Crimson Tide coach Patrick Murphy might have his best pitching staff to date
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The re-tooling was noticeable, but only in the respect that it should make a really good thing even better.
Sunday afternoon, as the University of Alabama softball team was holding its first practice for the 2020 season, the Crimson Tide was surrounded by the ongoing upgrades to Rhoads Stadium. The bullpen area has been overhauled, the new concourse is almost finished and the changes in the clubhouse are ongoing.
Sort of like with the team, which is coming off a 60-win season and return to the Women's College World Series, the changes should be ready to go for the upcoming start to the season.
"I think every one of us is really looking forward to getting going," Murphy said. "We have the potential to have the best pitching staff that we've ever had."
It begins with sophomore ace Montana Fouts, who during her first season went 21-6 with a 1.39 ERA, with 19 complete games. She struck out 193 batters in 181.2 innings, and opposing hitters had a .175 batting average.
Senior Sarah Cornell had a 22-1 record to go with a 2.50 ERA, en route to being named the SEC Pitcher of the Year. Senior Krystal Goodman (11-1) came on strong as the season progressed and finished with a 1.63 ERA.
Joining them is right-handed freshman Lexi Kilfoyl, who like Fouts was on the U.S. U-19 National Team that won the gold medal at the World Cup. She's the two-time Florida Gatorade Player of the Year (2018-19) who won back-to-back state titles for Academy at the Lakes in Florida. She finished her 2018 season with a 0.32 ERA, 249 strikeouts and .097 opponent batting average.
The 6-foot-1 right-hander threw during the majority of the fall exhibition schedule so the coaching staff could get a feel for her. By the end, Murphy described her as nearly un-hittable.
"She has a nasty drop-ball and a really good change-up," the coach said.
Kilfoyl is almost as big of a threat as a hitter, too.
"Lexi is really good. She's dominant in both sides of the game, pitching and hitting," Fouts noted.
"She has a lot of power.
Alabama does have two holes in the lineup, at catcher and shortstop.
The plan for now is to have senior slugger Bailey Hemphill move behind the plate and occasionally spelled by freshman Karla Hice.
Last season, Hemphill played primarily as the designated player or at first base when she set Crimson Tide single-season records with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs, the former tying the SEC record and the latter leading the NCAA. She also led the team with a .375 batting average and 72 hits.
"Bailey can do it, but she doesn't need to catch 65 games. So Karla is going to have to step up and get in there. Even if she caught just 20 games, it would be a really good thing for Bailey."
Alabama lost senior shortstop Claire Jenkins with a knee injury in the fall.
"Really the leader of the infield," Murphy said. "Last year was kind of her breakout year, was very consistent defensively, but the biggest thing was her voice."
For now, the plan is to slide Skylar Wallace, who was named to SEC All-Freshman Team last season, over and use a combination of players at second base. They include junior Maddie Morgan, senior Taylor Clark and freshman Savannah Woodard.
Junior Kaylee Tow, who batted .309 (58-for-188) with a team-leading 58 runs along with 62 RBIs and tied the Alabama single-season record for walks with 66, and Hemphill will be counted on to be the veteran leaders of the infield.
"Somebody is going to have to pick it up a little bit, communication-wise," Murphy said. "That was a big loss."
Alabama will open the season at the Joanne Graf Classic in Tallahassee, against Florida State and North Carolina, on Feb. 7. The home opener will be two weeks later on the 21st when it hosts Wichita State as part of the Easton Bama Bash (including Louisville, Penn State in the four-team field).