Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Auburn Softball 2015 Year in Review

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I shot this minutes before the first pitch of the Auburn/Alabama Game the Friday before A-Day

Aubree and Griffin before the Auburn/Alabama Game

Aubree at her first softball game in 2011

I admit that I have fallen into the category of typical SEC fans. That is, I pretty much watch my football team and nothing else. That isn't to say that I had never been to other Auburn sporting events, because I have. But, those events usually have coincided to A-Day or some other reason that I was on The Plains. 

Softball had become one of those sports that I had taken a small interest in because of my wife and daughter. My wife grew up playing the sport and I currently coach a 9 year old. So, going to softball games became a priority in our household, as did watching the Women's College World Series each year.

I couldn't really get into WCWS, though, because Auburn wasn't in it. I could SORTA enjoy watching it because there was Alabama to root against. But, just as football did when Saban arrived, Alabama's softball program elevated itself in 2012 by winning the WCWS, much to my chagrin. To me, it was just another support that Alabama had made a priority at winning. They spent the dollars. They got the trophies. At least we had equestrian and swimming, right?

That only helped me feel better for a moment, if at all. The fact was, Auburn sports were struggling.....mightily. Basketball was the worst in the conference. Baseball was pretty close to that. Softball....well.....we have Florida and Alabama to play against, both had become mainstays in WCWS play in the last few years.

Jay Jacobs was looking awfully foolish in his hire/pay/fire of Chizik. His other sports were drowning. I can't imagine what it was like to see what was going on across the State at what Mal Moore had done in Tuscaloosa. So, he ponied up and did what he had to do. In under 24 months he had to replace the coaches for every major sport. Malzahn/Pearl/Golloway/Myers. It's amazing, frankly, that the only hire that was risky was the Malzahn hire, who promptly took his Tigers to the National Championship.

The other hires ,Pearl and Galloway, received rave reviews across the country. Pearl was a national sensation and Golloway immediately became a media presence. But, neither coach did anything remarkable in year 1 (or two, for Golloway). In fact, baseball has been a major disappointment and basketball narrothenwly avoided that same description with their run in the SEC tournament.

Completely ignored by most media (and Auburn fans) was the Myers hire. 2013-2014 season wasn't anything special. A 42-19 record without any major accomplishments. 

But after a full year of development, the new Lady Tigers that took the field were a completely different animal. I admit that it wasn't until they were 21-0 that I started paying attention. That was mostly because the Tigers had gone on a whirlwind tour of tournaments all over the country and hadn't gotten the media coverage they should have. The new SEC Network was heavily covering men's basketball, and rightfully so. The softball tournament games didn't matter for much, but the end of the BBall season DID. Even I was enthralled with watching men's BBall. 

But, BBall was over and the regular season for softball began. Thanks to the SEC Network and the offseason for other major sports, women's softball became a mainstay for the SEC Network. And though the Tigers didn't start off at the top of the league (or conference, for that matter) they found themselves playing on TV, anyway. Why? Because the Lady Tigers could flat hit that yellow ball.

Their ability to hit home runs made them a crowd favorite on TV, and as a result, I found myself (And my family) making it a priority to set time aside to watch them.

What we found, and what the rest of the country did as well, is that the ladies couldn't just hit the ball. They could field extremely well. Eventually they would find themselves at the top of the conference, and eventually national, rankings in several defensive categories. Along the way, they were beating everyone in sight. Despite that, Auburn didn't climb the rankings as early as many of us thought they would...or should. 

They swept #12 Kentucky. We were impressed, but not blown away. The very next series they split a series with #11 Florida State at Tallahassee. Ok, decent enough...but still not QUITE there. 

And then a believer. They win 3 straight series against 3 ranked opponents. That's when the gals started turning heads, but I was sold already. After all, they had under 5 total losses and never back-to-back losses.

So sold that I had bought tickets to see them play Alabama the Friday before A-Day...and I did it a month in advance. 

I took 2 of my kids and my best friend to what turned out to be a pretty damp night....not only in weather, but also hitting. The Tigers lost that one....and badly. I have now been to 2 games and we have lost both, badly. But I noticed that this team never gave up. Things didn't go their way for that series. They lost the first 2 games before winning the 3rd, but they were trying their best. Even in those losses, you could see the flashes of what looked like to be a genuinely GREAT team.

You can read about our adventures that weekend here:

A-Day 2015 Adventures

I believe that those back-to-back losses were JUST what the ladies needed to put together the best run in Auburn Softball History. They finished the season without another loss and headed into the SEC Tournament. We knew that the tournament would be heavily televised and we set aside the entire weekend to watch, though we admittedly knew that there was simply too much talent and experience on those teams, specifically Florida and Alabama, to expect much. 

It just so happened that those aforementioned teams faltered in their games, leading Auburn to a wide open chance to win their first SEC Championship. But, those bats that had been so hot...setting records time and again for Auburn Softball....had gone largely cold. But a truly great team finds ways to win, and the ladies did just that against some very good teams, finally knocking off Tennessee to win their first ever SEC Championship with a clutch Wallace performance. 

By this point, we knew every starter on the team by first and last name and position. I could tell by a batting stance who was up at bat. Our family was HOOKED on this team. They made it awfully easy to do so because of their gritty play, fun loving atmosphere on the bench, and even their fan love off the field. Every player was quick to Tweet you back. They loved our observations and thoughts. They especially loved that little Auburn fans everywhere were mimicking their every move. 

Me? I was in love with their ability to hit 65MPH fastballs from 43 feet away. I was in love with Cooper's ability to make plays on the 3rd base line that I don't think Cabrerra could make. I loved Fagan's grit....and all the faces that she made from play to play. Wallace's ability to snag high balls that seemed to be 10 feet in the air where she is 5-foot-nothing. How about Carosone's no-flash style of play in the field and in the box that seems to go completely ignored, but was the cornerstone of her team? Howard's ability to get on base, no matter what. How about Estell and Melero, who have been on both ends of the spectrum....from bottom dwellers to Champions....who showed that desire to get better and to lead these young women? Rhodes, who set the all-time season HR record....or our pitching staff who refused to quit, despite being frequently out-matched...yet found ways to win.

Honestly, I could go on and on with the superlatives for this team and I hate to skip out on the other players. Rest assured that all of you are remembered.  

While I hate that we lose the two seniors we lose, I can't help but look at the youth of the roster and think to the future. But, it's these players who have an anchor to the past, who built the program into a team who finished at the very top of Women's Softball, who I will always remember. Future Auburn teams may know nothing but success due to the superior coaching and legacy of THIS team, but it is THIS team who will set the bar so high for their play on the field and their lives off of it .

It is because of these young women that I decided to write about them, even though that is something that every beat reporter, every blogger, and every fan is already doing. But, I felt I had to.  I was compelled to. Because they deserve as much recognition as we can give them. I don't think there is any doubt that the current Auburn roster isn't as talented as many of those from perennial powerhouses. But, these girls put in the extra work to overcome any deficiencies they may have in the talent department, which makes them superior players, in my mind. That doesn't mean they aren't talented, because they are. They are just unique in what they accomplished, and in such a short amount of time. That's a major credit to both them and their coaches. 

The WCWS set new highs in viewing this year. Part of that is because of the amazing ability of these women, which is just now becoming common knowledge. The game play is simply phenomenal. These women play as well as their baseball counterparts and the games are much more exciting. Sometimes I think they are even more skilled. 

The other part is because the coverage of these games gives us real insight into their personalities, something that you can't see in other sports, and when you do....it isn't' the best for young eyes. A lot of it is because young women and girls everywhere are looking for role models in women's sports. Unfortunately, women's sports aren't something that is heavily covered in this country. College softball is one of the very few that gets proper media coverage, which is a good thing since fast pitch softball is on the rise.

My own daughter loves playing softball and I love to coach it. Sometimes little girls don't listen to their coaches, especially when the coaches are their dads. Sometimes they don't really see a future in the sports. This Auburn team has single-handedly convinced my own 10 year old to adopt workout plans. She mimics her favorite player's on the field. She takes joy in working on the finer aspects of game play...the minutia of detail in the batters box or the text-book approaches to fielding grounders.

Most importantly, she has learned from the Lady Tigers that you don't have to be the very best NOW. You don't have to be the most talented player to win. But, if you put in the work...you concentrate on the details....and you don't let failure in the now dissuade you....that you can become great. 

This is why the 2015 Auburn Tigers Softball Team will always be one of my favorite All-Time Tiger Teams.

Thanks, ladies....not just for setting the bar high and doing what had never been done at Auburn, but for being great role models. Thousands of young players and their parents look up to you and thank you.