Amanda Locke leads Tide to title

An all-conference hitter, Amanda Locke also filled in superbly on the mound Saturday. Jeri A. Gulsby

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- When Amanda Locke made her first official recruiting visit to the University of Alabama, she came down an escalator in the Birmingham airport to find Crimson Tide softball coach Patrick Murphy waiting with, as she put it, a "big freaking smile" and a hug to welcome her to the state.

The native Texan knew where she was going to school before she ever set foot on campus.

Saturday, his shirt freshly drenched from a surprise encounter with a water bucket, it was Murphy who turned to find Locke waiting with a smile and a bear hug on the field at Rhoads Stadium. And if the softball world beyond Tuscaloosa will, to borrow a phrase, little note nor long remember the five innings she threw Saturday against Florida, the effort tells you all you need to know about this program.

Alabama didn't need Locke, a fifth-year senior making just her fifth start of the season, to be perfect to win the SEC championship game. The Crimson Tide completed a sweep of the regular-season and tournament titles with a 10-1 win against the Gators on the strength of an offense that got at least one run or one RBI, if not both, from the first eight players in the batting order.

But Alabama needed a player whose more familiar role is that of all-conference slugger to take the ball and do what she could in the circle. And in truth, Alabama needs Locke for this team to be Alabama.

"Locke is the kind of teammate that has your back no matter what," senior Jazlyn Lunceford said after returning the favor with a three-run home run. "Whether it's talking you up in the dugout, giving you confidence, she has all the confidence in the world, and she should. So when she says something to you, you're going to believe her and you're going to take it to heart."

No national championship contender's fortunes are more closely linked to a single player than Alabama's is to sophomore ace Jackie Traina, who won SEC tournament MVP honors without even playing in the final game. The Crimson Tide proved Saturday that they could win a big game without Traina, but Murphy's decision not to start her for what would have been a sixth time in nine days was itself further proof of her value. If the Tide are going to win their first national championship, they will have to win a minimum of six games in seven days in the Women's College World Series, not to mention the wins required in regional and super regional play to get to Oklahoma City. Lose at any point in what are all double-elimination rounds and the number of games required to win it all grows.

As much as they wanted this title to celebrate in front of a tournament-record crowd of 2,672 in their home stadium, keeping Traina rested and ready for the NCAA tournament took precedence. So Locke, who entered the game hitting .346 with 17 home runs and 51 RBIs but hadn't started a game in the circle since taking a loss at Arkansas on April 28, learned Saturday morning she would get the ball.

Her task was simple but not easy. Keep it close and let an offense that leads the nation in home runs and has perhaps its most dangerous speed combination at the top of the order take care of the rest.

"When you give somebody an opportunity, hopefully it's giving them confidence because I have confidence in her," Murphy said. "You also look at the offense and say to the hitters that you believe in them. … We believe that Amanda can get the job done, but I also believe that you're going to have to score some runs for her to get the job done. I think a lot of people forget that there's offense involved, too, and they've got to stop us."

Offense was what caught Murphy's eye the first time he saw Locke play, which was at a travel-ball tournament in Oklahoma City, on the same field at Hall of Fame Stadium on which college softball annually decides its national championship. Locke blasted a home run that cleared the temporary outfield fence 200 feet from home plate down the lines and one-hopped the permanent fence more than 300 feet from the plate. As Murphy recalled, it was the kind of place only former Olympian Crystal Bustos hit a ball, about as high a compliment as a person in softball can give a power hitter.

And while she came to Alabama with visions of both pitching and hitting, it's the latter side that made her one of the best players in the conference, if not the country. She pitched less and less, partly because of an ankle injury but also because the more time she spent focused on hitting, the better she got. The power to hit a ball close to 300 feet is still there, but she is also adept at taking a pitch the opposite way or even laying down a better bunt than almost anyone on the roster.

But Saturday, her team needed her to pitch.

When she set down Florida in order of the top of the first Saturday, closing the inning by retiring SEC player of the year Michelle Moultrie on a pop-up to second base, it seemed to give the crowd confidence that the home team had a chance, Traina or no Traina. When Locke's teammates responded with two runs in the bottom of the first, sophomore Kaila Hunt continuing a torrid weekend with a triple to drive in both runs, the air seemed to go out of Florida's sails. It was over in just five innings, Locke allowing a total of three hits and only one unearned run crossing the plate against her.

Never once did she look out of place in the moment.

"If anxiety is high, performance is low," Locke said. "You've just kind of got to stay even-keeled. No matter who you are playing, any team in the SEC is going to be good. And Jackie needs a break, so you go out there and do your best. I was pretty excited when he picked me. I really was; it's just such an honor to be able to wear the jersey and pitch and be in the circle. To start, it was a great opportunity, and I really appreciated it."

Alabama's chemistry is unmistakable. It's easy for everyone to get along when people are passing out championship hats and shirts, but the Crimson Tide are as cohesive as any team in the country, certainly as cohesive as any team Murphy has had. Much of that credit goes to the senior class that includes Locke along with Lunceford, Jen Fenton, Cassie Reilly-Boccia, Kendall Dawson and Olivia Gibson.

It would have been easy for this team to fall apart before the season even started. Within a week of a crushing exit from last year's World Series, losing twice in one day against Florida when a single win would have sent them to the championship series, they watched their coach accept the same position at conference rival LSU, only to reconsider and return to Alabama.

No player would have been more justified in feeling that slight than Locke, the fifth-year senior who came to Alabama in part because of how much Murphy made her believe in the program.

And yet it's Locke, she of the big grin, big personality and big bat, who spends most games standing next to Murphy in the dugout as something close to an aide-de-camp. And it was Locke who gave him the biggest hug Saturday.

"Yeah, Murph is our coach and it's a business, but he's also like our dad," Locke said of dealing with the events of last summer. "He's family. And family, you know, you make mistakes, and you just love each other no matter what -- he could easily be mad at us for a lot of things we did. But I trust Murph. Everybody on this team, everybody who is a part of this organization, everybody in this town trusts Murph. What happened, it's done and gone, and you wipe your hands with it. Murphy is here, and that's all that matters to us. And [associate coach Alyson Habetz], too, same thing, both of them.

"They're amazing people and they're amazing coaches, and getting to play for them every day is the best feeling in the world."

Alabama didn't need Traina, Locke or any single player to win one game. This is too good a team for that. Too good a team because of people like Locke.