By Michael Casagrande | AL.com
Three hundred and thirty-eight days.
Alexis Mack didn’t have to think about that number, the Alabama softball player knew exactly how many days it had been since their last game in a Tuesday interview. That number will presumably end at 341, but of course the reason for that gulf is also why nothing can be said with absolute certainty about scheduling.
No. 8 Alabama softball’s 2021 opener on Friday will be among the first athletic events for spring sports teams that took the biggest hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Winter sports were wrapping up and fall sports still had months before 2020 competition when the pandemic shut down the collegiate sports world in mid-March.
A five-game weekend at the Texas Classic kicks off the 2021 season at 10:30 a.m. CT Friday against Colorado State. The Tide will also face No. 6 Texas twice and No. 3 Arizona once as part of the event in Austin.
The last Tide softball game was a 9-1 win over No. 20 Arkansas on March 8. Just days later, the cascading cancellations and postponements began and the unwelcomed streak Mack tracks on her phone began ticking up. A season that began with a preseason No. 1 ranking just ended cold -- no resolution, just over.
Nearly a year later, expectations remain high with a roster slightly larger than normal. Alabama was picked to win the SEC in preseason voting and the wealth of experience explains that.
Since the NCAA granted spring athletes an additional year of eligibility, seven seniors from the 2020 team opted to return. Former Alabama athletics director Bill Battle donated the money to pay for the scholarships for those seven seniors.
So the Crimson Tide will carry a 22-player roster into the opening weekend in Austin, Texas. Alabama, for context, had 17 healthy roster members a year ago.
“In years past, I would have done anything for 22 on the roster because of injuries and everything that goes on during a long season,” Murphy said. “This actually might be the perfect number for us.”
Murphy noted an infield drill they did last week in practice to illustrate the depth. They had two players at each of the four spots around the horn, a luxury the 23-year coach can’t remember having at Alabama. Graduate students Claire Jenkins and Taylor Clark along with sophomore Savannah Woodard can play any of the four positions, Murphy said, while Mack can play each of the three outfield spots. She also impressed in a practice cameo at second base.
“It was like she’d been there her whole life,” Murphy said. “So we have some really good athletes. I appreciate that.”
That depth will allow Murphy to shuffle the lineup and try different combinations as this 25th season of Alabama softball begins.
Mack, it’s safe to say, is impressed with the possibilities.
“Whoa, this outfield is incredible,” Mack said. “You throw Jenna Johnson and Kat Grill in there and Kayla Davis, between all of us and Kaylee Tow … whoa. There’s so much experience.”
The core of Alabama’s pitching staff is also back including Lexi Kilfoyl, Krystal Goodman, Sarah Cornell and ace Montana Fouts.
Now a junior, Fouts powered Alabama’s run to within a game of the Women’s College World Series final in 2019. Murphy said she’s added a few pitches to her tool kit for Year 3 in Tuscaloosa after entering last spring battling a bit of arm fatigue.
“One of the best things for everybody was there was a little bit of a break, especially for pitchers this summer,” Murphy said. “There really wasn’t anything to do. Nobody was playing anything so they rested their arms. They stayed in shape but they did rest their arms so I think she’s ready to go. I can’t wait to see her pitch again.”
Behind the plate, sophomore Abby Doerr is back after arriving last spring as an early enrollee from Eugene, Oregon. The highly-rated recruit is more comfortable working with the experienced pitching staff.
“It’s unbelievable the difference,” Murphy said. “Shoot, she was here for what, a month and we shut down? But to see her grow from August to now, it’s unreal. Now I can see why a lot of football programs redshirt a lot of their freshmen to get them more mature and acclimated to college.”
After the give games in Austin, Alabama returns to Tuscaloosa for 17 straight home games between Feb. 19 and March 7. That includes six doubleheaders in three different multi-team events at Rhoads Stadium.
Mack is just excited to see a different team after 330-plus days without outside competition. There’s a different feel to this year’s opener given everything that’s happened since last March.
“I think the biggest thing is gratitude,” Mack said. “We saw how quickly the game can get taken way with COVID. I think every single day, the biggest thing is overwhelming gratitude to be on the field just because it could be our last game.
“You never know with the times we’re living in.”