MURPHY: Softball Can Bolster Downtrodden Year

Face it Alabama fans, this year will wind up being one of the worst on record for Crimson Tide athletics.

Jim Wells' baseball team and Patrick Murphy's softballers have a chance to spike the performance chart upward in these last few weeks of the academic calendar, but whatever they do cannot fully redeem a year's worth of false optimism, injury and underachievement.

If it weren't for the sparkling facilities strewn across campus and the deep, abiding promise accompanying new football coach Nick Saban, this could be a time of mourning around Alabama athletics.

Only once in recent memory has a sports year at the Capstone reeked like this.

Of course I'm talking about the epic meltdown of 2000-01, when the big three men's sports of football, basketball and baseball put together a calamitous run.

Mike DuBose's footballers started the year ranked No. 3 and wound up winning just three as the program began its rapid implosion. Mark Gottfried's basketball team, with spunky freshman Gerald Wallace and a great class of sophomores, scored in the 100s in three straight games and were ranked nearly all year, but wound up a victim of a crummy schedule and was relegated to the NIT, where it lost in the championship game. Wells' baseball team, working on a streak of six consecutive 40-win seasons, plummeted to 32-23 and failed to reach the postseason with a 15-15 SEC record.

Alabama fans are not used to blase' sports achievements, so that made the first eight months of this school year difficult.

Coming off a 10-win season in 2005, football coach Mike Shula got a hefty salary hike and seemed in position to lead his alma mater for at least a few more years. Though his 2006 team did not project to be the same kind of defensive stalwarts as the '05 bunch, there was a veteran offensive line and plenty of playmakers in the skill slots on offense.

The offseason crackled with foreboding. Shula seemed at odds with his top offensive star, receiver DJ Hall, who spent the summer at home in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Then there was the traffic stop of Juwan Simpson and Shula's inability to show his leadership as a disciplinarian.

His unclear disciplinary code, an utter inability to take a fresh approach to Alabama's redzone offense, shaky fourth-down decision making and a series of fourth-quarter setbacks put Shula on the defensive through the midway point of the season.

Alabama could have made one big play and pulled off a road win or wins over Arkansas, Florida or Tennessee as the final month loomed. Then came the unthinkable. A home loss to Mississippi State in which the Crimson Tide appeared listless, lifeless and uninspired.

We all know the rest of the story. Shula probably would have retained his job with the firing of a few coaches, but the whole staff got the boot when he didn't seem to comprehend the magnitude of the situation.

Injuries and off-the-court strife torpedoed Gottfried's basketball team, with point guard Ronald Steele's ailing knee stretching from the preseason right through the whole year. Jermareo Davidson, saddled with the emotional turmoil of losing his girlfriend and brother, only occasionally played up to his All-SEC talent.

Let's not even bring up women's basketball, a turnover machine which collapsed to a winless conference season in year two of the Stephany Smith regime.

A new dimension of misfortune reared its head when Sarah Patterson's old reliable gymnastics team suffered through a series of injuries, went into the NCAAs shorthanded and failed to qualify for the Super Six team finals for the first time in a decade. Junior Terin Humphrey and freshman Morgan Dennis rebounded to claim individual titles at the NCAAs, but the team damage had already been done.

Now, as we enter May, baseball and softball are the last major team sports -- with all due respect to golf, tennis and track, many of whom sport excellent teams -- who can shine a positive light on this season.

Baseball has been so erratic -- losing midweek home games to all kinds of competition and winning a series from South Carolina -- that we don't know what kind of finish to expect. This is a down year, however, for the SEC's middle-of-the-pack teams, so any kind of pulse whatsoever should catapult the Crimson Tide into the postseason.

Murphys club, ranked No. 1 for the first time in program history, has a chance to do something special in a setting where they have not thrived: at the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. With a lineup full of heavy hitters and a very good 1-2 punch on the mound in Chrissy Owens and Blair Potter, this Alabama team has a chance to penetrate far into the WCWS. This weekend's showdown at Tennessee will be a great test in a pressure cooker environment.

No pressure, Patrick. Just the weight of Alabama's athletic season.

Ed. Note: Thomas Murphy is the Alabama beat writer for the Mobile Register. He is a contributor to 'BAMA Magazine and BamaMag.com.


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