Preview | Softball hits the road to begin SEC play 

These players are the ‘spark’ behind Alabama softball’s 19-1 start.

Robert Cortez, Staff Reporter

No. 4/4 Alabama softball (19-1) will pack its bags and hit the road to open up conference play beginning on Friday, Mar. 12, against longtime rival, No. 22/21 the Auburn Tigers (16-1).

“We’re opening up the SEC season with Auburn, and we’re just really excited to get started,” graduate student Elissa Brown said. 

A star pitching staff

Through the Crimson Tide’s 20-game pre-conference slate, the pitching staff has been its biggest strength. It holds the eighth-best earned run average (ERA), 1.02, in the country. The other seven schools that hold a better team ERA have at least 22 less innings pitched. The only school ranked top 50 in ERA that has pitched more innings than the Crimson Tide is Ole Miss with 130.2 innings pitched and a 2.2 ERA. 

Pitchers sophomore Lexi Kilfoyl (7-0, .16 ERA) and junior Montana Fouts (7-1, 1.18 ERA) have been the one-two punch in the circle thus far. They have the most starts on the pitching staff and are projected to each get starts this weekend. Kilfoyl leads the SEC in ERAs and has the 14th- best average in the nation. The 13 pitchers who hold a lower ERA than Kilfoyl have pitched at least 13 fewer innings than Kilfoyl. Fouts has tallied a team-leading 89 strikeouts, which also ranks second-best in the conference. 

“I’m very pleased with our pitching staff thus far,” head coach Patrick Murphy said. “I think [pitching coach] Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro has done a really good job.” 

The Alabama pitching staff will go against an Auburn offense that has scored the second-fewest runs, 84, and obtains the fourth lowest batting average, .304, in the conference. With only 11 home runs this season, the Tigers don’t pose a big home run threat. Auburn’s head coach Mikey Dean has put his players in motion in order to get runners in scoring position. Auburn has the third-most stolen bases in the conference with 35. Graduate student Bailey Hemphill, who has been the primary catcher this season, will look to cut down the Tigers on the basepaths.

‘Green-light girls’

Stealing bases is also a big part of the Alabama offense. The team ranks second in the conference, 36, which is just above Auburn. Brown and fellow graduate student Alexis Mack have the ability to quickly put themselves in scoring positions. They have combined for 22 of the team’s stolen bases. Mack also leads the team in batting averages, .451, runs scored, 22, and hits, 23. Hemphill will look to drive in Brown and Mack and has hit for a .533 average in the past five games with an overall .404 season batting average. 

“Our goal as ‘green-light girls’ on the team is to get things going and be a spark for the team,” Brown said.

The ‘triple threat’

Junior K.B. Sides may return to the lineup this weekend after sustaining a leg injury last month. Murphy said Sides will work her way into practice this week and will then discuss with doctors whether or not she will be available for the series against Auburn. Prior to her injury, Sides hit for a .364 average and went 5-for-6 stealing bases. Brown described Sides as a “triple threat” and her return would be a big addition to the lineup. 

“[Sides] has always been a spark for our team and run producer in the lineup,” Brown said. “Her experience, determination and confidence will really bring a new presence to the lineup.” 

The Alabama offense will be going against an Auburn pitching staff that has the least experience in the conference as its two pitchers are freshman, Shelby Lowe (6-0; .50 ERA) and Maddie Penta (6-0; 1.34 ERA). Both freshmen were highly ranked in the 2020 recruiting class. Penta was the No. 2 overall recruit and Lowe was No. 9. Lowe and Penta have carried their high school success into the collegiate game. Each has won an SEC Freshman of the Week award, and Lowe is projected to be the Friday night starter not only because she holds the lower ERA of the two, but also throws from the left side, which can bode well for her as the Crimson Tide predominately hits from the left.

First pitch between the in-state rivals is scheduled for 5 p.m. CT on Friday, Mar. 12, at Jane B. Moore field. The game will air on SEC Network plus.