By (Ben Boynton)

The first games of every softball season hold a special meaning for the coaches and players. For senior third baseman Marisa Runyon, the Kickin’ Chicken Classic in Conway, South Carolina will be very special.

On one hand, it’s the beginning of her final season in crimson and white. On the other, Runyon is going home.

“I’m excited, I’ve got a lot of family coming in from New York where I’m originally from and I’m just ready to share my family with the team,” Runyon said. “I don’t think a lot of programs do this, there’s a lot of coaches who aren’t going to take the time to go on a home trip so it really means a lot.”

Runyon grew up in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, roughly half an hour away from Conway. The team will be spending Friday night at Runyon’s house, enjoying a home cooked meal.

“It’s special that I get to share my family with this team and it should be a lot of fun,” Runyon said.

The weekend features five games from February 10-12, with two against Towson, two against host Coastal Carolina, and one game against Youngstown State. With the team ranked No. 7 to start the season, Coach Patrick Murphy said the target will be on Alabama’s back this weekend, but he expects his team to respond positively.

“It doesn’t matter who we play. The name on the jersey, the team, does not matter,” Murphy said. “Whoever we play, I want the pitcher to have a great starting outing, and the batters to battle their butts off in the box and play great defense.”

The team returns its full pitching staff this season, headlined by junior Alexis Osorio, a pre-season All-SEC selection. Senior Sydney Littlejohn, a second team All-American last year, also returns alongside sophomore Madi Moore who went 9-0 in her limited action last season. Returning all three has helped the team hold better practices.

“They get to see movement, they get to see Sydney’s curve, the rise ball, a lefty [Moore] and hopefully that will pay off this weekend, because usually at the beginning of the year the pitchers are way ahead of the hitters and I’m hoping that we’re ahead of the pitching we’ll see in South Carolina,” Murphy said.

One spot in the lineup that the team has some turnover in is the center field position. When Haylie McCleney graduated, the Crimson Tide lost a four-time All-American who was the program leader in batting average, on base percentage, walks and triples. McCleney also served as the leadoff hitter.

Two players have gotten long looks in center field this spring, with freshman Elissa Brown and sophomore Merris Schroder spending time in the position.

“It still could go either way,” Murphy said. “I think Elissa’s had some really strong scrimmages. The first scrimmage she was 4-5 and the other scrimmage she made some really good defensive plays…that was a little Haylie-ish, so that was fun to see. Merris has made some good catches too; I’d be happy with either one to be honest.”

Murphy said that every player on the team would get an opportunity to play at some point over the five games, so it’s possible both Brown and Schroder will get their chance to win the job during the early part of the season. Murphy also mentioned Brown as a potential leadoff batter.

Several other positions in the outfield and infield are potentially up for grabs, as Murphy said he doesn’t quite have a starting nine ironed out yet. Murphy said that it’s difficult to make those decisions when he has so many players who can contribute. He made the team do an exercise where they filled out lineup cards to show them how tough it can be.

“We did that on Sunday and literally almost everyone had put somebody else in the lineup; like all 18 had been a starter,” Murphy said. “I just like to see where they would put themselves and the total team…I want them to realize that [it’s hard] because at the very beginning of the season I said the hardest thing it’s going to come down to is me putting nine people on a lineup card.”

Runyon will most likely find herself on that lineup card at her traditional third base position. She and her fellow seniors have an opportunity to accomplish something special before they graduate, and Runyon would love to go out on a high note.

“As a senior class, we have the opportunity to be the first class to go to the World Series all four years,” Runyon said. “It’s never happened in the program’s history, so I think that would be really special for our senior class if we could get to the World Series one more time and obviously win a national championship if that happens.”

…read more

Source:: The Crimson White Sports