Alabama Couldn't Have Picked a Better Nominee for NCAA Woman of the Year Award
It’s not just about the dream.
There have been moments — Oh, there have been so many moments — but for Alabama softball player Bailey Hemphill the pinnacle of her playing career so far was being part the 2019 Women’s College World Series.
It’s what had been driving her for so many years, and what she had been working for, the ultimate team goal in her sport.
Understand that and you get the first key to the player, and person, who Alabama nominated for the 2020 NCAA Woman of the Year Award.
“We are so proud of Bailey and all of her accomplishments,” Crimson Tide softball Patrick Murphy said. “She is a very great nominee for this very prestigious award.”
With all the craziness going on you might have missed last week’s announcement of the nominees, especially since there were more than 600 for the national award. From tennis player Jaden Acklin of Division II Lees-McRae College North Carolina (she originally hails from Montgomery) to LSU volleyball’s Anna Zwiebel, it’s a pretty remarkable list of women.
Moreover, chances are Hemphill won’t win. The SEC Female Athlete of the Year went to point guard Tyasha Harris, who set South Carolina records for career assists (702) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.55), and tied the record for games played (139).
That and Hemphill’s career isn’t over yet. With the NCAA allowing all spring athletes an extra year of eligibility, she’s put off her plans of attending occupational therapy school to try and get back to Oklahoma City.
Alabama had more than a few worthy athletes it could have nominated, and the competition is at the highest of levels. But the more the selection committee looks, the more it’ll like Hemphill when narrowing the nominees down to 30 finalists.
On the field, she’s a four-year starter with 50 home runs and 183 RBIs. With a game on the line, Hemphill’s the one Alabama wants in the batters’ box.
Off the field, she’s earned her undergraduate degree in early childhood development with a 4.0 cumulative GPA, is a three-time CoSIDA Academic All-American, and named a CoSIDA Softball Academic All-American.
Last year she did an internship at Alabama’s Child Development Research Center. When the softball team held her individual Senior Day, her class of kids aged 3-5 showed up to surprise her.
“Bailey is like the person on the field that you think could just beat you up,” pitcher Sarah Cornell said. “After the game, when we’re just hanging out, she’s like the biggest teddy bear ever.
“I think it’s a great characteristic of her.”
Beyond that, Hemphill’s the leader of one of the finest programs in the nation, and has an influence that goes well beyond words. When she made the comment after spring sports were shut down that she wanted her career to end on her terms, by coming back for 2021, her teammates took notice.
All seven seniors are returning.
“She means a lot,” teammate Montana Fouts said. “She has a lot of experience, and in my opinion the best hitter in college softball right now. She’s very humble and you would never that she was that she was the best. In practice she’s always trying to help the rest of us, and hold us accountable. She’s a huge part of the team’s success. She’s always there to give feedback and she’s not afraid to take feedback herself, I think that’s really important too.
“We look up to that.”
They also look up to how Hemphill does others unselfish things like take walks to get on base.
Back when she was a freshman out of Lafayette, La., Hemphill started 63 games and batted .309 while leading the team in home runs and RBIs, but also drew 57 free passes. Coaches had to get her to swing a little more at pitches near, but not necessarily in the strike zone, to better establish the power threat in the middle of the lineup.
In 2019, she led the Crimson Tide with a .375 batting average and 72 hits, while also setting single-season school records with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs. The former tied the SEC record and the latter led the NCAA.
Yet Hemphill wasn’t named a first-team All-American.
There should have been outrage. Seriously, could you imagine that happening in baseball? Or the equivalent in football?
Hemphill didn’t say a negative word about it.
“She’s not someone who gloats about her awards, gloat about how good she is,” Cornell said. “She’s amazing.
“I always tell her ‘You’re so good,’ and she’s like ‘Nah. I’m all right.’ She’s not conceited whatsoever. I’ve never met a more modest person.“
Hemphill wasn’t hitting like she normally does during this past abbreviated season, with a .290 average, two home runs and 10 RBIs when it was called after 22 games.
But when you understand why it all makes perfect sense.
At the beginning of the season, Alabama didn’t have an established catcher. Abby Doerr’s early enrollment was held up and Karla Hice was dealing with an injury that would eventually lead to retiring from the game.
Hemphill got behind the plate, where the team needed her. She had played the position in high school and as a freshman was the starting catcher during Alexis Osorio's perfect game against Coastal Carolina (she also hit a three-run home run in the game).
During Alabama’s second weekend of the new season, facing USF on Valentine’s Day at the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational, Hemphill took a foul-tip to her glove hand. An inning later, she mentioned in the dugout that her hand still hurt – a lot.
Hemphill had broken the tip of her finger. She’s kept playing, just like she had with other injuries, including her back, shoulder and ankle. Her team needed her in the everyday lineup.
“Never complained about it,” Murphy said.
Go back to that WCWS appearance, where Alabama got to within one game of reaching the finals, and Hemphill might have had the most memorable moment of the Crimson Tide’s entire postseason run.
In the regional finale between Alabama and Arizona State, the Crimson Tide fell behind 5-0 in the fourth inning, and the proud Sun Devils were not only playing with desperation to avoid elimination, but had the momentum.
That is until the fifth inning.
With one out, Merris Schroder started the rally with a solo home run to right. Then Elissa Brown singled to left, KB Sides reached on an infield hit and Kaylee Tow drew a walk, to bring up Hemphill.
The Sun Devils should have walked her and conceded the run.
“I almost threw up I was so excited,” said Cornell, who with the thunderous grand slam was off the hook after giving up the five runs.
Fouts, who came in and eventually got the win, as Alabama pulled out a 9-8 victory, calls it her favorite moment in softball – and she gets asked a lot.
“I have to tell them that, because one, it’s Bailey, and she’s so clutch,” Fouts said. “When I think of Bailey’s name, I think of clutch. When she comes up in those big-time moments people expect that because it happens all the time.”
With the win, Hemphill had reached base in 34 straight games and was two home runs shy of Kelly Kretschman's single-season home run record. She tied the mark during the Super Regional series against Texas, and became Alabama's single-season home run and RBI leader by hitting a three-run home run against Florida in the World Series.
They were all great moments, and Hemphill does admit “The grand slam was pretty cool too,” but none define her career.
“Personally, the thing I’m proudest of is the type of person I’ve become since coming to Alabama,” she said. “I give my coaches and teammates a lot of credit in helping me develop into the type of person I am.”
“They really taught me how to be a better person outside of just being an athlete.”
That’s what the NCAA Woman of the Year Award should be about.