The Southeastern Conference has set a standard of excellence in women's athletics from the very start. Even still today in 2012, the league is continuing to achieve a number of "firsts" and that was never more evident than this past June when the University of Alabama captured the conference's first-ever national title in the sport of softball.
The SEC began sponsoring softball in 1997, and the conference's newest sport has long been dominated by West Coast teams. The Crimson Tide became just the second team east of the Mississippi River ever to win an NCAA Championship in softball (Michigan in 2005 was the other) and the first in the Southeast U.S.
It was a breakthrough that was long overdue for the SEC, which had placed a team in the championship series in three of the previous five years.
Patrick Murphy, Alabama's head coach since 1999, won his first national title in his eighth Women's College World Series appearance. His impressive resume includes four SEC regular-season titles, five SEC Tournament titles and nearly 750 victories.
"It was a heck of a run for us, a dream come true for everybody back at Alabama," Murphy said. "It has been a long time coming. It was an incredible nine or 10 days in Oklahoma City and each game just got better and better. I'm thrilled with the championship."
True to Murphy's statement, the national championship game marked one of the best finishes in WCWS history. On a late night at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium more than a month ago, Alabama wasn't going to let a little rain get in the way of capturing the conference's first NCAA Championship.
After the game's first pitch was delayed nearly three hours, the Crimson Tide entered the bottom of the fourth inning trailing Oklahoma 3-0 when a light rain began falling. After Alabama scored its first run of the game, play was halted due to the weather.
That's when the momentum shifted the Crimson Tide, who went on to post a 5-4 win over the Sooners.
"We were like, gosh, we want to be out there," said junior Courtney Conley. "We just want to be out there. That inning started and everybody just kept it going, kept it going. So it was great to have momentum on its side."
During the brief delay, Alabama players stayed on the field, leading cheers and staying loose.
"Just the camaraderie that we have, the 13 minutes seemed like two seconds," said senior Amanda Locke. "With our team, we have so much fun together. I think that fuelled the fire, really. From then on, there was no stopping us. We were 20 hearts beating together. We weren't turning back; we were winning this."
Locke was the first to bat following the break in play and she drilled a single through the left side to plate Alabama's second run of the night. She was then driven in by a double from Conley to knot the score.
"I had everybody in my face saying get up there and just crush it," Locke said. "I wasn't really looking for a specific pitch. But then she started getting the strikes in there. I was shortening it up and trying to put the ball in play. I wasn't trying to do too much because there were two outs. So I was trying to put it in play."
Murphy saw the hunger in his team as they awaited the end of the rain delay.
"We were frustrated that we didn't get to play," Murphy said. "That just energized us. The crowd got into it. We got into it and had some really good at-bats. It was one right after the other. We didn't look good in the first couple of innings. I don't think anybody was panicking. The little break helped us. They let off some steam and did some cheers, and it was like, okay, we get to play again.
Alabama closed the inning with a 4-3 advantage and added another run in the fifth inning. For Murphy, it was a dream come true.
Early on in his tenure with the Crimson Tide, Murphy knew he had the beginnings of a championship program, and that was capped off by a title on his team's eighth WCWS appearance.
It was the consistency of recruiting top players for more than a decade that built a solid foundation for the Alabama program.
"The second year of the program, we came here and we had a great team with Kelly Kretschman and Shelley Laird and Ginger Jones," Murphy said. "Shelley was our first best pitcher that we recruited. You know, at the time, I kept telling everybody, I don't want to be a one-hit wonder, be the one time to come to the World Series, because you never know. Then we got Stephanie VanBrakle, then we got a kid named Kelsi Dunne and one named Jackie Traina. I felt like if we kept coming back, we could win one."
More importantly than high-level talent, it has been the buy-in to a team-first philosophy that has paid dividends for the Crimson Tide.
"We're not the most talented team," Murphy said. "We're not the most highly recruited kids. They just play together. Team chemistry is huge for us. Servant leaders, what can I do for you, not what can you do for me? That's the very beginning of our program. I'd say the sooner you realize that it's not all about you, the better off we're going to be. Twenty kids came together and the intangibles are everywhere.
"It just took eight times to get here and it was the eighth time that was a charm," Murphy said.