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Alabama's bold move goes right

OKLAHOMA CITY -- As Alabama coach Pat Murphy and his players sat down at the Women's College World Series news conference podium after beating Arizona State on Friday night, he checked the placard next to his own, as if to see if the organizers had actually thought far enough ahead to print one for the freshman sitting immediately to his left.

And in the second-best call of the night, they had. They even got the spelling right.

Jazlyn Lunceford.

Thanks to one of the boldest coaching decisions in memory, it's a name that is a lot more familiar now than it was as the fourth inning of Friday's elimination game got underway.

Trailing 2-0 against the defending national champions in the bottom of the fourth, Alabama loaded the bases with one out against Sun Devils freshman ace Hillary Bach. A grounder from Jennifer Fenton threatened to derail the rally, but she beat out a potential inning-ending double play with scant few inches to spare. And in so doing, she set the stage for All-American outfielder Brittany Rogers to come up with the two-out hit.

At least that's how it seemed destined to play out until Murphy called Rogers back and sent up a freshman pinch hitter who hadn't batted since regionals and hadn't picked up a hit since April 22. The grand slam that followed proved as decisive as it was unexpected.

But in Murphy's mind, it was a home run Lunceford hit Feb. 15 against East Carolina, the first of her career, that sowed the seeds for his decision.

"She struck out the first at-bat," Murphy recalled of the East Carolina game. "And I came over to her and I said, 'I love the way you swing the bat,' and I said, 'You're going to hit her next time.' And she hit a bomb right down the right-field line, no doubt about it.

"I just believe in her, and I know it's been tough that she hasn't got to play much. But I kept telling [assistant coaches Vann Stuedeman and Alyson Habetz], I said, 'I feel good bout Jazz; I feel good about Jazz. We've got to get her an at-bat.' And then with Rogers up -- I know she's a four-time All-American, but I wanted to score more than one run. And Jazz did the rest."

Murphy also referenced more contemporary evidence to back his decision in how well Lunceford had been hitting the ball in batting practice in Oklahoma City. But ultimately it came down to a gut decision from a coach who is at his best when taking full advantage of his willingness to push the envelope. And in that respect, it was a call that ought to shame every football coach who ever punted on fourth and 1.

It was also, as Rogers graciously and enthusiastically put it afterward, something like a Cinderella story.

One of five Alabamans on the roster, Lunceford is the most local of local products. She starred at Tuscaloosa County High School, but when Murphy took over as head coach of the Crimson Tide in 1999, she was just finishing up third grade. So while she may be in her first season on the field for the Tide, she's a product of Murphy's decade-long investment in the program he has built into a power on the field and in the community.

"Being from Tuscaloosa, I grew up going to the games, watching [Alabama] at the World Series and going to camps all through high school," Lunceford said. "It's just something -- I've always wanted to go to Alabama, and when I got the chance it was just really exciting to be able to come from the Tuscaloosa area and represent my home town. And having an opportunity to do it like this is just a dream come true."

A year ago, the Crimson Tide were in the same position they are now, needing two wins Sunday against a team that looks for all the world like it's on a championship march. Florida has beaten Alabama three times in four games between the two this season, including an 8-5 win earlier this month in the SEC championship game on a neutral field.

"It'll be our fifth time, and we had our best success against [Gators ace Stacey] Nelson the last time in the SEC championship," Murphy said. "This is just a different stage, and it's for all the marbles. They're a great team. They've just done it for the last two years and you've got to give credit where credit's due. They're just a very good team."

But for a few minutes, if not the entire night, the present moment was worth savoring first. All thanks to a bold bit of strategy from a coach and a big hit from someone taking her first World Series hacks.

And just where was Lunceford during last year's World Series?

"At my grandparents' house, just thinking, 'That's going to be me next year.'"

She was a little off in that prediction. What she did Friday night was unlike anything anyone who came before her managed on a stage like this in Oklahoma City.

Graham Hays covers softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.