The first few weeks of the softball season are dominated by tournaments. For northern teams, it's a chance to get outside while their home fields thaw. For southern teams, it's a chance to face top-notch competition close to home.
No. 2 Alabama plays host to the Easton SEC/ACC Challenge this weekend, which features ACC foes North Carolina and Florida State, as well as Mississippi State. It's the last of the Tide's tournaments before SEC play begins March 16, and the second time they've sponsored a tournament this year. In February, Alabama swept the annual Bama Bash by defeating Louisville, UTSA and Syracuse.
"I want fans to see good teams, see us play good competition," said coach Pat Murphy. While none of the teams that have traveled to Alabama this year is currently ranked, in the past the Tide have played some of the best teams in the country at their tournaments.
"I sent e-mails to 20 schools, inviting them to play, and within two hours, Florida State and North Carolina had agreed," said Murphy. "Mississippi State had an opening in their schedule, and it's a fairly inexpensive trip.
"It's a good RPI weekend for Florida State and North Carolina, and our fans love it. In a football-crazy town, they hear the letters FSU and want to see the game. The basketball name carries UNC. And they've both been very good at softball."
Murphy uses the RPI rankings when he sends out invites, but often books teams years in advance.
"One year we had Washington, Georgia and Baylor," said Murphy. "Washington was ranked No. 1 in one poll, and we were No. 1 in another. More than 3,300 people showed up for the game -- it was a lot of fun for fans."
While home-field advantage is one of the reasons Murphy organizes these tournaments, it does add additional work to his -- and his staff's -- already long to-do lists. One of the people most directly impacted is head groundskeeper Chris Hildreth, who maintains the award-winning field.
"Normally, we start two weeks in advance to prepare for the tournament," said Hildreth, who is in his eighth year with the Tide. "We put more grass seed down in the high-traffic areas in the outfield and make sure the infield is tighter, firmer in case it rains.
"Everybody works together to get ready for the tournaments and it's real smooth -- the only thing that can throw a kink into it is the weather."
While Murphy's job is to get the teams, set the schedule, attract sponsors and set the guidelines for the tournament, his staff handles many of the day-to-day details. Kate Petullo, the director of operations, organizes the other teams' travel, practice requests and facility needs and leaves gift baskets at the teams' hotels. Murphy and the team's four managers work with other departments, like the ticket office, to ensure a smooth production.
"We want the teams to feel welcome and have a great experience," said Murphy, who collects recommendations for restaurants and other attractions for the visiting teams. "A lot of teams from other areas say they love the college-town feeling here."
Of course, Alabama participates in more than just its own tournaments, and Murphy is equally strategic when he picks which tournaments to travel to.
"When I'm recruiting, I tell the players that I'll do my best to get as close to their hometowns as possible at least once during their careers," said Murphy, whose budget allows the team to travel to the West Coast every other year.
Alabama recently competed in the USF Fairfield Inn Tampa Tournament, a trip for junior catcher Kendall Dawson, who is from nearby Plant City. Next year, the team is scheduled to play in Eugene, Ore., the hometown of sophomore outfielder Kayla Braud.
"I'm really close to my family, so knowing that at one point, they'd all get to see me play, was really important," said Dawson. "[Hosting the team] was one of the most fun things we've done. I was so excited to have everyone meet my family and friends."
The Tide swept the USF tournament, but according to Murphy, the high point of the trip may have been the Dawsons' championship BBQ.
"My family knows how to cook," said Dawson.
Lauren Reynolds is a college sports editor for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.