Alabama Softball: The Kids are Alright

Christopher Walsh

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — She was being interviewed on television, but her ultra-fresh status on the Alabama softball roster didn’t provide any sort of extra protection.

Abby Doerr wasn’t just an early enrollee, she hadn’t even on the team during Alabama’s opening weekend, having yet to be academically cleared by the NCAA. The freshman catcher had only been active since Feb. 10, barely enough time to get her feet wet with the Crimson Tide, but still had a microphone and camera on her following one of last weekend’s wins over Penn State during the Easton Bama Bash.

So, of course, the Crimson Tide messed with her.

Sophomore ace Montana Fouts plopped a glove square on her head, and then another and another until she looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. On the other side, which wasn’t apparent on TV, senior Bailey Hemphill was squirting the rookie with a water bottle.

Welcome to Tuscaloosa.

To her credit, though, Doerr still didn’t let it botch the interview.

“I love this place,” Doerr got out. “New home.”

The public initiation aside, if there’s been an early-season surprise with the Alabama softball team it wasn’t from below .500 record after the first two weeks.

It’s been with the newcomers holding their own despite the team’s eye-popping schedule.

Overall, Alabama nearly returned every key player from last year’s Women’s College World Series team, 13 in all, but it’s still had to heavily rely on some newcomers.

In addition to graduate transfer Alexis Mack from Oregon, who is already a fixture atop the batting order, No. 8 Alabama is using four true freshmen on a regular basis.

In addition to Doerr, Savannah Woodard has been a fixture at second following a season-ending knee injury to shortstop Claire Jenkins in the fall (with sophomore Skylar Wallace sliding over). She's batting .303 so far.

Meanwhile, Jenna Johnson has stepped in at center field for injured senior Elissa Brown (broken hand), and Lexi Kilfoyl has been Alabama’s most consistent pitcher thus far.

She’s 4-2 with a team-best 2.22 ERA, and a whip (walk/hits per inning) ratio of 1.29. The 38 strikeouts have been impressive, while the 17 walks not so much. But when she’s on …

On Feb. 13, Kilfoyl threw a one-hitter against then-No. 1 Washington, a five-inning 8-0 victory. Last week she had a three-hitter against Louisville, a 9-0 victory in five innings.

“I thought Louisville looked terrific Friday-Saturday. They were 3-0," Murphy said about the Bama Bash. “She made them look kind of silly.”

Meanwhile, the surprise of last weekend, when Alabama went 5-0 and outscored its opponents 51-8, including four run-rule victories and three shutouts, was Johnson. The only right-handed batter among the outfielders, she’s started all but one game and is batting a respectable .263.

“I think she had three doubles in a row between two different games,” Murphy said. “I think she has the potential to be a really, really good player here.”

Johnson’s biggest play so far, though, was on the defensive side. Against USF during the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitation she went over/through the temporary wall to save a three-run home run in the first inning. Alabama came back and won the game, 9-1, in five innings.

“Every ball off the bat, I think of it as mine, as one I can catch and then I just adjust,” Johnson said. “That ball, I was immediately going for.”

What made the play her favorite so far is what occurred after the catch, and the reaction of her teammates. Everyone came out to congratulate and celebrate with the freshman as she made her way back from the outfield. It took a while for everyone to return to the dugout, but it certainly meant a lot to Johnson.

Doerr has felt just as welcome … even when being playfully tortured on television.

Instead of enjoying her last spring at Marist High School in Eugene, Ore., she’s not only trying to get used to playing a much faster and more powerful game at the collegiate level, but quickly gel with each of Alabama’s four pitchers including the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year and two members from USA Softball U-19 Women’s National Team.

“We haven’t had that yet,” Murphy said. “Abby’s done a [heck] of a job because she literally had three days of practice before we played. She mixed up the three days and tried to go four innings, four innings, four innings with each pitcher. But it was tough.”

“And she’s just getting to know personalities as well, too.”

That’s the real key for playing the ultra-important catcher position, knowing how adjust to each pitcher and get the best out of her. It goes beyond knowing what each likes to throw in certain situations, to figuring out when to challenge them or ease off.

Alabama’s pitchers are about as different as can be, and two of them are seniors.

However, when one of them fell behind in a count 2-0 at the Elite Invitational, Doerr didn’t hesitate and sprinted out to talk to her.

“That was a first,” Murphy said. “I don’t think we’ve had a freshman catcher run out and do that on her own. That was impressive.”

Without the benefit of fall practices or training camp, Doerr has already started nine games. She’s only batting .231, yet four of her six hits have been for extra bases with three doubles and a home run — all favorable signs about her potential.

“When she hits it, she hits it hard,” Murphy said.

Considering the circumstances, Doerr is off to a good start. Fouts and Hemphill messing around with her was even more telling, though, because it sent a clear message from the team leadership: She can take it.

Johnson and Kilfoyl can expect similar treatment, especially if Alabama has another good weekend during the Easton Crimson Classic at Rhoads Stadium.

“She brings everyone together,” Johnson said about Fouts. “Bailey is always going to be one of those people who is always messing around.

“It’s a really good time.”

Easton Crimson Classic

  • Friday UT-Arlington – 4 p.m. CT
  • Friday vs. Arizona – 6 p.m.
  • Saturday vs. UT-Arlington – 1:30 p.m.
  • Saturday vs. Arizona – 4 p.m.
  • Sunday vs. McNeese – 1:30 p.m.