Softball starts season with Orlando tournamentBy Kelly Ward | 02/11/2016 12:46pm
Haylie McCleney rounds the bases during a 2015 game against OU. CW | Layton Dudley
Haylie McCleney has the best view in Rhoads Stadium. From her perch in center field, the senior can see everything on the field. She spies pitches and batters’ tendencies. She knows how the ball moves in the pitcher’s hand and where it will come off the bat.
It’s part of what makes her the best. Just ask her coach.
“I’ve said this a thousand times, but if she was a guy, she’d be making $7 million a year playing for the Braves in center field, and now she’s starting for Alabama, Team USA,” Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy said. “This will be her third year in a row, I think, starting for Team USA in center field. And when that happens, you have to consider her the best outfielder in the world – not just in the country, not just in college softball, but the world – because whoever is playing center field for USA is probably the best outfielder in the world.”
When McCleney finishes her season at Alabama, she’ll hang up crimson for the last time in her career. She won’t be done with the game. She’ll spend the summer with the national team for the third time.
It doesn’t make saying goodbye to Alabama any easier.
“This program has done so much for all of us,” McCleney said. “It’s not something that you ever want to leave. I would play here for 25 years if I could, without a doubt. Like, I would play until my arms and legs fell off here if I could. Probably going to petition the NCAA to change the four-year rule. But no, nothing would make this any easier. Yeah, I’ll be playing, but I won’t be an Alabama softball player anymore, and that’s something that’s not to my liking.”
Home Sweet Rhoads
There’s something about playing at Rhoads Stadium and wearing the script ‘A,’ the players say. There’s something about playing in front of nearly 4,000 people.
Twenty years ago, Rhoads was a dream, a fantasy. Twenty years ago, the team didn’t have a permanent home. It played at local parks for its first three seasons, starting in 1997.
Now, Rhoads (opened in 2000) holds 3,940 people, which not only makes it the largest on-campus softball field in the country but also bigger or comparable in size to five SEC baseball stadiums.
SEC softball has staked a claim to national prominence outside of Rhoads. The conference has won three of the last four national titles. Florida is ranked No. 1 and looking to win its third straight national title. The conference has four teams in the top five, including No. 5 Alabama.
“You see the commitment from the athletic department, the commitment from the athletic directors to softball, and you look at the facilities and you say, ‘Why wouldn’t a kid want to play here?’ ” Murphy said. “Our scoreboard alone is going to be a lot of fun to see this year, how we use that for fan experience and it’s going to be a fun year.”
This is a program built on moments. There’s tradition, and every program has tradition. Alabama softball’s tradition involves some of the biggest moments on the biggest stage. Before the 2015 Super Regional where Alabama outlasted Oklahoma in a best-of-three series after dropping the first game, there was the pinch-hit grand slam by freshman Jazlyn Lunceford for four-time All-American Brittany Rogers in a Women's College World Series elimination game.
The 2012 national title is in a category all its own.
Twenty years of tradition and history didn’t come about by playing it safe. The sport is fast. There are only seven innings to decide a game, but some are determined in one swing.
Twenty years ago, Murphy liked power to score. There wasn’t a need to bunt to get on or slap at the ball to move someone over. He liked waiting for the three-run home run. He knows better now.
“You got to do something to get it,” Murphy said. “You might have to steal a base or bunt or drag or get a lefty in there, and I also learned you have to lose a small one to win a big one. There’s no way that I would’ve thought that 20 years ago. It’s a learning process and sometimes you gotta lose to learn a lot more than when you win.”
Grind of a schedule
The weeks between the start of the spring semester and the start of the season drag on more than fall workouts and practices. The season’s right around the corner with the UCF Classic in Orlando, Florida, starting Friday.
Alabama faces two ranked opponents, No. 17 UCF and No. 19 James Madison. On Tuesday, the Crimson Tide heads to Birmingham to face an unranked UAB that is receiving votes.
The team’s schedule features 12 ranked opponents, including trips to No. 1 Florida and No. 3 LSU. This is the kind of challenge the players signed up for when they committed.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” junior infielder Marisa Runyon said. “And I know our whole team is the same way that – I don’t think games where we go in and blow teams out, I don’t think those are any fun. I like the close games, the nail-biters, so I’m definitely looking forward to some games like that this year and competing at the highest level.”