In what has become the year of Alabama athletics, former Greenbrier softball star Kaila Hunt played a big role in the latest Crimson Tide national championship.
Hunt’s opening run settled the team’s nerves and ignited a rain-interrupted rally by Alabama in the decisive game against Oklahoma at the Women’s College World Series on Wednesday, lifting the Tide to a 5-4 victory and the school’s fourth national title of 2012.
“It’s obviously a dream come true and something I’ve been working for since I was 6,” said Hunt, a sophomore shortstop.
Alabama fell behind 3-0 early in the decisive game, and it was Hunt who proved the comeback catalyst in the fourth inning.
She led off with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. After two Tide outs, she moved to third on another wild pitch and scored on yet another to break the ice.
At that point, play was suspended because of rain that had earlier delayed the start for three hours. Alabama’s players kept themselves and their fans entertained during the 15-minute suspension by leading cheers.
“One thing that got us fired up was a rain delay,” Hunt said. “Right after I scored there was a 15-minute delay. We didn’t want that, so we led cheers with fans and it kind of got us fired up. It switched momentum from them to us. We got three consecutive (two-out) hits when we came back and ended up taking the lead.”
The victory was a watershed moment not only for the Tide but also for the Southeastern Conference. Since the WCWS began in 1982, not a single team from the SEC had ever won it despite 20 trips by member schools.
In fact, Michigan in 2005 had been the only team from east of the Mississippi River to win the event, which has been dominated by the Pac-12 and Big 12.
“Granted, here in the South, Division I softball has only been around about 15 years,” Hunt said. “But the South is slowly catching up. We caught up.”
Part of that is Alabama coach Patrick Murphy’s philosophy of recruiting what he calls GRITS – girls raised in the South.
One player on the Tide roster (Kayla Braud) comes from Oregon. The rest were Southern raised like Hunt.
“For the majority, it’s been Florida, Alabama and Texas with a lot of Georgia kids mixed in because they’ve really started to get good in the last five years,” Murphy said before the WCWS started.
Hunt was one of those Georgia imports. She established Greenbrier’s career home run record with 24. She was The Augusta Chronicle and Class AAAAA softball player of the year in 2009 after a dominating senior season.
Her choice to attend Alabama was made after just one visit to the school her freshman year.
“I fell in love with coaches and the players,” she said. “They made me so welcome. It felt like home away from home.
“Even if they’d been one of the middle-of-the-pack programs, I still would have chosen them. You’ve got to like where you’re going.”
Alabama, however, was already on the brink of breaking out. Hunt started 55 of the 61 games she played as a true freshman at second base, with senior Whitney Larson already set at shortstop. Hunt batted .299 with 10 home runs and 36 RBI.
Alabama came up one game short of reaching the championship series at the 2011 WCWS.
“In a sense it was a disappointment,” Hunt said. “But obviously we had a great team, too.”
This year she moved to her more familiar post at shortstop, starting all 64 games she played. She led the team in home runs (21), RBI (77) and slugging percentage (.715).
The Tide won 60 games and made it all the way through the winner’s bracket of the WCWS for the first time, knocking off Tennessee, Arizona State and top-seed California. Then it rallied from an opening loss in the best-of-three championship series against Oklahoma.
“From last year to this year we graduated only two seniors and had a lot of starters come back,” Hunt said. “It was one of our goals from the very beginning. We knew we had the potential.”
Hunt admits that it felt like destiny was on their side this season. Alabama won the BCS football title in January setting off a spree of national titles by Tide women’s teams. Gymnastics won an NCAA crown last month and women’s golf took the title just a week before the softball team.
“One of our teammate’s parents are gymnastic coaches and they won in about middle of our season,” Hunt said. “We talked about what if that’s us in that position.”
They pulled it off, and Hunt believes it could just be the start.
“Next year we’ll have five seniors,” she said. “Our seniors this year set the bar to live up to. We’ve got four or five good freshman coming in to fill in spots. I think we still have a shot at doing this again.”