Tide look to put heartbreak behind them

February, 8, 2011

Editor's note: Graham Hays is counting down to the start of the 2011 college softball season with a look at each of the teams in his top 20. Check back daily for updates.

No. 4 Alabama
Last season: 52-11, lost in Tuscaloosa super regional
Who returns: Alabama returns 84 percent of its starts from a team that swept the SEC regular season and conference tournament titles and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. That mark includes two players on the preseason watch list for national player-of-the-year honors: senior pitcher Kelsi Dunne and sophomore Kayla Braud, who will move from second base to left field this season after hitting .505 with 45 stolen bases in her debut.

Not enough? How about six more players who topped .900 in OPS for the Crimson Tide in 2010: Amanda Locke (1.125), Whitney Larsen (1.057), Cassie Reilly-Boccia (1.041), Courtney Conley (1.017), Jazlyn Lunceford (.970) and Jennifer Fenton (.935). With that kind of depth, it's understandable that Lauren Sewell didn't get much time as a freshman last season, but the sophomore could be a versatile role player as both a hitter with power and a pitcher with heat this time around.

Who departs: The lone Californian on the roster during her time in Tuscaloosa, Charlotte Morgan came to embody the ethos of Alabama softball as well as any local product ever has. She was one of the most feared hitters in college softball, a quality No. 2 pitcher who could eat up innings and an unchallenged leader in the clubhouse. Basically, there's a chance she might be missed.

Who arrives: A local hotel stationed a bed beyond the fence in center field as part of a promotion in Alabama's park last season, and Crimson Tide coach Pat Murphy isn't illuminating the "No vacancy" sign just yet. Prized recruit Jackie Traina is expected to contribute immediately as both a pitcher and a hitter, while Ryan Iamurri and Kaila Hunt are in the running for immediate time alongside Larsen in the middle infield. Not to be outdone, Jordan Patterson, daughter of the Alabama gymnastics coach, is already pushing established veterans Kendall Dawson and Olivia Gibson for time behind the plate.

Preseason question: How do you get over being the "other" team in an ESPY moment?
Libraries around the globe would pay good money for the kind of silence that fell over the stands in Tuscaloosa after Hawaii completed its comeback with a two-out, walk-off home run to eliminate the top seed in last season's super regional.

It was the kind of moment that could linger in a team's collective psyche, particularly a team with so many returning players who lived it in real time. If lest to fester, it might even prove an incurable impediment.

Or it might prove to be the point in time when the Crimson Tide found their leaders in players who suddenly found themselves seniors as they walked off the field after the loss.

In the circle when the home run sailed over the fence, Dunne didn't duck questions after the fact, the sunglasses covering her eyes her only apparent concession to the pain of the moment in the indoor press conference following the game. And while the way last season ended isn't a frequent topic of conversation for the team as a whole, either as rallying cry or nightmarish memory, it's fuel for the fire for a pitcher whose height belies a style built on the gambler's blend of guile and spin.

"She's probably the most resilient kid we've ever had," Murphy said. "And with a pitcher, in softball especially, you have to be. If you're not, you pretty much get buried quickly. She's been very resilient. She's had her share of heartbroken moments, and she's had her share of great moments. But I really think she's using it to her advantage.

"She's going to be like the horror-movie monster; she can't be killed. She keeps coming back for more."

Whitney Larsen was supposed to be the hero that day, the local kid whose three-run homer in the sixth inning gave Alabama a 4-3 lead. Now she and Dunne are the only seniors and expected to lead, arguably a tougher assignment than hero.

"She's just a totally different kid, on and off the field," Murphy said. "She's never given us an ounce of issues, but she's zoned in and she's really taken that leadership position to heart. She gave a really, really good speech at our welcome-back meeting in January. I think she's done some research on it; she's really done a great job. She's a kid that everybody looks toward for vocal leadership, but now she's doing both sides. She's walking the walk and talking the talk."

So how does Alabama move on and resume pursuit of the program's first national championship? By playing a little follow the leader.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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