Alabama comes full circle with Owens in the circle

For an entire generation of players who grew up in the South, playing softball has quickly become a fact of life. But it didn't used to be that way, writes Graham Hays.

Originally Published: May 3, 2007
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Sometimes the sound track that accompanies the march of history resonates with the booming voice of Franklin D. Roosevelt or the cascading lyricism of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Vann Stuedeman
University of AlabamaVann Stuedeman has seen the softball landscape change dramatically in the South.
Sometimes history in the making sounds like nothing more than the breezy drawl of University of Alabama junior Chrissy Owens explaining her motivation to play college softball.

"When I was growing up, I mean, I just put so much time into softball," Owens said. "So I didn't want to waste all that; I wanted to do something with it."

As the top pitcher for an Alabama team that just this week seized the No. 1 ranking for the first time in program history, Owens is undeniably doing something with it. And she'll have a national stage this weekend, as the Tide square off against the team they displaced at the top of the rankings -- No. 2 Tennessee (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2; Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN).

That she had the opportunity to begin with marks a dramatic difference between her world and the one her pitching coach knew when it came time for her to pack for college in 1990. Born and raised in the state, Vann Stuedeman was a pitcher who dreamed of attending the University of Alabama. But unlike Owens, who took the circle last week against Kentucky in front of a school-record crowd of more than 2,000 fans at the Alabama Softball Complex, her trip to Tuscaloosa meant separating the two identities and giving up a sport which wouldn't gain varsity status at the school until 1997.

"I wanted to go to Alabama, because every kid -- like I said, you're either an Alabama fan or an Auburn fan, and both of my parents had gone to Alabama," Stuedeman said. "So I thought I would go to Alabama and do the typical sorority thing, which is what you do in the South."

Only Stuedeman found it wasn't any easier to surrender the ball of her own volition than it had been when a coach came calling for it in the circle. After just one semester at Alabama, she made a call to the staff at Huntingdon College, an NAIA school in nearby Montgomery. Assured that an earlier offer to play softball there still stood, she transferred and enjoyed an All-American career, twice leading Huntingdon to third-place finishes in the national tournament at that level.

"I just missed it; I missed playing all those years," Stuedeman recalled.

Three years after Stuedeman finished her playing career at Huntingdon, as she prepared for her first season as an assistant coach at Division II Alabama-Huntsville, Alabama finally added softball as a varsity sport. The success of Dot Richardson and the national team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta helped introduce the game on a wide scale in the South, according to Stuedeman, but adding it to the Alabama-Auburn rivalry (Auburn also added softball when the SEC officially adopted the sport in 1997) took things to another level in the state.

"When Alabama started playing softball, all the little girls wanted to play softball in our state," Stuedeman said. "It has changed dramatically since I was in high school. And the kids in our state -- there have always been athletes in our state, but they're getting more and more softball knowledgeable each year."

Chrissy Owens
University of AlabamaChrissy Owens has the Tide in position to challenge for their first national championship.
Softball in Alabama had always been essentially a social activity for girls, even at the high school level. Like women's basketball of a bygone era, when players were relegated to one half of the court for the length of a game to keep matters more dignified, competition took a backseat to cotillion for softball players in Alabama as recently as the last decade of the 20th century.

When Stuedeman graduated from high school in 1990, at the same time grunge was staking its claim to one part of American youth culture in the Pacific Northwest, she was still playing a season split between slow-pitch and fast-pitch. In fact, it wasn't until 2000 that the Alabama High School Athletic Association stopped sanctioning slow-pitch state championships and completed the transition to fast-pitch.

That same year, Stuedeman returned to Tuscaloosa as an assistant on coach Patrick Murphy's staff and helped lead Alabama to its third winning record in four seasons of existence and its first appearance in the Women's College World Series.

Seven seasons and two more WCWS appearances later, Alabama is ranked No. 1 for the first time and poised to perhaps win not only the program's first national championship but also the first for any school from the SEC.

The Crimson Tide are an offensive juggernaut, hitting .342 as a team with both power (73 home runs and a .574 slugging percentage in 54 games) and speed (168 stolen bases). No other team that ranks in the top 10 in home runs per game has as many as 100 steals. In fact, only Georgia Tech is within 100 steals of Alabama among the top slugging teams.

"One through nine, or even one through 10 or 11, we have a threat in every hole in the lineup," Stuedeman said. "Everybody in our lineup is capable of anything at any time, and I think that's why we're being so successful offensively. There is no break; the pitcher has no break against our lineup."

What has also become clear this season is that despite the graduation of former ace Stephanie VanBrakle, who departed second on the school's all-time wins list with 97 victories, the Crimson Tide have a pitcher under Stuedeman's tutelage who is perfectly suited for this season's title aspirations.

"Chrissy is a player's pitcher," Stuedeman explained. "I don't know if that makes any sense, but she is a teammate. And I mean, when she goes out there, if things don't go her way and there's an error, or we don't score or whatever, she's not a finger-pointer. She is not one of those stereotypical prima donna pitchers."

Groomed for her current role during her freshman and sophomore seasons, first as a reliever who set the school record for saves and then last year as the No. 2 starter behind VanBrakle, Owens is 23-2 with a 1.08 ERA this season. The youngest daughter in an athletic family -- her brother Henry has a 2.30 ERA in 14 relief appearances for the Florida Marlins this season -- Owens holds the Dade County (Fla.) high school record for career strikeouts, but she began to truly understand the nuances of pitching when she began working with Stuedeman.

"She has helped me tremendously," Owens said. "I mean, I came in having never had a pitching coach before. And she's just taught me so much about the mental and physical aspects of the game, and it's just put me in a very good position to go out there and compete."

Even if that means pitching to the score and pitching to her defense instead of chasing strikeouts. Owens struck out better than a batter an inning during her first two seasons, but she's fanned just 129 in 149 innings this season. Far from a sign of trouble, Stuedeman views those numbers as a sign of a maturing pitcher putting her faith in the fielders behind her. After Tennessee, which has committed just 16 errors this season, Alabama has the most sure-handed defense in the SEC with 37 errors in 54 games.

"She trusts [the defense] 100 percent," Stuedeman said. "She'd like to get the strikeouts -- I'm sure she's not going out there and saying, 'hit it' -- but she knows if she keeps her pitch count down, then she lasts longer. So why not? Let's get a ground ball or a popup, and let's get in and out of an inning and let's get our hitters back up the plate."

Pitch counts and innings aren't quite the concern for softball pitchers that they are for baseball pitchers, but if Alabama makes a deep run in the postseason, Owens could end up throwing nearly as many innings this season as she did in her first two seasons combined. And as good as senior Blair Potter (16-0, 1.14 ERA) has been in the same support role Owens filled last season, having their No. 1 at full strength will only help the Crimson Tide survive what is shaping up as one of the deepest NCAA Tournament fields in history.

Owens admitted she didn't know anything about the story of her pitching coach's circuitous route to softball success in Tuscaloosa, and perhaps that's as it should be. For Owens, who grew up in Miami -- and an entire generation of players who grew up in the South -- playing softball has quickly become a fact of life. But even without knowing it, Owens is as much a part of history as Stuedeman. Even if only one of them can look around the anticipated full house for this weekend's nationally televised showdown in Knoxville and recall how things were just 10 or 15 years ago, they are equal parts of the story.

"It's incredible to think about what all coach Murphy has done with this program in such a short period of time," Stuedeman said. "I mean, I grew up in Alabama; there was no program here, there was not much fast-pitch softball in our state. And for me to be a part of something of this magnitude … I'm tickled that he's been able to lead us into the No. 1 ranking, and I'm glad to have been a part of the ship, on the boat, I guess."

Softball's Mayflower has officially landed in the South.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.