Inside Alabama Softball’s Busy Offseason

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Stanford shut out Alabama softball last May, it snapped several streaks and ended the season prematurely for the Crimson Tide by Alabama standards. And it kicked off a jam-packed offseason for Alabama head coach Patrick Murphy and the program.

“It was a busy summer, but typical of a Division I coach—you just never know what’s around the corner,” Murphy told BamaCentral. “So I guess I’d rather have it that way than a boring summer.”

And it was anything but a boring summer.

Within two days of the season ending, six players entered the transfer portal. Murphy talked to fellow coaches at Alabama and coaching friends at Northern Iowa about dealing with the transfer portal. Instead of just having to plan for high schoolers doing official visits in October, the first two weeks in July became the primary time for hosting visits for transfer portal prospects.

“You gotta be happy where you’re at, period,” Murphy said. “And if you’re not happy, there’s an opportunity somewhere else. Go be happy.”

Also within two days of the conclusion of the season, Montana Fouts, Ally Shipman and Ashley Prange all announced their intentions to return for a fifth year. For both Fouts and Shipman, it was an easy decision. Alabama’s star pitcher said there was no doubt what she was going to do.

“If Murph was gonna have me, I was gonna be here,” Fouts told BamaCentral. “Just because he’s like a second dad to me, and I love the program and am very passionate about what we do here and what we’re about. He really means it when he says person over athlete. It says it in our clubhouse like pretty much everywhere. I feel like we do what we preach, so I respect it, and I’m happy to be a part of it— blessed to be part of it for another year.”

As the summer went on, Alabama added a late addition to the 2022 signing class with outfielder Kristen White and the Crimson Tide picked up three players from the transfer portal in outfielder Faith Hensley, pitcher Lauren Esman and utility player Emma Broadfoot.

In July, Fouts represented the university and her country at the World Games in Birmingham, playing with former Alabama great Haylie McCleney and Team USA on the way to a gold medal. Murphy was in attendance at several of the games, including the gold-medal matchup with Japan.

“Playing with USA’s always a good opportunity because I get to learn a lot from all those girls,” Fouts said. “Obviously they’ve been playing for a while. They’re the best in the game, so being able to take not only softball things from them, but leadership things and bringing them to the team.”

Right after classes started in mid-August, Alabama experienced its first coaching change since 2012 when Stephanie VanBrakle Prothro accepted the job as the Memphis head coach after 11 years serving as the Crimson Tide’s pitching coach. Everyone around the Alabama program was and is happy for Prothro and wishes their success with the Tigers.

A few weeks later, Lance McMahon as the new pitching coach after spending the last six seasons with Illinois and over a decade of Power Five experience. According to Murphy, all the athletes love him, and he finds just what each of Alabama’s four pitchers need.

As the fall semester began, the team began hitting the weight room hard under the guidance of strength coach Michelle Diltz.

“We were all working our butts off, even through all the fall practices,” Shipman said. “You could see the improvement from day one to now, and the buy-in has been incredible from everybody. We mesh really well. Everybody understands their role and their job.”

Murphy said that he got the whole softball staff together in the offseason to go over every player one-by-one for any concerns, ideas or issues. When it was Diltz’s turn, she was just relaying personal record after personal record that the different athletes had set.

“Usually as a senior, your ability to get better in the weight room gets tinier and tinier,” Murphy said. “Montana had her PR in the high jump, which she obviously worked hard. That’s the key. That’s the key thing about it all. All of them really went hard in the weight room, and the numbers proved it.”

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That seemed to be a theme when talking to Fouts and Shipman. Fouts has been around the program longer than Shipman, who transferred in from Tennessee last season, but both have played college softball for four years. They’ve seen and experienced different team dynamics.

But through this offseason, even with three-a-day practices in January that started earlier than usual, Fouts really likes what she’s seen from Team 27.

“I love this team— probably, it’s been my favorite so far, honestly, to be a part,” Fouts said. “Everybody’s so athletic. The buy-in is there. I’m excited to watch them compete in the games.”

As leaders on the team, both fifth-year grad students said it hasn’t been hard to get the players to lock in to the proper mindset. With five freshmen and three transfers, there are a lot of new faces and personalities to balance. A team retreat to Eutaw, Alabama in the fall helped the players find commonalities between each other according to Murphy.

Perhaps the cherry on top of the offseason changes was Kenleigh Cahalan reclassifying from 2024 to the class of 2023 to join the Crimson Tide this spring. And according to Fouts, Cahalan is fitting right in. And she’s not the only one.

“I give credit to them,” Shipman said about the new players. “They’ve done a great job of just showing us who they truly are from day one. That makes it a whole lot easier on our part if we can really get to know them early. So now we all understand each other and what each one of us needs and how to push each other and when you need to love on each other. So I think that person to person relationship we have helps us a lot.”

All the buy-in and focus has a collective purpose: taking Alabama back to Oklahoma City and the Women’s College World Series. Murphy said a phrase the team uses a lot during team meetings is “speak it into existence.”

A video put together by the softball social media team on the first day of spring practice showed Shipman saying, “The road to the Women’s College World Series starts now.”

Murphy never likes talking about expectations, but said he’s fine with the girls brining it up themselves. He called OKC the unspoken goal that once you do it, you want to go back.

“I think just being here at Alabama, it’s not just the goal, but it’s kind of the expectation,” Shipman said about getting back to the WCWS. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why you come to Bama, to be competing for the national title. And so we have that big picture goal in mind, but we also try to take day by day smaller goals to get there. So that’s always our focus, but day by day, we’re focusing on the little things because we know that’s what’s gonna get us there in the end.”

With three of Alabama’s four fifth-years being transfers, Fouts is the only one who has been to the WCWS. The Crimson Tide made semifinal runs in both 2019 and 2021. This upcoming season is the last opportunity for Fouts, Shipman, Prange and Hensley. However, it’s not just a goal for those, but all of Team 27, and all players will be called on at various points throughout the season to make that happen.

For the first time since 2010, the road back to OKC starts at home. Alabama opens the season at Rhoads Stadium Feb. 12 with a double header against Leigh and Georgia Southern.

In just a few weeks the proclaimed “best fans in college softball” will be piled into Rhoads Stadium, and the ball will be pitched. This crazy offseason will come to a close, and the first chapter will begin for Team 27.

So see:

Outfielder Faith Hensley Explains Why She Transferred to Alabama

World Games Create Homecoming Opportunity for Two of Alabama Softball’s Greatest

After Hours at a Buc-ee’s in Athens: The Refuge for an Emotionally Strained Team

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