Softball, Alabama-Auburn style
Give Alabama sophomore All-America outfielder Haylie McCleney 15 or so seconds on a softball diamond and she can bend a game to her will. She can chase down a fly ball at the wall in center field and be safely back in the dugout. She can line a ball into the gap, slide into third with a triple and still leave time for the standing ovation.
But when it came to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, she could only sit at home and watch with the rest of her family as Auburn defensive back Chris Davis corralled a missed Alabama field goal and took off on a 109-yard sprint into history. For 15 agonizingly long seconds, as Davis crossed midfield and just kept running, McCleney and at least half a state were helpless.
And make no mistake, like just about every man, woman and child in the state of Alabama, regardless of allegiance, she was watching. In Birmingham, the state's largest city, the Iron Bowl broadcast drew an 82 share, meaning 82 percent of the televisions in use at the time were tuned to the game played at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. Presumably people going to the game forgot to turn off the other 18 percent of sets before they left for the stadium.
"Oh man, do we have to talk about it?" McCleney groaned months later at the mention of the game. "If you knew my mom, she is the biggest Alabama football fan in the entire world, and she was even speechless. We didn't say a word the rest of the night after that game was over.
"We just kind of went our separate ways and dealt with it how we each thought best."
Watching with some of her teammates that night, Auburn redshirt junior Morgan Estell, who played travel softball with McCleney and Crimson Tide infielder Danae Hays years earlier, had a different reaction to those 15 seconds.
"That," Estell recalled with a contented sigh, "was awesome."
Alabama was the center of the football universe that night because two teams played a game with national implications and almost tribal significance. The state may soon have the same gravitational pull on college softball.
Softball boom in Alabama
Such a conversation begins with the University of Alabama. It is the cornerstone upon which the state's softball identity rests, the only program in the nation to advance to a super regional every year since that round was added to the NCAA tournament in 2005 and the first SEC program to win a national championship, in 2012. The program in Tuscaloosa is still younger than the freshmen it welcomes this season, but it long ago matured into a national power.
UAB and South Alabama begin the season ranked in the Top 25, UAB on the heels of a surprise appearance in a super regional (after it beat UCLA twice to eliminate the Bruins) and South Alabama after it earned a national seed in the NCAA tournament. Often a factor in the Sun Belt, Troy is in the midst of building a new $3 million softball facility.
There was even talk last year, perhaps more than idle chatter, of a group associated with Hoover, Ala., a Birmingham suburb, bidding to take the Women's College World Series away from its traditional home in Oklahoma City. Any such efforts appear on hold, but Hoover will host National Pro Fastpitch's championship the next three years.
All of that matters. But the piece that makes the state irresistible, a turn worthy of a region addicted to the drama and dudgeon that are hallmarks of Paul Finebaum's iconic radio show, fell into place this past summer when Clint Myers left Arizona State, arguably the most successful program in the sport over the past six or seven seasons, for Auburn.
SEC on the rise
The Pac-12 and SEC have been engaged in a running feud for years. The territory encompassed by the former is the game's spiritual home and still its most abundant source of talent. While it is working on a two-year drought, courtesy of Alabama and Oklahoma, the Pac-12 still dwarfs the rest of the country in championship hardware. The SEC is new money, by comparison. But it has chipped away at that West Coast supremacy, and now a softball afterthought like Auburn, with just seven all-time NCAA tournament wins, lured away the coach of arguably the Pac-12 flagship.
Fans in Alabama like to speak of the "big-boy football" their teams play. This is big-girl softball, Alabama-Auburn style.
"The conference was getting better and better," Myers said of his new digs. "I mean, they've got one national championship with Alabama now. But it is also probably the best conference as far as facilities. Top to bottom, everybody has beautiful stadiums. I haven't been to them all, so I'm kind of excited to go see these places."
Someone in his position atop the sport wouldn't have even taken a call from an SEC school back when Patrick Murphy arrived in Tuscaloosa from Iowa, by way of what was then known as Southwestern Louisiana University (now Louisiana-Lafayette). As Myers suggested, the SEC laps the competition in facilities, most programs playing in stadiums that opened in the past decade and feature amenities like suites and picnic areas for fans and indoor hitting facilities for teams. But when Murphy was promoted from assistant coach to head coach before the 1999 season, his Alabama teams still practiced and played in local parks. They set up temporary fences before practice and took them down again afterward to make room for the slow-pitch recreational leagues with which they shared the public space. If they needed a bathroom break, they made a beeline for the Port-a-Johns.
When Alabama traveled to play in California and Texas in those years, Murphy marveled at surroundings that now pale in comparison to those at Alabama's Rhoads Stadium -- or Auburn's Jane B. Moore Field, for that matter.
Softball history in Alabama didn't begin when the Crimson Tide picked up the sport, but it is a state where girls in high school still played slow-pitch softball into the 1990s. Needless to say, that wasn't the best environment for producing high-level Division I players. Like the football team, the Tide still import talent. It comes from near, like current stars Kaila Hunt from Georgia and Jackie Traina from Florida, and far, such as recent All-American Kayla Braud from Oregon. But more and more elite players like McCleney are coming from within the borders, whether they end up at Alabama or elsewhere, like UAB's Lannah Campbell, South Alabama's Hannah Campbell and Farish Beard or Auburn's Estell.
More interested in basketball than softball when she was young, which meant taking abuse from both the Alabama and Auburn contingents of her classmates when she rooted for Pat Summitt and Tennessee, McCleney credited Ken Hays, Danae's father, with helping shape her swing on the travel ball team for which both girls played. Ken had no background in softball before Danae took up the sport, but he learned it because his daughter grew up with it, grew up with the Crimson Tide. Similar stories unfolded across the state, whether or not they ended with scholarships.
"I never really heard much about Auburn," McCleney said. "Murph, he built this program into a huge thing, and it's been a huge thing for years now. He built it so fast with great people around him and great players. Definitely, Alabama softball was always in the air at every [youth] tournament you went to."
Enter Myers into all of this. A coach who won more than 90 percent of his softball games and nearly 70 percent of his baseball games during nearly 20 years at Central Arizona College before taking the job at Arizona State in 2006, he made the move to Auburn in part, he said, because it was the only opportunity to coach with his two sons, Casey and Corey (Corey already lived in the Birmingham area and coached a travel ball team there). Myers noted that with around 16 people this past December, including grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews, Christmas was a larger affair than at any time during four decades in Arizona.
When it came to whether Arizona State could have prevented his exit, he was more circumspect.
"There were some opportunities, but just not met there," Myers said. "My mom once told me if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."
Its loss is Auburn's gain.
Bama has what Auburn wants
Myers took over an Arizona State program that had languished for years in the shadow of in-state foe Arizona. Under the direction of Mike Candrea and stars from Leah Braatz to Jennie Finch, Arizona ascended to the top of the sport. Its rival was UCLA, the first great dynasty of the NCAA era. Arizona State was just its neighbor.
The Wildcats won the national championship in 2006 and again in 2007. But from 2008 to 2013, Arizona went 253-111 without any more championships. Arizona State went 320-70 and won two national championships.
That is why Myers' decampment for the South was such a jaw-dropper -- and such a potential game-changer.
"I immediately called my mom and just was screaming, really excited," Estell said of her reaction to the news this past summer. "It was just something new and fresh, and his success, it speaks volumes."
The Tigers begin this season with much the same roster that posted a modest 30-23 record a season ago. That talent will follow Myers is already clear after South Alabama standout Haley Fagan transferred to Auburn. But she will have to sit out this season, and the recruiting pipeline many expect to gush talent has not yet had time to start flowing. At Arizona State, Myers inherited Katie Burkhart, who played her final three seasons for him and became one of the nation's best pitchers in that span. He may not be so fortunate this time, but he does inherit a group of hitters, specifically Estell, Emily Carosone and Branndi Melero, to build around from the outset.
Talent wins championships, and Arizona State had plenty of it with players like Burkhart, Kaitlin Cochran, Katelyn Boyd, Dallas Escobedo, Amber Freeman and more, but Arizona State under Myers was also a team that dominated through discipline -- plate discipline for hitters, defensive discipline for fielders, strike-zone discipline for pitchers. A season ago, Auburn hitters had the fourth-fewest walks in the SEC. Its fielders committed the third-most errors per game in the conference. If those things change, wins will follow even before reinforcements arrive.
"Just like at Arizona State, there will not be any excuses," Myers said. "We will reap the rewards or the consequences based on our performance level. We're right now a lot better than when we started back in August. And we know we've got to still and continually get better so that we're ready for May."
How much softball Auburn plays in May remains to be seen. It will be a major disappointment if Alabama doesn't spend the whole month on the field because at this point, it is always something of a disappointment if the Tide don't make the World Series. Murphy could only shake his head at the number of people who came up to him at the end of last season and asked what went wrong for a team that again reached a super regional and played tight games against a Tennessee team that went on to the championship series against Oklahoma. Such are the expectations.
But if a team can "bounce back" from 45 wins, Alabama is positioned to do so. In addition to McCleney and Hunt, an espnW second-team All-American at shortstop, the Tide return six other position players who started regularly in 2013. They also return Traina, the pitcher and slugger who led the team to the national championship in 2012 but struggled with arm injuries and fatigue that limited her in the circle and at the plate a season ago. If Traina is healthy, and Murphy made the case that it is all systems go after a summer of rest, Alabama is championship material.
"Just her presence," McCleney said of her teammate's strengths. "She's just a force to be reckoned with every time she's on that mound. Just the way she carries herself, how much confidence she has -- not only in her own abilities but in her defense, as well. She's not afraid to let batters put the ball in play. She has confidence in her defense. But she has confidence in herself as well, that if she feels she's got to get a big strikeout, she can do that as well."
So the stage is set. Alabama has what Auburn wants.
Packing in the fans
Now the head coach at Ball State after a successful stint at Western Kentucky during which time her teams routinely battled South Alabama and Troy, Tyra Perry was also the head coach at Birmingham Southern College from 2002 to 2007. From there, she saw the rise of the Tide and the overall growth of the sport in the state she recruited heavily.
"I believe they had a tremendous impact," Perry said of the Tide. "I even think along with Auburn. I actually think it's kind of like the Superman-kryptonite thing, the push-pull of it actually makes it work.
"Just that they're always competing against each other."
Soon after Murphy became head coach of a softball program then just two years old, a local reporter in Tuscaloosa told him that Alabama and Auburn could play tiddlywinks and people in the state would come and watch. Not just come and watch, in fact, but remember which school won until the next time they played.
And softball is not tiddlywinks.
Already the program with the best attendance in the nation, Alabama averaged nearly 600 more fans per game when Auburn visited a season ago than it did for the rest of its home schedule. A year before that, Auburn packed in more than 1,800 fans for a doubleheader against Alabama, more than three times the season average for its home games.
"As soon as I got on campus, it's just something that's in your blood," Estell said.
When the teams meet on a neutral field in the state capital of Montgomery on April 16, it's a game for state bragging rights. Soon enough it may be a game for national bragging rights, too.