Offense Has Been Tide Softball Key

Alabama softball has been connecting. The Crimson Tide offense has been the key to its early success in Southeastern Conference play as Bama leads the league with 54 runs scored in six league games. This is no time to let up.

Although Alabama has plenty of respect with rankings of seventh and ninth in the national college softball polls, the challenge this weekend is a big one. Bama is in Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators, until recently nearly unanimous as the number one team in the nation and still holding that position in one of the two national rankings.

Alabama is 25-4 this year, including a league-leading 6-0 in SEC games. Florida, which is ranked second in the national poll in which it is not No. 1, is 29-2, including 4-2 in SEC games.

The teams meet at 5 p.m. CDT today and at noon on Saturday and Sunday.

Alabama has outscored its conference opponents 54-16 over six games. South Carolina's 1-0 lead over Alabama in the top of the first inning on Friday, March 7, was the last time the Tide has trailed any SEC opponent.

In the latest NCAA statistics, Tide sophomore Haylie McCleney leads the nation in both batting average (.558) and on-base percentage (.667). If the season ended today, her .558 average would be a school record and would rank fifth all-time in NCAA history. She is one of only six players in the country with an average above .500 and Ole Miss' RT Cantillo is the only other SEC player among that group, hitting .500. Her .667 on-base percentage is 50 points better than second-place Jessie Hutstetler of San Jose State at .617 and McCleney's .896 slugging percentage ranks eighth nationally.

As a team, Alabama's .341 average ranks 10th nationally and second in the SEC, trailing Georgia at .349. The Tide has averaged 7.82 runs-per-game, which ranks fourth nationally. Three of the top four teams in scoring are in the SEC, as Auburn leads the nation at 8.86 and Arkansas is at 8.25.

Following a Women's College World Series appearance in 2013, the Gators have lived up to the 2014 preseason hype, claiming the No. 1 spot in the USA Today/NFCA poll for five-straight weeks. A conference sweep has proven elusive though, as Florida has lost one game to both Ole Miss and LSU over the past two weekends. The Gators nearly lost Friday's game to LSU, but Taylore Fuller hit a seventh-inning grand slam to erase a 5-1 deficit as they eventually won, 7-6, in extra innings. Sophomore Kelsey Stewart leads the offense with a .430 average and 46 hits, including nine extra-base hits and four home runs, with 31 RBI. Junior Lauren Haeger is a dual threat, posting a .344 average with 10 home runs and 35 RBI while also sporting a 6-0 record and 1.80 ERA in the circle. Senior Hannah Rogers (12-2, 1.21 ERA) and freshman Delanie Gourley (11-0, 1.55 ERA) complete a potent Gator rotation that ranks second in the SEC with a 1.45 team ERA.

Alabama and Florida have met at least once every season in program history, with the Tide holding a slight 30-25 advantage in the all-time series. Ten of those 55 meetings have come in either the SEC or NCAA Tournament, as the teams have faced off in postseason play in five of the last six years. After heartbreaking postseason losses in 2008, 2009 and 2011, Alabama finally got its revenge in 2012, defeating the Gators to win the SEC Tournament en route to a national championship. This will be the first three-game series in Gainesville since 2011, which Florida won two games to one.

With Wednesday's win over Georgia State, Alabama now owns an eight-game winning streak. This is the second time this season the Tide has won eight straight, as they started the season 8-0 before falling to Arizona. McCleney owns an even more impressive streak, as she has hit safely in 15-consecutive games. This is the longest hitting streak of her career and the longest for any Alabama player since Jennifer Fenton hit safely in 16-consecutive games during the 2012 season.

Alabama remains at the top of the SEC through two weeks of play, owning a perfect 6-0 record. Georgia is the only other team unbeaten in conference play, though they have only played one conference series. The Bulldogs lead all teams in SEC play with a .364 average, while the Tide is right on their heels, hitting .363. Alabama leads all teams with 54 runs scored, 57 hits and 50 RBI. Georgia also leads the conference in pitching with an 0.82 conference ERA, with just two earned runs over 17.0 innings. Individually, Molly Fichtner leads all hitters in SEC play with a .667 average, while McCleney is third at .611. Tennessee senior Ellen Renfroe owns an SEC-leading 0.54 ERA in conference play, allowing just one earned run over 13.0 innings pitched with a 2-0 record.

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