Softball Expectations Are High

One could easily make a case that the University of Alabama fields the best softball team this side of the Mississippi River. The problem is that the Pac-10 conference has been the queen conference of collegiate softball throughout the history of the sport.

The Oklahoma Sooners are the only non-Pac-10 team to pierce the Pac-10 hold on the championship recently. The last six national champions: UCLA (2004 & 2003) California (2002), Arizona (2001), Oklahoma (2000) and UCLA (1999).

Alabama (57-13) opens its NCAA Regional action with the Mississippi Valley State Delta Devilettes (34-30) Friday evening at 6:30 p.m. at the UA Softball Complex. Hofstra and the Pac-10's Arizona State are the other two teams in the Regional, and it would be a shock if anyone but the Sun Devils and the Tide are playing for the right to advance to a Super Regional on Sunday.

"Any time you get a Pac-10 team you know it's going to be strong," Tide Head Coach Patrick Murphy said. "Obviously we'd rather have a Regional without them."

"Arizona State is going to have strong pitching because you've got to have strong pitchers in the Pac-10. I don't think there's much drop-off between No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 (pitchers) or however many they have because you can't have much in that conference. I'd say they will be the quickest team in the Regional."

The eighth-ranked Crimson Tide softball team is making its seventh consecutive NCAA appearance. Alabama is the top seed in the regional for the third time in school history having been seeded first in 2001 and 2003. The Arizona State Sun Devils are the second seed. The Hofstra Pride is seeded third followed by the Delta Devilettes. The Tide has never faced Mississippi Valley, however they did get an up close look at them last year in Los Angeles as the two teams were paired in the same Regional but never met.

Alabama Head Coach Patrick Murphy and Hofstra's Bill Edwards talk about the regional before the Tide's practice on Thursday.

"You never want to look past anybody," Alabama's leading hitter Ashley Courtney (with a .392 average) said. "We really have to focus on beating them because I know it's going to be a difficult game. They made it to Regionals just like we did. Every game's going to be difficult from here on out and we can't look past them."

Mississippi Valley State Head Coach Lee Smith (not the former great St. Louis Cardinal closer) got two victories at the UCLA Regional a year ago.

"Last year going out and winning two games at UCLA, you get a little bit of hype," he said. "You have higher standards now. We are going to have opportunities now to go out and compete instead of just being there. We want to go out and try to win."

"Last year we went all the way out to UCLA and this year we only had to drive two and a half hours down the road. It was a great opportunity for all of the players and all of our parents to actually come out as a team."

Alabama and Arizona State have some NCAA Tournament history having met in the 2000 NCAA Regional in Tempe, Arizona. The Tide went 4-0 in that tournament defeating the Sun Devils twice to advance to its first ever Women's College World Series. The wins over ASU were the Crimson Tide's first ever over a Pac-10 team.

Alabama and Hofstra have never met, but the Pride is familiar with SEC teams in NCAA play, having upset the Auburn Tigers in NCAA postseason play last year in Palo Alto, California.

The Crimson Tide is hosting a NCAA Regional for the third time in program history, having done so in 2001 and 2003. Alabama went 2-2 in the 2001 regional, defeating Illinois-Chicago and Oregon State before losing to Michigan and South Florida. In 2003, the Tide went 4-0 earning a trip to its second Women's College World Series trip. In that regional, Alabama defeated Southern, Illinois and Southern Illinois twice.

Stephanie VanBrakle (JR, Chambersburg, Pa.) is the staff ace with a 29-6 record and 288 strikeouts in 215.1 innings. Chrissy Owens leads the pitching staff with a 0.94 ERA and a .165 opponent batting average.

Stephanie VanBrakle is the staff ace and one of Bama's most dangerous hitters

Arizona State and Hofstra will open action on Friday at 4:00 p.m. followed by the top-seeded Tide and Mississippi Valley State at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are still available and can be purchased by calling 205.348.BAMA (2262) or fans can purchase their tickets at the gates on Friday.

Alabama's games at the NCAA Region 12 Softball Championships held at the Alabama Softball Complex this weekend will be webcast free of charge on CrimsonTradition.com.

CrimsonTradition.com, Alabama's premium content site, will be open to the public during the regional so that fans from around the country can follow the progress of Patrick Murphy's team through the Tuscaloosa based regional.

Tickets are available through the Alabama Ticket Office (205.348.2262) or at the Alabama Softball Complex on game day. An all session pass is $25 for adults, $15 for youth/students. Individual sessions are $10 for adults and $6 for youth/students.

Sophomore Mandy Burford, a Saks High grad, warms up at practice on Thursday


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