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Alabama-Auburn rivalry helping softball grow in SEC

 

Scott Walters

 

 

In the summer of 2013, the world of college softball was surprised to learn Clint Myers was leaving the Arizona State softball program to take over as head coach at Auburn. 

 

In eight seasons as head coach of the Sun Devils, Myers had led his alma mater to seven Women's College World Series appearances and two national championships. 

 

The move to Auburn was a decision based on family, and would allow Myers and wife, Katie, to be closer to their grandchildren. 

 

Auburn hired Myers with the hope he could duplicate his magic on the Plains and move the program into the national spotlight. 

 

His task was simple -- win games, play for championships, and beat Alabama. 

 

While many consider the Alabama versus Auburn "Iron Bowl" rivalry one of the best in all of college football, Myers' arrival has created similar excitement about the Alabama versus Auburn softball rivalry. 

 

A Nusz Park record crowd of 2,213 was on hand Friday morning to watch the only Alabama versus Auburn softball game of this season -- a 6-4 Auburn win that completed the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament on the Mississippi State campus. 

 

Auburn played LSU on Saturday hoping to repeat as conference tournament champions. 

 

Before Myers' arrival, Alabama had won 42 of the last 56 series meetings with Auburn. Since his arrival, Auburn has won four of the last seven. 

 

"It's fun. It's intense," Auburn sophomore pitcher Kaylee Carlson said of the rivalry. "In football, at the end of the day, both schools have a whole lot of respect for the other one. The same holds true in softball. These are the biggest games of our season. You want to play them. You want to come out on top when you do." 

 

Carlson is a California native and transfer from North Carolina. Her first taste of the rivalry took place Friday. 

 

In the SEC, 13 schools play softball. Conference schedules are 24 games in length -- eight three-game series. Alabama and Auburn didn't play one another in the regular season. 

 

In 2015, the teams split four meetings, with Alabama taking the regular-season series 2-1 and Auburn winning in the conference tournament. In 2014, the conference office didn't pair the two, but Auburn won a non-conference meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, and Alabama won in the conference tournament. 

 

The Montgomery meeting drew a crowd of 3,200 to Lagoon Park. 

 

"We should play every year, but that is something beyond our control," Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said. "When we play, it's great softball. It's good for our state. Our success and Auburn's success has helped bring so many new people to the game, so many new fans, and so many new followers. We know what Auburn brings to the table. You have to come to work and you have to play really well." 

 

Murphy in his 18th season at Alabama. He has carried the Tide to 10 WCWS appearances and the 2012 national championship. In a SEC head-to-head matchup, Alabama lost to Florida in the 2014 championship series. 

 

This season, Alabama set a new national attendance record by averaging 3,087 fans per home game at Rhoads Stadium. It was the first of the stadium upgrades around the league. Nusz Park is the latest. 

 

For several seasons, the SEC had been gaining on the Pacific 12 Conference for the distinction of being the nation's best softball conference. The SEC luring one of the Pac 12's best coaches away helped that cause. 

 

Still, the SEC didn't achieve national legitimacy until it broke through in the national championship department. Alabama stopped a run of six straight Pac-10/Pac-12 national championships when it won the 2012 title. Tennessee then lost the 2013 title series to Big 12 Conference foe Oklahoma. Florida brought the championship back to the SEC in 2014 and repeated in 2015. 

 

Auburn broke through in 2015 with a school-record 56 victories and a first appearance in the WCWS. 

 

"You have to have a belief," Myers said. "I knew from the beginning that everyone was going in the right direction here. It is easy to call the SEC the best conference in the nation. We are just trying to do our part. In our state, we have a great program we are competing against." 

 

Alabama senior outfielder Andrea Hankins feels like she has had the chance to play in the nation's best softball rivalry. 

 

"These games are a lot of fun," Hankins said. "You really don't want to win any more than you do any other conference game, but it is a rivalry, so the fans get into it more. I think that is what you enjoy the most is when you are playing your rival and the fans are really into it." 

 

The recruiting battles only will intensify in the state. Alabama has seven in-state players on its roster, while Auburn has 12. 

 

Success on the national level will help the rivalry grow, too. A year ago, the SEC advanced a conference-best five teams in the WCWS. Alabama and Auburn are set to join Florida as national seeds when selections are announced at 9 tonight (ESPNU). 

 

After pitching a complete-game five-hitter to eliminate No. 1 Florida 2-1 Friday, Carlson was asked Friday which game meant more -- the win against Alabama or the victory against the two-time reigning national champions that sent her squad to the tournament final for a second-straight season. 

 

Alabama was the answer. She didn't pause long, either. 

 

Scott Walters is a sports writer for The Dispatch. You can email him at swalters@cdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dispatchscott.

 

Scott is sports copy editor and reporter

 

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