The Battle Plan

May 30, 2014

This week in Alabama Athletics has been one for the history books. As we reach the end of our competitive seasons, I am pleased to report that our teams have been rising to the challenge. That was in full view this week as our men's golf and women's tennis teams achieved program milestones at their respective NCAA championships.

Men's Golf Makes History
A person can work for a lifetime in athletics or business and never have the good fortune to see greatness up close. I have been very blessed to have been around - and learned from - coaches and athletes that have defined greatness. There are countless lessons one can learn from those who achieve remarkable feats, but the experience of actually being near these people and working with (or playing for) them leaves lasting impressions.

In watching our head coach Jay Seawell and assistant coach Mike McGraw work with our amazing golf team, it is clear that both the coaches and student-athletes in our men's golf program are special people. Our coaches and players are exceptional at what they do, and, I would dare say, both are having that special experience with greatness that will benefit each of them for the rest of their lives.

Without question this team's physical talent is tremendous, but what was unmistakable on Wednesday in the final match at the NCAA Men's Golf Championships was the mental poise and confidence that this team possesses. Coaches set the tone and try to prepare their teams for every possible outcome. The mental part of every sport is as important as the physical. But when the pressure is on, athletes either respond and play their best, or struggle and falter. This team played at a high level each week, and it maintained that level throughout the grueling championships week in the Kansas heat.

Our men's golf team made history this week. We are blessed with an athletics program that is regularly making history as our teams have won eight national titles in the last four years, nine over the last six years, and 25 national championships in five sports in our history. The sustained excellence of our men's golf program over the last few years deserves special recognition. In winning its second consecutive NCAA championship on Wednesday, beating Oklahoma State 4-1 in match play, Alabama became the only team since Houston in 1984-85, and Augusta State in 2010-11, to win back-to-back national championships. And this year's trip to the finals marked our third consecutive season to make the championship round.

On Wednesday, senior Bobby Wyatt picked up our first win of the championship match, and then freshman Robby Shelton put the Tide up 2-0 by closing out his opponent. After Oklahoma State picked up a point at No. 3, it came down to seniors Trey Mullinax and Cory Whitsett. A win by either would push us over the top. Leading his match from the fourth hole on, Trey closed out a 2 and 1 victory to clinch the title. Cory then won his match, 2 and 1, to give the Tide a final score of 4-1, matching the score from last year's national championship match against Illinois.

The Tide earned the No. 2 seed in match play on Monday by completing the stroke play portion of the tournament at 4-under 836 to tie with LSU for second place as Stanford (-1, 279) clinched the No. 1 seed at 13-under-par 827. Oklahoma State earned the fourth seed while Georgia Tech was fifth. UCLA (sixth), SMU (seventh) and Illinois (eighth) also advanced to the quarterfinals and the beginning of match play. Robby Shelton posted a final round of 68 to finish tied for third overall in medalist play at 5-under 205. He recorded the highest finish by an Alabama player at the NCAA Championships since Jerry Pate finished second in 1975.

The Tide overcame an early deficit to defeat SMU, 3-2, on Tuesday morning to advance to the semifinals. Wins by Bobby Wyatt (3 and 2), Cory Whitsett (5 and 4) and Robby Shelton (2 up) made the difference as the Tide advanced to face third-seeded LSU in a Tuesday afternoon semifinal after the Tigers defeated sixth-seeded UCLA 4-1 in the quarterfinals. The Tide's 4-1 win over LSU in the semifinals was keyed by match-play wins from Bobby (3 and 2), Robby (2 and 1) and Trey (4 and 2). Tom Lovelady was 1 up on the 17th when Trey secured the Tide's clinching point.

When it all ended on Wednesday several things were clearly evident, but one thing may have stood out above everything else. This is a team and a program that has a special bond. Coach Seawell loves to say that Alabama golf "has a soul". That soul, that heart, that relentless pursuit of excellence was clear for everyone to see, both in the performance of the team under pressure and the emotion they all shared when the title was won. The Golf Channel did a great job of televising the golf match throughout the tournament, but the celebration when the title was won gave the audience a rare look into the highest of highs that coaches and athletes experience.

The feelings that explode when the ultimate prize has been won, makes the months and even years of hard work, preparation, sacrifice, and pain well worth the effort. In those few minutes together in the locker room or, in this case, on the winning green - to those coaches and players, it doesn't get any better than that!

A MILESTONE ACHIEVEMENT - AND A TESTAMENT TO PERSEVERANCE
Our women's tennis program achieved an historic milestone on Monday in Athens, Georgia, as the doubles team of Maya Jansen and Erin Routliffe earned the program's first national title in dominant fashion by defeating a pair of Georgia Bulldogs in front of a Georgia-dominated crowd. Maya and Erin lost only 13 points in the entire match on the way to a 6-1, 6-0 victory. With the victory, the Crimson Tide duo finished the season at 22-4, after winning their final 10 matches.

I have seen many outstanding championship performances over the years, but few have been as impressive as the display that Maya and Erin provided in what amounted to a road match against an outstanding opponent. Maya and Erin opened the match by winning 10 consecutive points to take a 2-0 lead and a 30-0 edge in the third game. They continued to dominate, pulling in front 4-0 before Georgia was able to get on the board in the fifth game. The Tide would close out the set on a point penalty from the Bulldogs, winning 6-1. In the second set, it was all Alabama as the Tide went on to win six straight games. Leading 40-15 with Georgia serving, Erin Routliffe was standing at the net and eased the ball with just enough force to lift it over the tape for the victory. The win sealed the first national championship of any kind (singles, doubles or team) in Alabama's long tennis history.

The success of this program in recent years is a testament to the talent, intensity, effort and perseverance not only of our student-athletes, but of head coach Jenny Mainz. In 17 years at the helm of the program, Jenny has weathered more than her share of peaks and valleys. It is very gratifying to see a person of Jenny's caliber able to rejuvenate a program that was struggling just a few years back and turn it into an SEC championship team and a national contender as well. Her career arc is testament to the value of believing in a plan, sticking with it, staying positive and working harder with each setback.

We all should be proud of Jenny and her ladies. They have truly reset the bar for our program at Alabama. I have received many compliments from both SEC and NCAA officials about the professionalism, courtesy, and sportsmanship of our team. They have unique team chemistry and it is special to watch how much they seem to believe in and enjoy each other. But the coolest thing to me is to see the grit and toughness in their eyes and body language when things are going against them. They refuse to lose!

NATIONALLY-RANKED TEAMS THIS WEEK
This week, three of our remaining active teams are nationally ranked among the top 15 in their respective sports, with two (men's golf and softball) ranked in the top five. Here's a glance at this week's rankings:
Team Rank
Men's Golf1st
Softball5th
Men's Track13th

THE HEAT IS ON
I touched on the national title victory of the men's golf team earlier. Below is a summary of the other sports still in action as the competitive schedule continues to draw to a close. This week, our softball team is in Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series while our baseball team is in Tallahassee for the opening weekend of the NCAA baseball tournament. Alabama is one of only 21 schools nationally that has both the baseball and softball teams playing in the NCAA tournament. Our track and field team is also in NCAA action, competing at the East Regional Preliminary meet in Jacksonville, Florida.

• Outstanding pitching by Jaclyn Traina and home runs by Peyton Grantham and Jadyn Spencer led the SOFTBALL team to a 6-2 victory over Oklahoma in the opening game of the WCWS last night. Oklahoma led early on a solo home run in the first inning, but that would end up as the only hit of the game for the Sooners. Peyton hit a three-run shot in the fourth to give us a 4-2 lead, and then Jadyn nailed a line-drive homer to score two more for the 6-2 final. Tonight the Tide takes on Kentucky at 8:30 p.m. CST on ESPN2.

The World Series appearance was earned by an amazing performance last week at Rhoads Stadium. The Tide defeated Nebraska in two games, earning a berth in the Women's College World Series for a ninth time and the third time in the last four years. The Tide's 12-inning win over Nebraska last Thursday is the longest home game in our history and is tied for the longest Super Regional game in history. That contest was gripping and dramatic, providing a great look at the sport for the nation as a national television audience looked on and saw, once again, what our program - and our fan support - is all about. The Tide finished its home season with a total home attendance of 83,233, averaging 2,774 fans over 30 home dates.

As good as our program has been for so many years, it is interesting to note that this year's team has been bolstered by the play of several first-year players, three of whom were particularly outstanding against the Huskers. Freshman pitcher Sydney Littlejohn (Rusk, Texas) entered the first game last Thursday night in relief with a runner on second and no outs in the fifth inning with Alabama trailing, 5-4. Sydney ended up pitching a career-high 8 innings, shutting out the Huskers and limiting them to three hits to hang on and earn the win in extra innings. Over her 19 relief appearances this year, Sydney owns a 0.88 ERA with a 3-1 record, three saves and just four earned runs allowed over 31.2 innings with 22 strikeouts.

Another freshman, third baseman Peyton Grantham (Daphne, Ala.), had one hit in Thursday's game - but it was the biggest of the game, as she led off the bottom of the 12th with a towering home run to center field, giving Alabama a 6-5 walk-off victory. A third freshman, infielder Marisa Runyon (Myrtle Beach, S.C.), led the team with four hits and three RBI over the Super Regional series against Nebraska. Marisa went 3-for-6 in game one, including a game-tying home run in the seventh inning to keep the Tide alive. In game two, Marisa drove in the second run of the game for the Tide, the difference in the 2-1 victory.

Our softball team has consistently been one of our best at excelling in the classroom, as well as on the diamond, Last week, for the first time, it was announced that four Tide softball student-athletes have earned Capital One Academic All-America honors as Molly Fichtner, Kaila Hunt and Haylie McCleney earned first-team accolades while Ryan Iamurri earned a second-team honor. Alabama is the only school with four selections, in addition to being the only team with three first-team selections. At least one member of the Tide has been named an Academic All-American every season since 2008 and the four on this season's list tops the previous program record of three set in 2012. Kaila is making her second straight appearance on the list after earning Second Team honors last season, when she became just the sixth player in Alabama history to earn Academic All-American and All-American honors in the same season. This year, Kaila is one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award and was named First Team NFCA All-South Region and Second-Team All-SEC. She owns a 3.71 GPA in secondary education (math).

Both Haylie and Molly are first-time Academic All-Americans and own perfect 4.0 GPAs. Hailey was one of 10 finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year Award, a First Team NFCA All-South Region selection and First Team All-SEC. Molly earned Second Team NFCA All-South Region and Second Team All-SEC honors this year. This is Ryan Iamurri's first All-American honor, though she is a two-time NFCA Academic Scholar Athlete and was named to the SEC First Year Academic Honor Roll during her freshman season. Last year, she was named to the SEC Community Service Team and she owns a 4.0 in public relations with minors in psychology and art.

• Coach Mic Potter's WOMEN'S GOLF team closed out its best round of the 2014 NCAA Championships in the final round, a 2-over 282 on Sunday to finish ninth. The Crimson Tide produced the program's fifth straight top-10 finish at the NCAA championships and the sixth in the program's history. Senior Stephanie Meadow finished her amazing Alabama career with a 4-under 66 to tie for fourth place at 1-under 279, the lowest 72-hole score in school history and the second-best total in relation to par. Duke won its sixth national championship by edging Southern California.

How special is Stephanie Meadow? Consider this: she leaves Alabama as the career record holder in almost every category. She finishes with a 71.89 scoring average, just 0.17 strokes above par per round over her 132 career rounds. Stephanie won nine career tournaments - three times more than anyone else in school history - while carding 73 career rounds of par or better and 404 birdies. And yet, her performance last week may have been her most impressive. Stephanie's final round included five birdies and one bogey, and she played the final 54 holes at 7-under par after opening with a 6-over 76.

This year, Stephanie broke her own school record for single-season scoring average with a 71.22 average that bests her 2012-13 average (71.24). She leaves the Capstone with the first, second, third and eighth-best single-season scoring averages in school history. And, as you have seen in recent blogs, she also is an outstanding student. Stephanie leaves a legacy worthy for all future student athletes to strive to match.

• Coach Mitch Gaspard's BASEBALL team is the No. 2 seed at the Tallahassee (Fla.) Regional of the NCAA Baseball Tournament. The Tide opened the tournament against Kennesaw State today at Mike Martin Field at Dick Howser Stadium on the Florida State campus. This is our fourth regional appearance in five years under coach Gaspard. The teams joining Alabama (34-22) in the four-team field include No. 5 national seed Florida State (43-15), Kennesaw State (37-21) and Georgia Southern (39-21), who are the third and fourth seed at the site, behind FSU and the Tide.

The winner of the Tallahassee Regional will advance to next week's Super Regional round to face the winner of the Louisville Regional, which also features Kentucky, Kansas and Kent State. Every game of the Tallahassee Regional is being televised on an ESPN platform (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN3) and every game of the regional is being broadcast by the Crimson Tide Sports Network, with Chris Stewart and Lee Tracey calling the action.

All of you in the region around the Florida panhandle should consider heading out to support the Tide. All-Tournament Ticket Books for the Regional ($50 for reserved seats and $35 for general admission seats) are on sale at www.seminoles.com. Phone and walk-up orders can be placed by visiting the main Seminole Ticket Office located at Doak Campbell Stadium or calling 888-378-6653. Single game tickets for all sessions will go on sale via the web (seminoles.com) following the last game of the previous day and at Dick Howser Stadium two hours prior to the start of each day's first game. Prices for single game general admission tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for kids (ages 4-18). If available, reserved seats single-game tickets are $15.

• Coach Dan Waters' TRACK & FIELD is competing at Jacksonville, Florida, this week in the NCAA East Regional Track & Field Championships. The meet serves as a qualifying meet for the upcoming NCAA Outdoor Championships slated for mid-June in Eugene, Ore. Thirty student-athletes (16 men, 14 women) plus four relay teams will represent us at the meet at Hodges Stadium on the campus of the University of North Florida. The meet runs through Saturday evening. If you are in the area, go check out the Tide. They would appreciate the support and you will get a glimpse at some of the finest athletes we have in any sport at Alabama.

FOLLOW THE ACTION AS IT HAPPENS
There are several ways to follow our teams in action. The methods vary according to the sport, but here's where you can follow our teams via TV, radio or online:

Softball in the NCAA Women's College World Series (Oklahoma City, Okla.) Television - ESPN2 (Friday, 8:30 p.m. CT); to be determined for further games. Radio - 95.3 FM (Tuscaloosa) and CTSN (All Games) Live Stats - http://www.rolltide.com/gametracker/

Baseball in the NCAA Tournament Regional (Tallahassee, Fla.) Television - To be determined for further games. Radio - 99.1 FM (Tuscaloosa); CTSN (All Games); www.rolltide.com (All Games) Live Stats - www.rolltide.com

Track and Field at the NCAA East Regional Championships (Jacksonville, Fla.) Live Results - www.flashresults.com

UPCOMING ACTION
Here's a summary of athletics events over the next several days (times listed are for the location of the event):

Friday, May 30

Time Sport Opponent/Event Location
8:30 p.m.SoftballWorld Series v. KentuckyOklahoma City, Okla.

Saturday, May 31

Time Sport Opponent/Event Location
12 p.m.BaseballNCAA Regional v. Florida State or Ga. SouthernTallahassee, Fla.
TBDSoftballWorld SeriesOklahoma City, Okla.
All DayTrack & FieldNCAA East RegionalJacksonville, Fla.

Sunday, June 1

Time Sport Opponent/Event Location
TBDBaseballNCAA RegionalTallahassee, Fla.
TBDSoftballWorld SeriesOklahoma City, Okla.

Monday, June 2

Time Sport Opponent/Event Location
TBDSoftballWorld SeriesOklahoma City, Okla.

If you are in Oklahoma City, Jacksonville or Tallahassee, please make an effort to come out and support our teams. Your presence makes a big difference. A rising tide lifts all boats and it's up to all of us to Keep the Tide Rising!

     
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