Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Alabama Profile: Tide Must Reascend to Conference Elite

General Overview/2016 Recap: The Crimson Tide began their season with a shocking loss to Central Florida by an 8-1 score, but followed that up with four wins to close out the Orlando-hosted tournament.

The Tide stretched their winning streak to eighteen, a stretch that included their hosted 'Bama Bash' where they recorded two victories over Arizona, including one by run rule, as well as conference foe Tennessee.

Patrick Murphy and Co.'s second loss of the year did not come until early March, a tight 2-1 defeat at the hands of North Dakota State.

A series loss at LSU began conference play in similarly surprising fashion for the Tide faithful, as the Tigers took two of the series' three games.

A break from conference play followed, where the Tide lost to Oklahoma en route to a 4-1 weekend result at the Fullerton, CA-hosted tournament.

The Tide did not lost a conference series the rest of the year, taking home series wins over Missouri; Florida; Texas A&M; Kentucky; South Carolina; and Georgia, and sweeping Mississippi State.

At the SEC tournament, the Tide best host Mississippi State, but a loss to Auburn in the tournament's second round ended their championship hopes prematurely.

A dominant run through Regionals followed, as the Tide allowed just one run en route to a 3-0 record that included sending home PAC-12 foe Cal.

The Washington Huskies came to Tuscaloosa for the Super Regional round, and the Tide finished another Pac-12 foe off in two games, by scores of 2-1 (in eight innings) and 5-2.

In Oklahoma City, the Tide bus headed back for Tuscaloosa on Saturday, as the Tide went 0-2 and headed home for the earliest time since 2013, when they failed to make the World Series at all.

Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P – Alexis Osorio; Sydney Littlejohn; Madi Moore
C – Reagan Dykes
1B – (Leona LaFaele)
2B – Chandler Dare
3B – Peyton Grantham
SS – Sydney Booker
LF – (Kallie Case)
CF – (Haylie McCleney)
RF – (Andrea Hawkins)
DP – Marisa Runyon
Carrying the Clipboards: Head coach Patrick Murphy is one of the sport's most dynamic and popular personalities; the longtime head coach for the Crimson Tide, having spent nearly two decades at the program's helm, absent a few days with the infamous LSU-and-back move from several years ago, he was responsible for the Tide's championship run in 2012. 2016 was the program's eleventh Women's College World Series berth and eighteenth straight NCAA tournament berth.

Aly Habetz, Murphy's longtime assistant and nearly equally as responsible for the program's success, handles the team's offense. In 2017, Habetz' offense hit .313 as a whole, with four players who hit above .375. Haylie McCleney led the way for the Tide statistically, posting team-best batting average (.443) and slugging percentage (.695). Also the program's outfield coach, Habetz' primary trio of outfielders made just three field errors in the entirety of the 2016 season, a mark that included a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage by left fielder Kallie Case.

Pitching coach Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro, herself a Crimson Tide alum, joined the Tide staff prior to their championship-winning season in 2012. In 2017, she has possibly her deepest pitching staff since she took over tutelage of the Tide's pitchers. Alexis Osorio has established herself as a bonafide SEC ace, while sophomore Madi Moore impressed in her frshman season in 2016. Sydney Littlejohn earned all-American honors a season ago and is a solid, if occasionally 'iffy' member of the rotation. Prothro's staff put together a team ERA of 2.45 in 2016, including 369 strikeouts and an opponent's batting average of .226.

Additions: The Tide's four-member freshman class includes in-state natives Claire Jenkins and Elissa Brown, as well as Louisiana native Bailey Hemphill and California native Gabby Callaway.
Subtractions: The Tide said 'sayonara' to a four-member senior class, including their entire starting outfield of Kallie Case; Haylie McCleney; and Andrea Hawkins, as well as slugging first baseman Leona LaFaele.

Scheduling: The Tide will kick off their season at the Coastal Carolina-hosted Kickin' Chicken Classic in Conway, South Carolina.

The Tide will play an early-season, three-game weekend set at Louisiana-Lafayette, and will host the Easton Bama Bash the following weekend where they'll host UCF and Texas Tech, among other teams.

At the Easton Crimson Classic in early March, the Tide will host Stanford; Jacksonville; and Drake at Rhoads Stadium and will kick off their conference schedule at home against Arkansas a week later.

The conference schedule will include visits to Mississippi State; Missouri; Tennessee; and Ole Miss, while the Tide will play host to South Carolina; LSU; and Auburn, as well as a two-game rematch of the 2016 Super Regionals against the PAC-12's Washington.

The SEC tournament will be held in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths – Returning one's entire pitching staff is always a positive for any team, and the Tide will do just that in 2017. Osorio; Moore; and Littlejohn will all retake the circle for the Tide and figure to play large roles in the ebb and flow of the Tide's success. Despite losing a senior class full of starters, the Tide do return several exciting players on offense who should be able to help fill some of the holes in the batting order and on defense.

Weaknesses – The Tide did lose four starters to graduation, including three of the top five hitters from a season ago. Haylie McCleney will be the most difficult to replace, as she is an extremely-rare style of player, but don't underestimate the loss of LaFaele, as well. The Tide also seem to have retreated a bit in the midst of a busy conference race and are no longer even the premier program in the state of Alabama, having relinquished that title to bitter rivals Auburn.

Outlook for 2017: Once again, returning one's entire pitching staff year-to-year is always a large strong point, and the Tide have that going for them in a big way in 2017. Again, as well, though, they seem to have become lost amongst the mid-pack of the SEC as the conference continues to rise to the top. They'll have to fix that if they want to not only get back to Oklahoma City, but challenge for another national title.

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