Earlier this week, Alabama softball coach Patrick Murphy listed three goals for his team heading into the SEC Tournament.
Get multiple players opportunities.
Enter an NCAA regional on a high note.
Of course, winning the event wouldn’t be bad either. Alabama (41-10) enters the tournament as the No. 2 seed and will begin play against No. 7 seed Missouri (34-19) in a quarterfinal matchup Thursday at 1:30 p.m. CT at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville, Fla.
After winning last year’s SEC Tournament, the Crimson Tide is looking to repeat as champions while adding a seventh conference tournament title to its trophy case. Doing so will require Alabama to rattle off three consecutive victories over the next three days.
“We’re excited,” Murphy said. “We love the postseason, it’s the best time of the year. Selection Sunday is coming up around the corner. Hopefully, we’re going to play three games, but I know we’re going to see some of the best competition we’ve seen all year long.”
Here are five things to watch for as Alabama looks to defend its SEC Tournament crown.
More Montana magic?
No player will have more say in Alabama’s postseason chances than Montana Fouts. The Team USA pitcher sports a 1.97 earned run average and has struck out a whopping 254 batters over 159⅔ innings pitched this season.
Fouts (22-5) is coming off a strong showing against Missouri, earning SEC Pitcher of the Week honors after notching two wins over three appearances last weekend. She pitched in 17⅔ of the series’ 22 innings, allowing four runs, three earned, on 12 hits while striking out 26 batters and issuing six walks.
“I feel like the more that I pitch probably the better that I feel,” Fouts said earlier this week. “I guess more reps, which is kind of crazy because it feels like we’ve been playing all year. But I feel like we’re just now starting to get together.”
Alabama’s other ace pitcher, Lexi Kilfoyl, is currently dealing with hip and foot injuries that kept her out of last weekend’s series against Missouri. Earlier this week, Murphy said he will need strong performances from redshirt freshman Alex Salter and sophomore Jaala Torrence in the circle this week. However, Alabama’s chances of winning the tournament greatly depend on Fouts.
Will Alabama's bats break out?
Alabama boasts an SEC-best 2.25 ERA but has struggled to give its pitchers much support at the plate this season. The Crimson Tide’s bats have been especially quiet lately as the team has scored four or fewer runs in each of its last eight games.
Alabama ranks sixth in the SEC with a .292 team batting average and last in the conference with 375 total hits, 18 behind 12th-place Tennessee.
Earlier this week, Murphy expressed optimism about his team’s ability to get hot at the plate, pointing out that his lineup has put runners on base in recent games despite its inability to drive home runs. Alabama left a combined 13 runners on base during its three-game series against Missouri over the weekend.
“I think we are and we’re going to be fine,” Murphy said. “I think there are times for me where I need to either execute more or try a hit-and-run because I cannot sit back and just say ‘Let’s hit a 3-run home run here.’ So I’m going to try to make things happen and make the other team make plays.”
Alabama’s best two hitters this season have been catcher Ally Shipman and third baseman Ashley Prange. Shipman leads the team with a .352 batting average and 45 RBI while hitting eight home runs. Prange, who has led off recently, isn’t far behind, batting .348 with a team-high 13 doubles to go with eight home runs and 27 RBI.
As for the rest of Alabama’s lineup, Fouts has confidence they will have her back this week.
“Softball is a game of failure,” she said. “And sometimes we’re going to fail and sometimes we’re going to succeed. I’m really excited to see when everything clicks together.”
Alabama has made an appearance in every SEC Tournament dating back to 1997. However, this week’s stage will be a new one for the seven freshmen on the Crimson Tide’s roster.
Alabama’s usual starting lineup features three true freshmen in second baseman Megan Bloodworth, center fielder Dallis Goodnight and right fielder Jenna Lord. During Sunday’s 3-1 victory over Missouri, freshman Kali Heiviln filled in for Bloodworth at second base, going 2-for-3 at the plate.
Meanwhile, Salter, a redshirt freshman, has developed into a reliable No. 3 option for Alabama in the circle. The right-hander is 4-0 with a 2.24 ERA and is coming off a solid performance in Alabama’s 3-1 win over Missouri on Saturday where she pitched 4⅓ innings, giving up one earned run on seven hits while striking out three batters and issuing one walk.
While Fouts said she and some of the other veterans on the team spoke to the freshmen about entering postseason play this week, the senior doesn’t want to put too much pressure on her younger teammates.
“I’m excited for them just because I think that they’re ready,” Fouts said. “I know that they’re ready, but I think that they’re really excited.”
Alabama is all but guaranteed to host an NCAA regional regardless of how it fairs in the SEC Tournament. However, a win or two this week would certainly go a long way toward helping the Crimson Tide shore up one of the top eight national seeds, setting up the opportunity to host a super regional if the team advances that far.
Alabama enters the week ranked No. 5 in the USA TODAY/NFCA Coaches poll while sitting at No. 6 in the nation according to D1 Softball and No. 7 according to ESPN/USA Softball. The Crimson Tide ranks No. 4 in RPI, trailing Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and Florida State.
Earlier this week, Murphy spoke about his team’s resume, pointing out its challenging strength of schedule which includes two wins apiece against Virginia Tech and Texas as well as victories over Arizona and Oregon State outside of the SEC slate. Alabama also suffered a one-run loss to Florida State.
“I think the one thing that [the selection committee] subtly told us in 2019 was you can do better with who you choose to play,” Murphy said. “Your conference is your conference. That’s long determined ahead of time. But non-conference is probably the bigger thing, and I thought we played some really good teams and beat them.”
The road to a repeat
A win against Missouri would move Alabama to the semifinals where it would face either No. 3 seed Tennessee or No. 11 seed Mississippi State on Friday at 2 p.m. The Crimson TIde has yet to face Tennessee this season but swept Mississippi State over three games in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last month.
If Alabama advances to Saturday’s championship game, its possible opponents include No. 1 seed Arkansas, No. 4 seed Kentucky, No. 5 seed Florida and No. 8 seed Ole Miss. The Crimson Tide has not faced either Arkansas or Ole Miss this season. It won two out of three games against Kentucky in Tuscaloosa in March as well as two out of three games at Florida last month.