By David King, founder of Triple Crown Sports
Pitchers as Position Players … Position Players as Pitchers
Kentucky sets the tone on this topic as coach Rachel Lawson seems to be rewarded by hitting her pitchers and pitching her hitters. Autumn Humes leads the way as a No. 1 pitcher option and then comes right back in the lineup and swings as does her counterpart, Grace Baalman. Miranda Stoddard relieved on the mound in the quarterfinals with Alabama straight from third base. Pitchers who hit are still 50/50 but it usually is down to how the coach views it. Lawson sets the tone here – once a player, always a player. This writer loves what Lawson does.
Now take Makinzy Herzog from Texas A&M, a Florida State transfer who came back home to Texas as a true utility player. In what was a breathtaking matchup of Tennessee and A&M, Herzog hit two doubles and two homers in an amazing nine-inning challenge. Then she was asked to close out from the fifth from the circle. Truly an exciting two-way player, one of the best. She lost the game but not the hearts of fans who saw her level of talent and competitiveness.
Flame Throwers and Dart Throwers
When you think it is a 70 mph-plus league, you then see that Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine answer – well, no it is not. There is still room from the true pitcher who can tease the corners and never show the plate. On comes Mizzou’s Jordan Weber throwing 58-61 and taking a victory from the mighty pitching stable of LSU; then Humes from Kentucky hovering around 61-63, Shelbi Sunseri of LSU from 62-66, and Elizabeth Hightower from Florida throwing screwball after screwball for Florida at 63 and leading them to the finish line in both conference play and the SEC Tourney. And the entire Arkansas team under Courtney Diefel is superb at location, location, location with all-SEC Mary Haff leading the way.
In the age-old argument about velocity versus location with movement, it seems that there is room for both skills.
Now with that said, we all were in awe of the specimens on the mound who hit 70 mph: Ali Kilponen, LSU (71), Lexi Kilfoyl, Alabama (71), Maddie Penta, Auburn (70), Alyssa Loza, Mississippi State (70), Herzog, A&M (72), and Lauren Krings, Mizzou (72) to go with a patchwork of others who trended that way during the tourney.
But two really stand out right now on the flame thrower with a dart mentality – Ashley Rogers from Tennessee and Montana Fouts from Alabama. Arguably both are the refinement of movement and velocity with a location that is exact. Then Rogers throws 68 and Fouts top it all at 74.
They stand as all-SEC pitchers with Haff, and their results in the tournament proved nothing less. Rogers kept Tennessee around in the first two games until the miracle workers with the Lady Vols proved they had “no quit” and nipped both Texas A&M and co-conference champ Arkansas. In the semifinal matchup, her body said no more and the bullpen took over from the start to lead a magnificent 7-6 battle and eventual loss to Florida. Fouts in the same Tennessee game paced Alabama to a lead and commanded the game only to leave ahead 4-2 and return in 20 minutes with a 5-4 deficit. She finished it in style, throwing a closeout inside corner drop to star Ally Shipman (who had a dominant tournament) to freeze her for the semi win.
Dominant Players and Upcoming Stars
As good as Herzog is, Fouts is as well. And the first two days saw the SEC Player of the Year, Bailey Hemphill of Alabama, gather more admirers. She managed to bail out the Tide with a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth to retake the lead on Tennessee and hold it. But her effort in the early games was the difference as she took out that great Kentucky squad with two bombs that left the night air seemingly never to land. And she went the distance behind the plate – the adage that catchers loose about .100 points in average due to wear and tear in the season holds no water with her or the phenom from Kentucky, Kayla Kowalik. Leading off and hitting an amazing .511, Kowalik managed to steal the hearts of many with her abilities to slap, power hit, fight off pitches and lead her roster from behind the dish. And freshman teammate Erin Coffel at shortstop stole my heart with her defense and bat. Aliyah Andrews of LSU continued to roam the outfield with the prowess of a star MLB player. Shipman was ready to take her sister’s ESPN gig as she did it all. What I saw is what many of you have grown to understand -- women’s softball is really good, and the SEC is one of the best platforms to view this. And my story has notes on 20 others that are worthy!
Mizzou is Scary
Missouri has a mentality at the plate that is hard to break. They are top to bottom what all coaches (and pitchers) dread to face. Great patient zones as seen in their OBP, and angry balanced hitters – it’s as complete a batting order as I have witnessed at the SEC in a while. But bats go cold, and eventually the great Florida team got one silent inning out of them after a go-ahead run in the sixth in the semis. Coach Larissa Anderson and Coach Chris Malveaux have got something going on; freshmen Jenna Laird leads off and plays short and is simply a star. Then it just gets tougher and meaner – if their developing pitching staff can hold up, look for Mizzou to make noise in the NCAA Tournament. And that left fielder, who is she? Wow, I counted seven diving or overhead catches from Casidy Chaumont.
COVID Does Something Special
We all have our stories about how the pandemic stopped our lives in many ways. What I saw was needed in sports. What happened in the NBA Bubble is going on everywhere. Opponents are talking at the hotel, pregame, at the plate, on first base, after the game, on the grassy knoll, in the outfield stands, everywhere. And they are remembering that competition can be held between friends of the highest magnitude and nothing will be lost in the game or after it. Their smiles as they talked to each other bring tears to my eyes now. Pure love of each other and of this game. And yes, many of the coaches were the same. They shared with each other in public their respect of all! This fan says thank you!
NCAA Tournament - Who to watch for!
Well maybe just watch for the SEC in general. Alabama has superstars; Florida looks hot and is loaded, and both have deep experience. Mizzou is like the Legion of 300 from Sparta. Arkansas is steady, steady, steady and good. Tennessee is hungry and has a star pitcher. LSU has a stable of great arms and a Willie Mays-style impact bat in Taylor Pleasants. Kentucky will steal your heart and can really play, everywhere. Mississippi State has three big hammers. Texas A&M has a star and potential. Ole Miss is good and on its way up again. Auburn has the arms ready to go but is young, so maybe. Georgia has a great battery and more. South Carolina is dangerous to all. And all these programs have each other to sharpen their skills upon. Look out America. I know the Big 12 is wildly tough this year, the Pac-12 has the defending champs and more ... and the ACC is adding depth at the top. The Big Ten is an unknown in 2021 and the AAC has four good squads. Don’t forget about the group of dangerous independents.
NCAA champion from the SEC? Maybe this will be No. 4 (since 2012) for the conference, but I could not tell you which of those top four or five are best suited for a run. But expect the league to be a true wrecking ball at regionals.