Softball heads to Leadoff Classic

The No. 17 ranked (USA Today/NFCA) Crimson Tide softball team hits the road for the third time in four weeks as they travel to Columbus, Ga. for the highly competitive NFCA Leadoff Classic.

The tournament features 18 ranked teams and 19 teams that played in the NCAA Tournament last season.

"This is an amazing collection of teams in one tournament," said Alabama Head Coach Patrick Murphy. "It's basically a who's who of college softball and to be invited for a fourth straight year is an honor."

Alabama is no stranger to the Leadoff Classic or Columbus, Ga. for that matter. The Tide participated in the Southeastern Conference tournament which was held in Columbus at the South Commons Complex from 1997 to 2000. Bama has collected a record of 19-11 at the South Commons Complex over the years including 12-4 in the NFCA tournament.

The Tide's best finish in the tournament came last season when the team finished runner-up dropping the championship game to Nebraska 3-2. In Bama's first year in the tournament, the Tide finished runner-up in the silver bracket. The following year at the 2001 tournament, the Crimson Tide finished 4-0 in a rain-shortened tournament and was then followed up by last year's runner-up performance.

The Tide enters this year's tournament led offensively by junior first baseman Jackie McClain. McClain currently leads the team in hitting with a .391 average and 13 RBI. Centerfielder Jackie Wilkins and right fielder Ashley Courtney lead the team in runs scored with 10 each.

Junior Erin Wright leads the pitching staff with 54 strikeouts, which ranks second in the SEC while freshman Stephanie VanBrakle leads the Tide with a 1.48 ERA.

The Tide will face defending national champion and currently No. 4 ranked California, No. 23 Notre Dame and Illinois State who is the preseason pick to win the Missouri Valley Conference. Murphy knows that timely play and great pitching is what will help a team succeed in a tournament of this magnitude.

"You have to pitch great, play great defense and have clutch hitting to be successful here," said Murphy. "You have to value every runner in scoring position whether it's in the first or the seventh inning because you never know when you're going to get that opportunity again. When you have runners at second and third base, that's the key."

The tournament format consists of six, four-team pools. Following pool play, the top team from each pool, along with two at-large teams, will advance to the Gold Championship Bracket. The remaining four second-place teams along with four at-large teams will be placed in the Silver Championship Bracket and the remaining eight teams will be assigned to the Bronze Championship Bracket. All brackets will be single elimination/consolation. Each team will play a minimum of five games (three in pool play, two in bracket play) regardless of pool or bracket assignments.

The Tide's No. 17 ranking is the highest it has achieved since being No. 15 in the May 1, 2002 poll. The highest ranking the Tide softball program has enjoyed was during the 2001 season when the team spent several weeks in the No. 3 spot.

Also representing the SEC in the rankings along side Alabama are No. 9 LSU, No. 13 Georgia, No. 16 South Carolina and Florida who is receiving votes.

USA Today/NFCA Top 25

1. UCLA (19) 9-1 547
2 Arizona (1) 13-1 524
3. Nebraska 9-1 494
4. California 10-2 460
5. Washington 9-0-1 458
6. Texas (2) 14-0 450
7. Cal State Fullerton 10-4 388
8. DePaul 5-0 361
9. LSU 7-3 352
10. Oklahoma 5-2 329
11. Florida State 9-3 308
12. Stanford 10-2 304
13. Georgia 13-1 292
14. Arizona State 11-3 286
15. Michigan 2-3 285
16. South Carolina 7-3 195
17. Alabama 10-5 172
18. Oregon State 11-4 144
19. Texas A&M 9-3 133
20. Pacific 4-3 129
21. Ohio State 2-3 117
22. Fresno State 2-7 77
23. Notre Dame 2-2 72
24. Georgia Tech 4-3 67
t-25. Massachusetts 2-3 31
t-25. Oregon 9-4 31

Others receiving votes: Minnesota 19, Florida Atlantic 17, Southern Illinois 15, South Florida 14, Baylor 12, Louisiana-Lafayette 11, Hawaii 10, Kansas 7, Tulsa 6, Florida 5.

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