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Softball Preview/Open Thread | Alabama vs Memphis (Mardi Gras Invitational)

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[photo credit: Crimson & White | Mitchell Hughes]
[photo credit: Crimson & White | Mitchell Hughes]

Alabama Crimson Tide vs Memphis Tigers (Mardi Gras Invitational)
Time Friday, 2/10/12 | 3 p.m. CST
Location Mobile, Ala. | Jaguar Field (892)
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Crimson Tide Softball is back in action today after ending last season with a 53-11 (19-6 SEC) record and another trip to the Women's College World Series. That last bit sounds great, but the memories of it are far from pleasant.

After cruising through regionals, Alabama faced a 2nd consecutive super regional exit at home before freshman Jackie Traina's late game heroics. In a scoreless 3rd game against Stanford, Traina relieved Kelsi Dunne in the 4th inning, and eventually singled to set up the game's only run. The momentum ended there, however. Needing only one win to reach Oklahoma City the Tide was thoroughly embarrassed by Florida, giving up 25 runs in 12 innings to end what many believed would finally be the breakthrough year for Patrick Murphy's program.

The Crimson Tide only lost two players to graduation last year, but they were arguably the two hardest to replace. Pitcher Kelsi Dunne went 29-5 as a senior, finishing her career with a 113-22 record and winning at least 26 games in each of her four seasons. Further, Whitney Larsen made 243 starts in four seasons, slugging better than .500 each season.

World Series and personnel losses aside, the Tide is one of the most experienced teams in the SEC. Traina enters her second season after earning an NFCA first-team All-American honors as a rookie. Traina hit 13 home runs and batted .351 while driving in 45 runs. In the circle, she posted a 19-5 record with a 1.70 ERA. The powerful right-hander struck out 190 in 156 1/3 innings pitched.

With her is the returning outfield of Kayla Braud, Jennifer Fenton and Jazlyn Lunceford, who combined to steal 109 bases last season. Braud joins Traina on the "USA Softball Player of the Year" watch list.

Also returning are first baseman Cassie Reilly-Boccia, designated player/pitcher/first baseman Amanda Locke, third baseman Courtney Conley, middle infielder Kaila Hunt and catcher Kendall Dawson, who started at least 40 games in 2011.

Alabama's five-member freshman class includes two 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year winners from their respective states, pitcher Leslie Jury (South Carolina) and Jadyn Spencer (Iowa). Jury led the Gold Goast Hurricanes Gold travel team to top-five finishes at ASA Gold Nationals in 2009 and 2011, while Spencer, a 5-10 utility player, holds the Iowa state record for career home runs (54). Coach Murphy has compared Spencer with Amanda Locke as a pure power hitter, so she has that going for her, which is nice.

The coaching staff also features a new(ish) face in Former Tide All-American Stephanie VanBrakle, who returns to Tuscaloosa after a single season heading the Samford Bulldogs. VanBrakle replaces long time pitching coach Vann Stuedeman, now the head coach at Mississippi State. Stuedeman's exit came shortly after the regrettable "Murphy to LSU/Back to Bama" episode, which I suppose should be acknowledged but as far as I'm concerned has been discussed enough. The only question remaining is how will it effect a team with so many returning players. Only time will tell.