(Photo by Jeri A Gulsby | UA Athletics)
The second seed Alabama softball team dropped the first game of the Women's College World Series championship finals to number four seed Oklahoma by the score of 4-1, Monday night at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium. The loss is the first of the postseason for the Tide and moves its overall record to 58-8. Sophomore Jackie Traina suffered her first loss since May 4, as she gave up four runs - two earned - while striking out six batters. Traina falls to 40-3 on the season. USA Softball Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts improved to 37-7 on the year, as she struck out 12 batters.
Alabama (58-8) took a beating in a defeat that could have been a lot worse, with Oklahoma pounding out 11 hits and twice leaving the bases loaded, but UA coach Patrick Murphy challenged his players as soon as the final out was recorded. "We've been here before," Murphy told his team, then asked them for examples. Players pointed to situations earlier this season when Alabama dropped the opening game of three-game series against Florida and Georgia before storming back to win the next two, and to a loss to Stanford in last year's super regional opener, where the Crimson Tide again rallied to win twice. "It's the same situation," Murphy said. "We lost the first game, but that's why you play two-out-of-three. We came back all three times and won the series. I think the SEC prepares you for this, because every weekend is two-out-of-three. "You lose the first one, you've go to learn how to bounce back and battle back."
The Women's College World Series is far from unfamiliar with pitching duels. This is the place where UCLA's aptly named Debbie Doom struck out 20 batters in a game and Texas A&M's Shawn Andaya pitched 25 innings in a game. College softball remains a sport controlled from the pitching circle, and never more than at this time of year and in this place. Yet rarely has it seen a duel between pitchers quite like that which played out between Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts and Alabama's Jackie Traina in the middle innings of Game 1 of the best-of-three championship series. For the first time in World Series history, two starting pitchers in the championship round also hit cleanup for their respective teams. It was in the latter role that Traina helped give her team the lead. And it was in that same role that Ricketts responded, helping herself and helping spark Oklahoma to a 4-1 win that leaves the Sooners one win from their second championship. To call it a pitching duel sells it short. This was a duel between players who are models of where the sport is going athletically. And Round 1 went to Ricketts. "She's just a tremendous athlete who wants to compete and wants to win," Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said of her junior.
"One of the best things for this team is when you score first on them. ... I know we left a lot of runners on base -- I get that question a lot -- but I have no panic and I don't have any fear because I know that they will come through. "When you score on us we want to score right back and we did that in a very fine fashion and we just got a lot of confidence from it and kept going."
"I don't have anything planned and I'm probably done with visits for a while right now," said Howard, a four-star tight end from Autauga Academy. "With me being committed, you have to respect being committed to a program, so I'm solid. I'm solid - you don't want to disrespect the program by being committed but not showing that kind of interest." Howard noted that part of his renewed enthusiasm for the Tide is connected to the recent commitment of Bateman, one of the nation's top quarterback prospects who will likely be delivering plenty of passes to Howard should both ultimately end up in Tuscaloosa. "Anytime you can get a quarterback that can be an impact player, that's a good thing," Howard said. "I've seen his highlight film and seen him throw -- he's a good athlete and a really good quarterback. Anytime you can get a quarterback like that, you have to take advantage of it. I let him know that he's good -- I'm sure he probably knows that, but I just wanted to make sure and keep encouraging him. I like him as a person and he seemed real nice."
Total commits: 14
Star average: 3.79
Top commitments: ILB Reuben Foster (No. 2 in Rivals100), TE O.J. Howard (No. 30 in Rivals100), WDE Jonathan Allen (No. 35 in Rivals100), RB Altee Tenpenny (No. 53 in Rivals100), PQB Cooper Bateman (No. 92 in Rivals100) The Buzz: Nick Saban and Alabama are once again assembling an excellent group of prospects to bring to Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide landed a commitment from the No. 2 overall prospect in the nation with five-star Foster. Four-star Howard is the nation's No. 2 overall prospect at his position.
The Big Ten wants you to know that it doesn't really have a burning desire to participate in a college football playoff, but it will begrudgingly go along with the masses. And all that saber-rattling about conference champions vs. the four "best" teams? The league is on board with picking the four best, as long as you acknowledge that no system can guarantee that result. Those were the two main takeaways from Monday's Big Ten conference call, when commissioner Jim Delany and Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman explained the consensus reached by the league's presidents and chancellors after Sunday's meeting. Perlman painted the conference presidents as traditionalists who preferred to keep the current BCS system first and an incremental"plus-one" playoff model second. While Delany later said the "plus-one" idea -- where the two national finalists would be selected after all the bowls were played -- was still very much on the table, it sure sounds as if the Big Ten will reluctantly go along with the four-team playoff crowd. "We recognize that we needed to be realistic," Perlman said. "We're not the only conference that has had a say in this matter."
Every issue that every other league comes up with to explain the recent SEC dominance - except perhaps warm weather - eventually finds an audience. It will be the same with the nine-game schedule, sooner or later. It is understandable why ESPN wants nine games, although having Jessie Palmer say the SEC, in essence, needs to "prove" it is the best league by going to a nine-game schedule is silly, resonating of the old "I double-dog dare you to step across this line" from the elementary school playground. There might be a reason for the SEC to step across that line, but "proving something" isn't it.
Berkstresser's status was even more important for the Tigers because starting quarterback James Franklin is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Berkstresser worked with the first unit on offense for most of the spring after Franklin underwent surgery. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said during the SEC spring meetings last week that Franklin was ahead of schedule in his recovery and that doctors expected him to be ready to go in time for the Tigers' opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1.
Shaun Alexander, RB, Alabama, 1999: His 24 touchdowns that season remains the SEC record, and he also rushed for 1,383 yards in leading Alabama to the SEC championship. Alexander scored four touchdowns in the 40-39 overtime win against Florida.