand Arkansas its first loss in conference play “absolutely” has her pumped up for the weekend series.
“We are all really excited to walk in, play against a really good team and show them what we can do,” Mack said.
The major strength for Alabama in the first half of the season was its dominant pitching, but it was the offense that commanded the spotlight this past weekend in its sweep of No. 24 Texas A&M. The offense scored 33 runs and was led by graduate student Bailey Hemphill and sophomore Lexi Kilfoyl. Hemphill was awarded her second SEC Player of the Week honor after posting a .923 on-base percentage with a home run, and Kilfoyl also received her second Newcomer of the Week award after going 4-for-7 with a .750 on-base percentage.
“We did a great job without bats this weekend, and we have five kids over a .500 on base percentage, which was kind of a goal we set before SEC play,” head coach Patrick Murphy said.
The Crimson Tide bats will need to stay productive as the Razorbacks have an offense that can put runs on the board quickly via the home run. Arkansas holds a conference leading 69 home runs and is also in the top half of the conference in the major offensive stat categories. Graduate student Braxton Burnside leads the Razorback offense with a .376 batting average and single season program record of 20 home runs, which also leads the conference. Along with Hemphill, Burnside was named co-SEC Player of the Week as she tallied a .750 on-base percentage against Auburn.
Aside from Burnside, two other Arkansas batters have double digit home runs and six of the nine batters in its starting lineup against Auburn in the series final have hit a home run this season. Murphy said whoever pitches for Alabama over the course of the weekend must be “strategic and accurate,” with a strong mindset.
“You can’t be afraid to pitch, period,” Murphy said. “I think it looked like it a little bit in Kentucky and this past weekend.”
Over the past two series, junior Montana Fouts (11-2; 1.87 ERA) and Kilfoyl (11-2; 1.29 ERA) have allotted a combined eight home runs, and they will be projected starters this weekend. Despite the recent struggles giving up the long ball, Murphy believes both Fouts and Kilfoyl are ready for the challenge.
“I think both Montana [Fouts] and Lexi [Kilfoyl] kind of have a chip on their shoulder, and they want to do better,” Murphy said.
The Arkansas pitching staff is led by redshirt junior Mary Haff (18-2; 1.07 ERA) who leads the conference in wins, has the third best ERA and is tied with Fouts for the second most strikeouts, 137. Haff has been able to hold her opponents to a .171 batting average due to her ability to mix speed with a potent rise ball and changeup combo. Arkansas head coach Courtney Deifel can also put graduate student Autumn Storms (5-0; 1.50 ERA) in the circle as Storms tallied a shutout win against Alabama last year in Tuscaloosa.
First pitch is scheduled for Friday at 6 p.m. and can be watched on the ESPN app. Game two of the series will be televised on ESPN2 at 11 a.m. Saturday, and the series finale will begin at 1 p.m. Sunday on the ESPN app.