Goodbye stranger it’s been nice
Hope you find your paradise
Tried to see your point of view
Hope your dreams will all come true
The 27th season of Alabama softball came to its conclusion on a Friday night in Oklahoma City in which the Crimson Tide was shut out for the first time all season. For most programs, the 2023 campaign that Alabama had would be deemed highly successful. But this is Alabama. Much in the same way that a non-playoff Sugar Bowl win over Kansas State would be perceived as high achievement for 100+ FBS programs, Tide fans have come to expect more, to expect excellence, to expect championships. It was a remarkable feat for this softball team to make it to the Women’s College World Series. Yet somehow, it does not feel as if this team reached the level of expectations that fans are used to.
This Alabama team went 45-22 overall and finished 14-10 in regular season SEC play. They also went 2-1 in the SEC Tournament and later fell to Tennessee in the WCWS. While the 45 wins tops last season’s total by one, the 22 losses are the most by an Alabama team since coach Patrick Murphy’s rookie season at the helm in 1999 in which that team went 39–26. Also of note is the fact that the Tide went 26-10 in the friendly confines of Rhoads Stadium - a puzzling number considering the home field advantage Bama should have at home. Scrolling through as far back as possible in Alabama softball schedules, it appears that the Crimson Tide has never had double-digit losses at home. On the flip side, they were 13-5 on the road but 6-7 at neutral locations.
Bama started the season on an ominous note, dropping the season opener to Lehigh, 7-4. Murphy’s pitching experiment and opening day starter, Lauren Esman, gave up three runs, Jaala Torrence gave up three more, and even Montana Fouts allowed a run in her one inning of work. It was not the best way to kick off a season
In 2021, many Tide fans lamented that the team was playing in some cupcake early season tournaments, while the elites were all in Clearwater. This season, Alabama joined that Invitational and defeated Duke, UCF, and eventual WCWS runner-ups Florida State. They were also handed a loss to UCLA but the results were promising.
Alabama returned home to host their annual Easton Bama Bash against some real creampuffs. All was going according to the script until the fifth game when the Tide lost to little ol’ Kennesaw State. Torrence and Esman were again victimized and Alex Salter joined the club as well. Hmm, maybe running off a certain pitcher after last season wasn’t such a great idea.
A few weeks later, Alabama would split a pair at Texas. However, that feat was overshadowed by inexplicable losses to Texas State and Wisconsin with the SEC schedule on deck.
As long as a healthy Montana Fouts was able to find her way to games on time, it was pretty clear that the Tide would not be swept by any conference foes. Predicatably, the Tide ace would start two of the three game SEC sets and it was highly unlikely she would lose two. The starting pitcher of the third game in those series was scientifically decided by the ages-old method of eenie-meenie-miney-moe.
First up, Alabama would go 1-2 against Arkansas and Tennessee followed by 2-1 versus lower tier Mizzou and South Carolina. Bama would not earn their first and only sweep of the season until a trip to 12th place Mississippi State - the only SEC team to not make the post-season.
The conference slate was interrupted by a distracting midweek trip to freakin’ Huntington, West Virginia. That sojourn resulted in a loss to Liberty and a tepid win over Marshall. More on that miscalculation in a moment.
Returning to the SEC schedule, Bama would lose two of three to hated rival Auburn at home, but beat LSU twice in three games. They would wrap up the regular season at Ole Miss with two Ws - including Fouts second perfect game of the season - but could not get the sweep.
It was one of the erratic SECTs of recent memory. Games at host Fayetteville, Ark were plagued by rain/lightning delays with some matches ending late after midnight.
Alabama came into the conference tournament as the 5th seed, just one conference win away from the four seed and a first round bye. Fouts and the Tide had little problem with Missouri. The super-senior would go again in the next round as Bama would slide by Arkansas in the Razorbacks’ home stadium with some late night 9th inning magic. The joy was bittersweet though as the Queen of the Crimson Circle was befell by a knee injury.
When athletes are overworked, they get fatigued. When they get fatigued, technique can suffer. When a softball pitcher gets tired, legs get wobbly and there is that heightened chance of landing the wrong way. That sure looked like what happened when in the seventh inning against Arky, Fouts landed awkward and hyperextended her left knee.
Up until that point, the Bama star hurler was pitching in Alabama’s sixth straight game. After throwing 128 pitches the night before, she was at pitch No. 108 when the injury occurred. The Murphy Mafia is not going to like this notion, but blame this mishap squarely on the Tide’s head coach.
Alex Salter would enter the game and unbelievably get the last seven outs, but she and the other “Nontanas” (Erik, patent pending) would all be shelled the next day by top-seeded Tennessee.
One of the biggest shockers of the year came when the NCAA Selection Committee seeded Alabama at No. 5, ahead of many teams that were perceived as better. Even the most avidnt of softball Gumps admitted their surprise. In so doing, the committee lined the Tide up with a Red Sea parting and a simple path to the Oklahoma City.
Bama was pitted up against three teams that had no business being in any kind of post-season (Long Island U, Middle Tennessee, Central Arkansas). The Crimson Tide easily dispatched LIU but struggled to put away MTSU, having to play them three times to get two wins. The Tide offense put up one run in each of the final two games. The one revelation was how amazing Torrence performed in the circle. She struggled mightily against SEC opponents but was fantastic in 11.2 innings of shutout ball against MTSU.
The Super Regional matchup again looked like more smooth sailing against the Champs of the ramshackle Big Ten, Northwestern. After a week off, Fouts was back but this time sporting a big bulky knee brace. She was not herself and the Tide lost Game 1. Torrence started the second game and as soon as she gave up her first run in the 5th, Murphy hooked her in favor of Fouts. An Ashley Prange single would eventually win the game in the 7th by the score of 2-1. The Torrence-Fouts combo would win the deciding third game 3-2 thanks in part to a late Jenna Johnson homer.
Two games, two losses.
Bama committed three errors and Torrence’s run on excellent pitching fell to pieces when facing Tennessee. Salter got really hammered giving up four runs in one inning.
In the elimination game, Alabama was shutout by Stanford and the Fouts/Prange/Shipman train hit its terminus.
- FOUTS: 25-11, 4 SAVES, 1.49 ERA, 323 K, only 41 BB. Played through pain and an anemic offense.
- PRANGE: .321 BA, .641 SLG, 16 HR, 46 RBI, 38 BB, only 19 K in 184 at bats. Won several games single-handedly with her bat.
THE APPALACHIA MISSTEP
In 2022, Murphy packed up the entire team and dragged them up to the middle of Kentucky for a midweek game with Western Kentucky. But the real purpose of the trip was to give Kaylee Tow a homecoming to her nearby hometown of Madisonville, KY. The trip was probably great for Tow but it probably made several other players on their team homesick. The Tide and Tow came out flat and lost 3-1.
Herein lies the biggest issue with Murphy: He does not learn from his mistakes. Once again this season, he again took a midweek/late season trek up to Appalachia. This time, it was to celebrate Fouts. No favoritism there at all.
The good news is that Jenna Johnson is the only rising super-senior who has played her whole career with the Tide. If Murphy feels the need to roll the dice once again, Johnson’s hometown of Franklin, Tennessee is only about a three and half hours drive. Yes, Belmont has a softball team.
It would be unfair to write the story of this team and not include the chapter on Lexi Kilfoyl’s off-season departure. The former Tide pitcher transferred to Oklahoma State. With the Cowgirls, she went 16-5 with a 1.70 ERA. She was 4-0 in six post-season appearances and gave up only one earned run over those final 21.2 innings. Even the most avid of Murphy fans have to admit that having her arm on Team27 would have made a world of difference.
On another note, congratulations to Florida shortstop Skylar Wallace on being named SEC’s Player of the Year and top three in the NCAA Softball Player Of The Year Award.
- Montana Fouts - I have run out of adjectives to describe what a career the Tide ace had. Stats-wise, she was not the best pitcher to hurl for the crimson and white. But she didn’t exactly have the greatest supporting cast most years. She also brought cachet to the program and wooed many fans to the Alabama brand that could have positive repercussions down the road.
- Ashley Prange - A leader on offense and in the dugout, the Bama third baseman slugged 16 home runs and hit 46 RBI to go with a .321 batting average. The Tide probably would have lost many more games without her in the lineup.
- Ally Shipman - Catcher is a tough and intricate position to nail down on a softball team. Shipman played the position very well and was top-notch at handling the pitching staff. At the plate, she hit .307, 6 HR, 35 RBI. Her team leadership will be missed as well.
- Faith Hensley - 2022’s MAC Player of the Year never found a groove in Tuscaloosa and found herself mostly relegated to pinch-running roles. She finishes her one season in T-town with a .235 average with two dingers and 8 RBI.
Last season, Alabama had six players enter the transfer portal. So far, only two have made that decision.
- Rising junior Jordan Stephens began the season as a starter but found herself mostly in pinch-running roles by midway through March. This was due mostly to the emergence of freshmen Larissa Preuitt and Kristen White. With White, Preuitt, and Johnson all expected back next season - in addition to Jenna’s kid sister OF Lauren Johnson coming in - it is getting pretty crowded in the outfield. There is also potential (hope) for Murphy to go out and find an outfielder slugger in the Transfer Portal. Stephens hit .206 (9 for 44) this season.
- Aubrey Barnhart - This sophomore straight up peaced out in February after only four games (0-5 at the plate). The general public will probably never know what prompted the disappearing act of this back-up catcher/infielder. She has already announced her intentions to transfer to Texas Tech.
There is a good probability that the Tide will have a few more players exit the program premature. Unlike last year, there are not a lot of grumblings going on. Based on pure speculation, it would make sense that at least one pitcher moves on. However, it feels like the three remaining on staff will all return.
KJ Haney made her mark on Crimson Tide lore when she hit a memorable pinch-hit grand slam in a game at South Carolina in 2022. However, she did not play in a single game in 2023 and as late as last weekend has been seen in a walking boot (see main photo above). Getting injury reports out of Murphy is like trying to find Jimmy Hoffa. It is possible that she might retire from the sport.
Rising senior outfielder Kat Grill last participated in a game on May 11 and that was as a pinch-runner. Her last start came in mid-April. Is she injured or has she lost her place on the team?
The Future of Alabama Softball: Team28
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