Notebook: South Alabama's local heroes

Courtesy of University of South Alabama

Hannah Campbell, left, and Farish Beard have combined to allow just 15 earned runs in more than 200 innings pitched.

Farish Beard and Hannah Campbell didn't have to travel far from home to find what they wanted in a college softball program, which is not to say South Alabama's aces can't take their show on the road.

South Alabama swept three games at home this past weekend against Louisiana-Monroe. As usual for a team that tops the nation in ERA, Beard and Campbell led the way. Even when her offense didn't manage a hit in the series opener, Campbell still came away with a shutout win (the Jaguars scraped together two runs by way of five walks and four stolen bases). Together, she and Beard worked 19 1/3 innings without allowing a run, earned or otherwise, in the series. For the season, they have allowed just 15 earned runs in 201 2/3 innings, have a combined 0.52 ERA, and have struck out 273 batters.

The most recent wins pushed South Alabama's overall winning streak to 13 games, but that isn't the most impressive streak the team maintains at the moment. As it readies for a game at Alabama on Wednesday, South Alabama has won 15 consecutive road games and 19 of 20 since the start of the 2013 season. The lone loss in that span came against the Crimson Tide a year ago.

The lesson, as always, is pitching travels. South Alabama just didn't have to travel far to find its pitchers.

Of the teams ranked in this past week's USA Softball Top 25, in only six cases were a team's top two pitchers, by total innings pitched, both in-state products. Most of those cases were the schools most would expect to find on such a list -- programs like Arizona State, Baylor, Texas A&M and UCLA that are located in populous, softball-mad states. But even those teams aren't as locally sourced as South Alabama. The state of Alabama ranks squarely in the middle of the pack in population, but South Alabama didn't even need Birmingham, Huntsville or most of the rest of the state.

Add up the distances from South Alabama's campus in Mobile, Ala., to their respective hometowns, Fairhope and Satsuma, and Beard and Campbell traveled a combined 33 miles to form their partnership.

The coach at the University of Mobile before she took the same position at South Alabama before the 2007 season, Becky Clark had long been familiar with the local prospects who grew into prototypical pitching frames (Campbell is 6-foot-1, Beard is an even 6 feet).

"I think both of them had not had quite the national exposure," Clark said of the recruiting process. "I think we were fortunate in the fact that maybe a lot of people hadn't seen them quite as much."

Had they come along even a decade earlier, Beard and Campbell wouldn't have been able to stay so close to home if they wanted to play Division I softball. South Alabama didn't sponsor the sport until 2007. A senior, Campbell arrived first, followed a season later by Beard. Even if Pac-12 and SEC schools weren't beating down their doors, both cited the opportunity to build something as an enticement.

"I thought that starting a new program was just a huge selling point," Beard said. "It's cool to be able to go into a program and buy into what they have, but to be able to kind of create your own tradition at a school and kind of make a name for the school is awesome. It's an opportunity that most people don't get."

When the first adjusted RPI numbers were released a week ago, South Alabama checked in at No. 7, wedged snugly between UCLA and Arizona. That after it hosted an NCAA tournament regional in 2013.

The bounty could have been even greater. Both Hannah and twin sister Lannah looked at South Alabama, but the latter eventually chose UAB (which she helped reach a super regional a season ago). Still, after a freshman season at South Alabama in which she said there was friction among pitchers fighting for innings in the circle, Hannah made it a point to take Beard under her wing when the younger player arrived. The resulting relationship sounds like it has some sibling qualities.

"I think a lot of schools have a lot of great pitchers, but the connection that the pitchers have is not good," Beard said. "With us, we [each] want to be out there, but I want her to kick as much butt as I do. I think that is why we have been so successful and we kind of look to each other and we can kind of talk to each other about things that other pitchers wouldn't want to talk to each other about."

Opposing batters more often mutter to themselves in frustration on their way back to the dugout. In an effort to stay ahead of batters, Campbell keeps adding pitches to her repertoire. By her count, she's up to seven at this point, the array of spins and movement keeping batters constantly off balance. Yet she forces them to beat her. If they don't swing, they aren't getting on against the lefty. She has walked just nine batters in 103 innings this season and walked only 30 in 207 2/3 innings a season ago.

"She is not a pitcher who is going to mentally get in her own way," Clark said. "She's not going to have the ups and downs. ... Obviously, you have the physical tools to have success at this level, but I think the X factor for her has been her mental game and just how steady she is."

Beard is less steady than meteoric. Unlike Campbell, she pitched sparingly as a freshman, then worked as much in relief as she did as a starter a season ago. She was dominant in that role as a sophomore, but few pitchers anywhere approach the numbers she is putting up this season. A week ago she led the nation in ERA and ranked fourth in strikeouts per seven innings. Opposing hitters have managed just 32 hits in 98 2/3 innings this season and all but four of those have been singles.

"Farish is kind of the gunslinger," Clark said. "She's not quite as deliberate. Sometimes she's around the strike zone and in the strike zone and then back out of it and then back in it. I think that's part of what makes her as good as she is because you can't really sit on one thing. As an offense, when you try to have a certain approach against her, she can cross you up."

Mobile can be more than a bit rainy, Beard conceded, and the heat can make a steam room redundant, but there are beaches aplenty on Beard's side of Mobile Bay and Campbell is quick to tout the charms of downtown Mobile, including the world-famous (all right, regionally recognized) flea market.

For them, the greatest attraction is that it's home.

"There's a little bit of everything around here," Campbell said. "We're really lucky to be where we are because there are honestly so many things you can do."

Just don't plan on reaching base while you're there. Then again, that applies everywhere they go.

Players of the week

Annie Aldrete, Tennessee: The freshman spent much of the series against Florida jogging, but don't expect coaches to get on her about loafing. Aldrete opened the weekend jogging around the bases after two home runs and six RBIs in a 9-2 win. Perhaps wisely, the Gators didn't give her much to hit the rest of the way. She walked five times in Sunday's doubleheader, although she did still manage to add a double to her haul. She now leads the Lady Vols in slugging percentage and is second in on-base percentage. The former is .022 off the pace set a season ago by SEC player of the year Lauren Gibson.

Aimee Creger, Tulsa: She makes it difficult to not just give her permanent residency here. Creger made three appearances this past week, starting a midweek game at Missouri State and two weekend games against UTEP. In those 18 innings she struck out 42 batters (again, out of 54 possible outs) and allowed two hits, two walks and no earned runs. So, yeah, she was pretty good. She closed the weekend with a five-inning no-hitter, the sixth of her career, against the Miners, and she also matched a career high with 17 strikeouts in the other game at UTEP. She's 15-1 with a 0.99 ERA on the season.

Megan Hyson, Georgetown: This whole new-look Big East is working out. Despite not having played a home game, conference or otherwise, the Hoyas are 6-0 in the Big East, and they can thank Hyson for much of the success this past weekend in a three-game sweep at Creighton. The team's leading hitter by average and slugging percentage, she homered to help the cause in an opening win, but then she really got down to business. She earned complete-game wins in the circle in each of the final two games, striking out 23 batters in 14 innings and added four more hits in those games.

Kady Self, Oklahoma: How does a lineup adjust without injured All-American Lauren Chamberlain? Well, this was a start. A sophomore who had 20 career at-bats and one extra-base hit entering a weekend series against Iowa State, Self made herself at home in left field on Patty Gasso's lineup card -- and on the bases in Ames, Iowa. She opened with two home runs in the first game of the series and finished the weekend with seven hits in nine at-bats, three walks, three home runs, one double, seven RBIs and seven runs scored. Behind slugging like that, the Sooners rolled to three run-rule wins.

Missy Taukeiaho, Cal State Fullerton: Big performances in meaningful games carry more weight, and Taukeiaho certainly came up big in a series between teams that opened Big West play a combined 17 games above .500. A sophomore transfer from Washington, Taukeiaho had a walk, a double and scored her team's lone run in a series-opening loss, but she was just getting warmed up. In wins the next two days to clinch the series, she went 5-for-5 at the plate, including two home runs and a double, walked twice, drove in nine runs and scored four runs. Her 1.329 OPS leads the Titans on the season.

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