TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was worth the wait.
A year after the Alabama softball team saw the 2020 season dramatically cancelled and its championship hopes extinguished, a number of Crimson Tide players who came back for another shot at history were rewarded Saturday night.
With ace Montana Fouts (22-3) throwing a three-hitter, Alabama jumped out to an early lead and beat top-seeded Florida 4-0 at Rhoads Stadium to claim a league-record sixth SEC Championship, and first since 2012.
"The SEC was tough this year," Crimson Tide coach Patrick Murphy said. "I think everyone will realize just how great the SEC and the level of talent is when the All-American list gets released in a few weeks. There are so many great athletes throughout the SEC and in softball, specifically. I think softball, if not number one, is the second-best sport in the SEC.
"The championship tradition and coaches here at Alabama are a great fraternity to be in. I heard from so many other coaches last night wishing us good luck. It is a difficult job and we wanted to do the same thing and add to the success of our other sports. That's why I love being a spring sport, it gives me an opportunity to learn from the fall and winter coaches. This team had grit and resiliency and it's been a fun group to coach."
Fouts was named the SEC Tournament MVP, striking out a tournament-record 39 batters over her three appearances.
She started all three games for the Crimson Tide in as many nights, throwing 357 pitches, including 105 during the title game. The complete-game shutout in the SEC tournament championship was the first since Tennessee’s Monica Abbott in 2006.
“Winning the tournament at home means everything after all the adversity we’ve faced and the injuries we’ve overcome this year," said Fouts who improved to 22-3 (1.55 ERA).
"To us, this win signifies that anything is possible and that we can accomplish anything. It feels great to be a part of this university and for our team to contribute our own SEC championship, but we aren’t done yet and we have bigger dreams.”
Bailey Hemphill, Alexis Mack and Taylor Clark were also all named to the all-tournament team.
Alabama (45-7) heads into Selection Sunday with the best RPI (rating percentage index) ranking in the nation. It'll find out its postseason draw at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN2.
For the 10th time in 13 games, Alabama scored at least one run in the first inning. It was no coincidence for the group that had a 12-game winning streak on the line.
"The whole thing felt like a super regional," Murphy said as the Crimson Tides faced three ranked opponents in the tournament, and the finals featured teams ranked No. 3 and No. 4 in latest coaches poll.
As part of its recent trend, Alabama scored three runs in the top of the first off of Gators starter Elizabeth Hightower (16-5).
Alexis Mack, graduate senior and leadoff hitter, got things started with a single through the middle. Sophomore Jenna Johnson scored Mack with a bunt single on a called squeeze play — atypical but aggressive in an early spot.
"I'll be honest with you, my stomach was turning like crazy when I called it," Murphy said. "One of the fastest kids on the team was sitting on third. It kind of started a big inning for us."
Make that THE inning of the night.
Factor in an additional single by senior KB Sides, a throwing error by Florida third baseman Charla Echols and a challenge by Alabama for obstruction at home plate (which it lost), and the Crimson Tide was off and running before its home crowd.
In her third start in as many days — like Florida's Hightower — the recently-named SEC Co-Pitcher of the Year Fouts showed no fatigue, displaying, only dominance and blanking Gator bats in the first, and second, and third ...
For the Crimson Tide, it was a welcoming sign in a championship setting.
"She wanted to not only throw 70 [mph], but she wanted to throw 70 from inning one to inning seven," Murphy said. "And she wanted to dominate for seven innings. Not four, not five, not six, but seven."
In the fifth inning, Fouts tied the SEC Tournament record for strikeouts with 37, but was far from satisfied.
"I did want to do this for the team. No other reason," Fouts said, "The awards are great and I'm thankful for them, but it's all about the end game."
Meanwhile, Florida (42-9) replaced starter Hightower after 4.2 innings — despite not giving up a run after the first inning — in favor of fifth-year pitcher Katie Chronister.
Chronister surrendered the Crimson Tide's final run in the top of the sixth when shortstop Taylor Clark singled and scored Sides as the sun began to set on the Gators.
"It's really easy to give everything you have to a team that means so much," Fouts said. "In the sixth and seventh, Maddie [Morgan] looked at me and said 'dig deep.'
"That was all I needed to hear."
The win was the Crimson Tide’s 44th SEC Tournament victory, tying LSU for the most of any team. Alabama also remained the only softball program to win an SEC Tournament on its home field (2012).