With a sweep of Kentucky last weekend in the super regional, Alabama softball advanced to its 13th College World Series appearance.
That’s old news for Crimson Tide softball fans, or even some non-softball folks.
But surely those who don’t follow Alabama softball closely still know about Montana Fouts, the junior ace pushing the Crimson Tide forward on its 18-game winning streak.
It’s hard not to.
Well, she’s pretty good. Really good. The junior — from Kentucky, coincidentally — was named SEC Co-Pitcher of the Year with a 24-3 record and 1.49 ERA. Add a few saves to the resume and she ranks as one of the best players in the country.
Since classes ended in late April, Fouts has pitched in a conference tournament final, set the tournament record with 39 strikeouts, tallied 109 total strikeouts, and allowed only 10 earned runs in the past month, all in just over 60 innings of work, and in the toughest stretch of the season facing some of the best teams.
For the big moments, she wants the ball, and that’s just fine with the Crimson Tide. Take the championship game against Florida in the SEC Tournament. Fouts struck out 11, gave up three hits in a complete game. And she didn’t allow a run.
“I did want to do this for the team. No other reason, because it’s not about me,” Fouts said after shutting out the top-seeded Gators, “It’s about us winning, so I think that the awards are great and I’m really thankful for them, but it’s about the endgame.”
The endgame hasn’t been determined, so let’s take a look at what she did in the regional and super regional. Twice facing Clemson in the regional, Fouts didn’t allow a run, striking out 28 Tigers total. Against Kentucky in Game 1 of the super regional, though, the Bluegrass product struck out 11, but allowed three earned runs. That’s an off day in the circle by her standards, but still the envy of many pitchers around the country.
Let’s rewind one year, when more records stood upright.
Alabama’s 2020 season was cut short, like everyone’s, due to COVID-19. That meant Fouts couldn’t showcase an off-season’s worth of improvement from her astounding freshman year to her sophomore year.
It did give her time to formulate a plan.
“It was way back in August or September and I was sitting in my office in the [Coleman] Coliseum, and I see Montana walk by on the sidewalk towards the weight room,” Murphy said, “She was going to see Michelle Dilts, our strength coach, because she wanted to not only throw 70 [mph], but she wanted to throw 70 from inning one to inning seven.”
There was no DIY-type makeover or secret pitching practice -- just steady improvement from a talented athlete shoulder-to-shoulder with work ethic. In theory, that’s ideal; in practice, that’s challenging. Good players know their ability, really good players do, too.
For Fouts — whose high school career included three-time Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year honors and state record for ERA (0.16) — development is likely a steady uptick, meaning it requires extended commitment. You don’t suddenly become an All-American-level pitcher. It takes help, and usually a healthy diet of work.
“What we worked on is basic athleticism. I’m not going to tell you anything that’s world-changing or has never been done before, but she put the work in to make sure she was working on her ability to lift heavier,” Dilts said, “Her goal was to challenge herself every day to get a little heavier on basic lifts, to be able to handle her body weight.”
This season is about winning a national championship for Alabama, and its trigger is Fouts. Watch her pitch and you’ll agree that the dividends are evident.
“It’s a year-round commitment, and that’s the only way you produce what she’s doing right now,
It’s the player who was on the College World Series All-Tournament Team as a freshman, who was the five-time SEC Freshman of the Week, and someone who had to wait a year to face the game’s best competition again. There’s no wonder why she put in the work.
“She took it upon herself to learn from other pitchers, and she’s a huge fan of the game,” Murphy said. “She’s also pretty media savvy with other ladies that are still pitching today, like Monica Abbott, Cat Osterman [and] Danielle Lawrie from Team Canada. And she picks their brains to see, ‘How do you stay in shape?’”
For the Crimson Tide, though, it’s more method than madness with player development. There’s a plan. There’s a reason to everything top-flight athletes do.
“What we’ve noticed over the years is that pitchers have a tendency to be very dominant-sided, so whatever side they pitch from, that side is almost double the weight of the other,” Dilts said, “Their musculature is almost double on their dominant side, so we focused twice as much on her non-dominant side.”
Guessing by the numbers, opponents don’t see a non-dominant side of Fouts.
Until now, a few days from Alabama’s matchup with Arizona at the College World Series, she leads the SEC with 314 strikeouts. The next closest strikeout total is from Tennessee’s Ashley Rogers with 296. She pitched over 20 more innings than Fouts, as Alabama’s ace proved less can be more with requisite talent and preparation.
There’s more to be done this season, and the Crimson Tide goes as she goes.
“We’ve come this far. Why would we stop now?” Fouts said.