Alabama Softball Opens SEC Play

Ordinarily, the opening weekend in Southeastern Conference play has been very good for Alabama softball. That's relevant, because the Crimson Tide is hosting South Carolina this weekend for three games to open the conference season.

Alabama (17-4) will take on the South Carolina Gamecocks (14-4) for a three-game series at Rhoads Stadium beginning at 6:30 p.m. CST Friday. Game two will be at 2 p.m. Saturday and the series will conclude with a game beginning at 1:30 p.m. CDT (remember, Spring Forward as Daylight Savings Time begins) Sunday.

Traditionally, Alabama has had plenty of success on the opening weekend of SEC play, holding an all-time record of 45-10. Over the past 17 seasons, Alabama's only series loss was last year at Tennessee, dropping two of the three games. The Tide has never been swept on its opening conference weekend and has swept its opponent 10 out of 17 times. At home, Alabama is 29-3 and has swept its opponent seven of 10 times. Alabama and South Carolina have never met on the opening weekend of SEC play.

Alabama is ranked 11th in the nation. Florida is ranked first in the nation with Tennessee third. Other SEC teams nationally ranked are Kentucky (8), Texas A&M (13), Missouri (15), Georgia (18), and LSU (23). Auburn and Mississippi State are also receiving votes.

A relevant note in the weekly poll is that Arizona State made the biggest slide, losing three games last weekend and falling from third to 10th. And the reason that is of interest to Bama this weekend is that one of those losses by Arizona State came at the hands of South Carolina, one of five league teams not considered in the polls.

The Gamecocks are off to one of the best starts in program history, owning 14 wins heading into SEC play including a huge win last weekend over previously undefeated and third-ranked Arizona State. The momentum from the first win did not carry over for the rest of the tournament however, as South Carolina fell to Minnesota and Ball State in the remaining two games.

Freshman Kaylea Snaer has had a great start to her career so far, batting .370 with a team-leading 20 hits and 16 RBI. Junior Sarah Mooney also owns 16 RBI, helped by a team-leading six home runs. Senior Ashlyn Masters leads the team with a .385 average including five doubles and two triples. In the circle, junior Julie Sarratt and freshman Nickie Blue have split time nearly evenly, with Sarratt owning a 1.24 ERA with 62 strikeouts over 50 2/3 innings pitched.

Alabama owns a 35-16 all-time record against South Carolina, having faced the Gamecocks every year except 2007. In last season's series, the Tide swept the Gamecocks in Columbia in three very tight games, winning 6-4, 5-3 and 7-6. Over that series, Kaila Hunt went 6-10 (.600) while Jaclyn Traina drove in a team-leading five RBI thanks in part to home runs in each of the final two games. Alabama has won the past 12 meetings, with South Carolina's last win in the series coming on April 11, 2009. South Carolina's last win in Tuscaloosa was on April 17, 2004.

Saturday's game will be the Senior Day for Kaila Hunt.

Hunt is having another good season for the Tide as a power hitter, and now she has a chance to etch her name at the top of the Tide record books. She currently has 51 career home runs, only 10 shy of breaking Kelly Kretschman's (1998-01) career record of 60. The Evans, Ga., native is averaging just over 15 home runs per season, blasting a career-best 21 in the Tide's championship 2012 season. Hunt blasted her 50th career home run against Purdue on Feb. 28. Hunt is just the fourth player in Alabama history to surpass 50 career home runs, joining Kretschman, Charlotte Morgan (58, 2007-10) and Amanda Locke (54, 2008-12) in the prestigious club.

Around the SEC...

Heading into conference play this weekend, eight of the league's 13 teams are hitting above .300 as a team, led by Georgia at .350, though the Bulldogs have the second fewest at-bats in the league. Undefeated Florida leads the leage in runs scored (181), RBI (169) and home runs (30) while Alabama and Texas A&M are tied at the top in hits with 188, just one ahead of the Gators. LSU's speed has them at the top of the league in stolen bases with 56, having only been caught four times. In the pitching department, Mississippi State leads the SEC with a stunning 0.64 team ERA, holding opposing batters to a .132 average while striking out 181 over 143.0 innings pitched.

Individually, Alabama's Haylie McCleney leads the league with a slash line of .542/.663/.932 (batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage) while Florida's Lauren Haeger has blasted an SEC-leading nine home runs. Tennessee's Ellen Renfroe is the wins leader in the circle with 10 and ranks second with 85 strikeouts and 65 1/3 innings pitched.

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