This season, ESPN.com is taking you inside the Alabama softball program. Each month, Tide coaches and players will provide insight into what it takes to become an elite program. For the first installment, coach Patrick Murphy, pitching coach Vann Stuedeman and SEC Pitcher of the Year Kelsi Dunne discuss Alabama's unique pitching philosophy -- the Tide rely on a staff instead of an ace -- and its preparations for the season.
On the importance of pitching in softball
Murphy: Historically, it's been if you have a great pitcher, you'll win the majority of your games. But in the past five to eight years, the offensive game has really jumped up tremendously. Athletes are stronger, better and well-coached before they even get to college. It's a little bit of a different game. A great pitcher is always going to stop a great offense. But now there are more and more offensive players. It puts a lot of pressure on a pitcher.
Studeman: Pitching is still the name of the game. Pitchers used to have an edge; it was hard for opposing hitters to study them. But with the changes in the SEC schedule [softball has moved to three-day series, like baseball] and with so many games being televised, there's a greater knowledge of what the pitcher is going to throw. You need quality pitching to make it. Lots of teams are going to score runs -- that's the trend. But if you can keep the runs down, we only need to score one more than [the opponent] to win.
On Alabama's pitching philosophy:
Murphy: We really like to have a pitching staff. We've never rode one kid the whole way. The SEC schedule is very grueling -- 28 games in-conference -- and it's war week in and week out. That's a lot of pressure on one person, and by the season's end they're mentally tired. So we spread the load out, relying on three pitchers every year.
I really believe they're good team players. Everyone wants the ball -- that's obvious. But they've got a really good team mindset. Our senior pitcher, Kelsi Dunne, has said that if a freshman beats her out that just means the team is so much better. More power to her. And the defense loves to play behind them -- that makes a big difference.
Studeman: Our main goal is to have the best pitching staff we can put together. A lot of times, programs ride one pitcher. We'd rather focus on the matchups; start the best player to take care of business. The reason it works so well is because it starts at the top with Coach Murphy and his leadership style. He appreciates each pitcher's role and what they bring to the table. It makes it easier for them to buy in when he doesn't favor one player over another.
We want to put our pitchers in a position to succeed -- to compete when they're physically and mentally at their best, rather than throwing when they're mentally exhausted. Each pitcher has a different strength. They might be a changeup pitcher, a hardball pitcher, etc. We recruit them to enhance each other. At some schools, if one pitcher gets into trouble, they throw another one out there and they look the same. We recruit kids who want the ball all the time but respect each other's talents and want to help each other be successful.
Dunne: It's great to have a staff over an ace. We all bring something different to the team, all complement each other, and it makes the team stronger. I don't understand how one pitcher can pitch an entire season. It's so long. I'm so excited to see how we all work together.
On the offseason plan
Murphy: We take two weeks off after the final game. The girls get individual programs from the strength coach to work on over the summer. This fall was the first time all 17 ladies passed the fitness test the first time we did it. It showed that a lot of kids were doing what they were supposed to be doing this summer, and it showed leadership and pride for the program. When they've done the strength work, it makes my job so much easier.
I love that we're a spring sport. We have a whole semester to get them ready. We really emphasize the weight room. I give up a lot of [practice] time for the weight room. I'm not sure that's consistent across [other college softball programs]. In the fall, we focus on fundamentals and installing our defensive philosophy. Softball's a repetition sport. Some days are boring, but it pays off in the end. We try to mix it up a lot.
Dunne: Coach Studeman tells the pitchers to take the summer off from pitching, to keep it light, just work on cardio and strength training. After my freshman and sophomore seasons, I didn't pitch -- for the first time since middle school. This year, I took a month and a half off, then started pitching twice a week with my dad. You definitely need the time off to recover.
When I was in high school, I had never looked at a weight. I'd run, but nothing like I've done here. It was definitely a new, interesting experience. I've seen my core get stronger, which is a huge part of pitching, and my overall strength. I can throw harder, have better control over my body, and better control over my pitches. And the extra endurance is huge.
Studeman: I start thinking about the next season immediately. What are we going to do better? How are we going to approach it? Summer is a good time to tinker with the ideas and how you want to implement them. By the time the girls get there in August or September, I've got a good plan. We'll talk about the plan, their ideas and start working on implementation. We spend a lot of time putting something new in. Instead of throwing a lot of bullpens, we spend time drilling a lot of pitches, which means we don't have to worry about overthrowing in the offseason. They take the time to learn something new, like adding a pitch, or it might be small, like putting it in a different spot.
Dunne: Hitters we face have seen us, so we want to change it up, throw them off their game plan. Sometimes that means creating a new pitch to complement others or tweaking a pitch. Before my sophomore year, I added a changeup. Before junior year, I added a down pitch. This fall I spent tweaking, working on better locations.
This year, for the first time, we did a lot of battery workouts. The pitchers and catchers worked extremely hard, got stronger and tougher mentally through them. We did them twice a week in the fall and a couple of times each week in the preseason on non-lifting days. Some of the workouts were for bonding -- like we had to inchworm across the field, or find a ball blindfolded, while our catcher shouted directions. We learned how to communicate with each other.
On mental preparation
Studeman: It's extremely important, a necessity to compete at this level. The hitters they face are the best of the best. Our strength of schedule was No. 1. Facing top-notch hitters day in and day out is overwhelming. Their bodies must be able to hold up. The pitcher who is the most fit usually wins the national championship.
Dunne: The mentality is something you have or don't have. It's something you can work on, but part of playing college athletics is knowing you're going to face adversities. You have to get back up. It's nice to take time off, but at the same time, this is what you do. We want to compete all time. I feel lost when I'm not playing.
Coach Murphy brought in Brian Cain, a sports psychologist, to work with the team. I think the biggest thing he made us realize is that everything we're doing is a process and to focus on the process, not the outcome. He was really about having a pre-inning, pre-pitch routine, and to have a "So what? Next pitch" mentality.
We each have different routines that help clear the slate and focus on what's next. Before each inning, I clear the ditch and go through my routine. If something goes wrong, we just go through the routine.
We know what our long-term goals are. They're set in stone. No one wants to lose. But the focus is on, right now, the next pitch, the process. If we focus on the process, the outcome will take care of itself.
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.