Alabama is back in the NCAA Super Regionals, that should hardly surprise anyone.
The Crimson Tide (36-18) defeated the Oregon State Beavers 6-0 on Sunday evening to win the Tuscaloosa Regional and earn a date with the fifth-seeded Washington Huskies in the Super Regionals next weekend, in a best-of-three series.
Reaching the NCAA Super Regionals looks automatic for the people on the outside watching the Alabama softball program. The team has made it 14 straight years and hasn’t lost a game in the NCAA Regionals in 11 years.
But it is not something the 2018 Alabama team could take for granted. There were times it looked doubtful that this team would be able to play well enough or stay healthy to even host a regional.
“This might be the most satisfying,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. “This was a team that really never gave up. They kept working their butts off. Stayed late, come early, done everything we asked them. Put them team before themselves. I could go on and on. I couldn’t be more proud of this group.”
Alabama overcame adversity all season. It started before the season even began, as ace Alexis Osorio dealt with a forearm injury that continued to plague her all season. She still wouldn’t use it as an excuse.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” Osorio said. “I felt pretty good. It’s just a little bit of tightness in my forearm.”
Osorio also went down with a scary concussion when she took a liner to her head while pitching at Auburn and missed two crucial weeks. Demi Turner, a career .400 hitter, struggled with a toe injury most of the season. Bailey Hemphill, Alabama’s cleanup hitter, and leadoff hitter Elissa Brown missed several games due to foot injuries.
Due to all of this, Alabama never got going the way it wanted to. Murphy had to adjust his lineups and put hitters where they didn’t belong. Freshman Kaylee Tow was hitting second, but Murphy wanted her in a run-producing spot, the three-hole.
Then on April 29th at Georgia, everything started to click. Alabama beat the Bulldogs to avoid a three-game sweep. It returned home that weekend and swept Texas A&M and then defeated Auburn in the opening round of the SEC softball tournament in Missouri.
That five-game winning streak, against teams all ranked in the top-16, proved enough to earn Alabama another shot to host a regional.
“I think our confidence is just through the roof right now,” Hemphill said. “Our offense is doing great, our pitching is doing great. Everything seems to be clicking right now. In February and March it seemed to be one thing was working and the other wasn’t. Just feels like everything is working and coming together for us.”
Hemphill has been on fire since returning from her injury, which coincided with the beginning of Alabama’s turn-around. In that span, Hemphill is 10-for-17 with five home runs, two doubles, 11 walks and 17 runs batted in. Her job has been made easier with the players in front of her setting the table.
Brown has been successful on the base paths all season for Alabama, racking up 30 stolen bases and putting extra pressure on defenses with her speed.
“She’s almost like an automatic double now,” Murphy said of Brown, “and Demi is almost as automatic getting her in.”
With Turner returning to form, Murphy has returned her to the “two hole” and moved Tow down to three, the role he has always envisioned for the freshman standout.
“We are peaking at the right time, Brown said. “We’re just going in there, attacking them, being aggressive and trusting each other. Just trying to command the strike zone, not swinging at just anything. We’re more confident and going up there aggressive.”
With the lineup clicking, Alabama also is finding confidence in its pitching staff. Murphy believes the old, dominant Osorio is back and junior-transfer Courtney Gettins delivered big innings for the Crimson Tide in the regional. Gettins shutout a Middle Tennessee lineup to kick off the regional on Friday. Osorio followed with a strong performance on both Saturday and Sunday to seal the deal.
Osorio allowed one run on Saturday, the only earned run she has allowed in 51 1/3 career innings of regional play.
“Osorio was back to normal a little bit, or closer to normal,” Murphy said. “That’s the old Osorio that we’re used to in regional play. She just really went after people and she’s got good enough stuff (to do that).”
Osorio threw 6.1 no hit innings against Oregon State on Sunday, not surrendering the first Beavers’ hit of the game until there was one out in the seventh.
“Alexis is an All-American for a reason,” Beavers coach Laura Berg said. “She’s very good and she was pounding the zone.”
Alabama already played in Seattle earlier this season, against Washington. The Crimson Tide dropped both games against the Huskies, 8-0 and 4-1, but is a different team than the one from early March.
They are ready to prove that to Washington.
“We feel like we owe them,” Hemphill said with a smile. “We’re excited.”