The Fifth Thursday in May doesn't have the same ring as the Third Saturday in October, but one of the greatest rivalries in college sports will play another chapter tonight in the opening round of the Women's College World Series. Alabama vs. Tennessee on the softball field may not be as steeped in history as it is in football, but the rivalry also has meaning on the diamond - especially when it plays out on the sport's biggest stage. "We all know, whatever sport you're playing, I don't care if you're ranked or not ranked - football, basketball, softball, whatever - it's a big rivalry and all my friends and classmates back home know it, we all know it," Tennessee catcher Ashley Andrews said. "Everyone's been so geared up for it. They're excited."
The Lady Vols of Tennessee enter the Women's College World Series with a 52-12 record after winning two out-of three games in the NCAA Super Regionals over Georgia on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday afternoon, the Lady Vols knocked off the Bulldogs, 3-2, holding on after giving up two runs in the top of the sixth inning. In game two on Sunday afternoon, Tennessee could manage just two hits as they fell, 1-0, to force the `if necessary' game, also on Sunday afternoon. Tennessee scored two runs in the top of the sixth inning to prevail, 2-1, and advance to their fifth Women's College World Series. The Lady Vols are led by junior third baseman Raven Chavanne, who is batting .433 (78-for-180) with 32 stolen bases. Junior infielder Lauren Gibson leads the UT with 13 home runs, while sophomore Madison Shipman leads Tennessee with 63 runs batted in. In the circle, the Volunteers are led by sisters Ivy and Ellen Renfroe. Sophomore Ellen Renfroe is 27-4 on the year, with 276 strikeouts in 225 2/3 innings of work and a 1.18 ERA. Junior Ivy Renfroe has gone 25-8 with 194 strikeouts in 206 2/3 innings pitched and a 1.73 ERA. Tennessee is led by co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly, who have gone 566-174-2 in 12 seasons in Knoxville.
The Alabama softball team had four players earn 2012 National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American honors. Sophomore Jackie Traina (Naples, Fla.) was named to the first team, senior Amanda Locke (Mesquite, Texas) and sophomore Kaila Hunt (Evans, Ga.) were named to the second team and senior Jennifer Fenton (Kennesaw, Ga.) was named to the third team. The four NFCA All-Americans equals the most in a single season in school history, tying the mark set in 2001, 2008, and 2011.
In its first six WCWS appearances, the Crimson Tide dug an insurmountable hole with a tournament opening loss. Last year, Alabama finally broke the jinx by beating Cal ace Jolene Henderson in a 1-0 nail-biter but left Oklahoma with its tail between its legs after suffering the school’s two worst postseason drubbings (16-2 and 9-2) to conference rival Florida on the same day. Murphy has been knocking at the national championship door in each of his team’s last three appearances, reaching the semifinals in 2008, 2009 and 2011, only to leave without a trophy or even an appearance in the best-of-three championship series.
"I think we’ve got what it takes," Fenton said. "Everybody is on the same page. In the past, it was maybe 16 of 18 (players), or 17 of 19. This year, all 20 of us are on the same page. "We just have to play our game, and that will get us over the hump." Regardless of what happens in Oklahoma City, Fenton looks back with pride on her time at Alabama, from her time as a recruit from Kennesaw Mountain to her role as the Crimson Tide’s veteran leader. "It’s really been an honor to wear this Alabama jersey," she said. "It’s because of my teammates that I’ve had this experience, and it would not have been possible without them. It’s been an honor and a privilege, and I’m truly blessed."
Kayla Braud and Jennifer Fenton need to produce at the top of the lineup. Home runs are nice, but they won't be as easy to come by in OKC, especially the deeper you go. You're not going to bomb Cal's Jolene Henderson or Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts during the latter stages of the tournament, so the need to manufacture runs will take on even more importance in OKC. Braud's speed and short game talents put a lot of pressure on the defense. It's that ability to apply pressure that makes all the difference when facing elite pitching.
A glance at the National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-America team might explain why tonight's Tennessee-Alabama game was selected for the 7 p.m., prime-time slot on ESPN2. The seventh-seeded Lady Vols (52-12) and second-seeded Crimson Tide (55-7) have more All-Americans (four apiece) than any of the other teams at this year's Women's College World Series. "I've said it before, you can't win the Kentucky Derby with a plow horse,'' UT co-head coach Ralph Weekly said. "Having four All-Americans for a second consecutive season reflects the caliber of kids we're recruiting. "I've also said before Alabama is very talented, and I think seeing each of our teams have four All-Americans reflects the strength of our conference.''
LSU coach Les Miles suggested the 6-1-1 scheduling model isn't popular among the majority of coaches, many of which he said prefer no permanents. "If Mississippi State's gonna play Kentucky every year, I think that's disproportionate," Miles said. Countered Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, who supports the 6-1-1 model: "I have a national championship ring at Florida when the crossover games that year (2006) were Auburn, LSU and Alabama. Is that fair? We still won the national title. I don't see how there's any relevance to that. It all balances out."
Coming into the SEC Spring Meetings, the 6-1-1 model was generally considered a foregone conclusion, with each team playing its six divisional opponents, rotating one game against a team from the other division and a fixed, traditional game against a team from the other division. In the cases of Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia that meant their respective rivalries remained intact. However, after two days of healthy debate, the 6-1-1 model is no longer considered a slam dunk. Other options being discussed include a 6-2 option, a nine-game schedule and allowing the Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia series to continue while the other 10 teams would rotate cross-divisional opponents. For instance, LSU is not in love with having to play Florida every year as its permanent cross-division rival while other SEC teams get a less consistent opponent.
Alabama's second-ranked men's golf team retained its lead at the 2012 NCAA Championships with a 3-over-par score of 287 on Wednesday for a 36-hole total of 4-over 572 after two rounds at the 7,292-yard, par-71 Riviera Country Club. The Crimson Tide has a four-shot lead over UCLA, who also carded a 287 (+3) in round two and is 8-over par. Florida State is third at 12-over 580 with Oklahoma and North Florida tied for fourth at 581. Washington (+14, 582) is sixth and Liberty (+15, 583) seventh with five teams tied for eighth at 16-over 584, including California, Kent State, Florida, Southern California and Illinois. The field will be cut to eight teams after the completion of the third round on Thursday. The national champion will then be determined on Sunday after three rounds of match play. "I feel really good about the round," Alabama head coach Jay Seawell said. "I didn't realize the golf course was playing that hard until I looked at a scoreboard on 14. I was really proud of the guys. I feel like they grinded out a nice round today, when it was easy not too."
The SEC can provide shelter for only so many wanderers before the cracks widen. Fourteen is unwieldy. It's not a conference in the purest sense. It's an association. Sixteen would become a game-changer. Sixteen would make the SEC essentially two different conferences. "I'm struggling to make 14 work," SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said, drawing laughs. He wasn't joking. The commish who once said he could get to 16 teams in 15 minutes is bogged down in the muck that comes with the post-expansion euphoria. It all may work out just fine for the SEC -- the TV money, the schedules, the playoff format, the rivalries. But right now, it's muck.
In spite of the talent that exists here, I would be the most worried about this position group if I was an Alabama fan. This group could be given an A based on talent alone, but I have to give them a B simply because, outside of Mosley and Johnson, there is very little game experience to be found. Dickson, Hubbard, and DePriest are all very talented guys that will prove to be very productive players, but it's very difficult for me to imagine them performing on 9/1 at even 75-80% of level that Upshaw and Hightower did last year. No matter how great a defensive mind Saban is and no matter how talented these replacements are, there will be some slippage.
Alabama's previous offensive coordinator, Jim McElwain--who was in T-town for both of Alabama's recent national titles--filled the vacant head coaching position at Colorado State (although he did stay on to coach the Tide in the national title game). He has been replaced by Washington OC/QB coach Doug Nussmeier, who held the position in Seattle for three seasons. I figured it would be a good idea to shoot the guys at SB Nation's UW site--UW Dawg Pound--a line regarding their former OC and what he may or not bring to Alabama. Dawg Pound manager John Berkowitz was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the man who will be leading the Alabama offense this fall.
"When you look at [AJ McCarron] and the progression he made from the start of the season last season to the end and where he started spring football, where he ended spring football, he just continues to get better and better each day. I really believe he's got a lot of upside still left in him and some things technically he can work on. I think you'll see his game continue to elevate."
On the offensive line: "I've never been fortunate enough to be around one like this. Really, really good group of guys. Extremely hard workers. They're big, they're physical. Very, very excited about what they bring to the table."
1.] Javier Arenas (2006-2009) Why he's here: Perhaps the most versatile performer of the Saban era, Arenas played both inside at star in the nickel and dime packages and outside at left corner in the base. Made 28 starts while at UA, recording eight interceptions, 154 tackles, 17.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. And have we mentioned that he was a pretty good return guy, too? Claim to fame: Permanent team captain and second-team All-America selection in 2009.
Alabama coach Anthony Grant said he's supportive of whatever plan passes. "I really don't favor one over the other," Grant said. "At the end of the day our goal as a league is to get as many teams as we can into the postseason. So I think that when you look at the potential that we have and the teams that we've added, I'm excited about what it looks like for us as a league going forward. "We're looking at a situation where we're able to get about six, seven, eight teams into the postseason."