First, before you get to the "Too Long, Didn't Read," the team will be back at Jane B Moore Field this afternoon (Monday, 1 June) at 4:30pm CDT. If you can be there, then be there!
I spent some of Sunday evening trying to decide just what to write about this team. I said in yesterday's final game recap that this was one of the most exciting Auburn teams I've ever followed. That's very much true. They may even top the 2013 football team in terms of excitement because of the novelty of the situation. It was even more exciting because we know it is not going to remain a novelty.
This team was a record setter. Let's just take a look at what they set records for:
Batting Average: .339
Home Runs: 99
Extra Base Hits: 207
Total Bases: 1,022
Slugging %: .571
Base on Balls: 356
On Base %: .459
Sacrifice Flies: 27
Slugging %: .809, Emily Carosone
Runs Scored: 88, Emily Carosone
RBI: 80, Emily Carosone
Total Bases: 157, Emily Carosone
Walks: 49, Kasey Cooper
Home Runs: 19, Jade Rhodes
Hits: 86, Tiffany Howard
All of those were either broken from records set last season or nearly set last season. Jade Rhodes set the record for most individual home runs in a season with 19, which is one better than Kasey Cooper hit last season as a Freshman. I am not going to start calling her the Colossus of Rhodes because of her ability to hit colossal home runs (yes, I know it doesn't quite fit, shut up, I thought it sounded cool). Oh, and Kasey Cooper hit 18 again, this season. So did Emily Carosone. All three of them will be back next season.
All of those record setters will be back next season. There were only three seniors on this team. That's one thing that made it all so exciting. This was not a fluke. This was not a one-off season. This is a power-house being built right in front of our eyes!
The Journey Begins
I learned softball as the season went along. It's not that I didn't care for the sport before, it's just that I never took the time to learn about it. Auburn teams were fair to middling for most of the team's existence. When Auburn hired Clint Myers, I looked up his resume and took notice. Hiring someone with that track record almost ensures at least some level of success will come.
I didn't really pay attention for most of last season. I loved seeing that the ladies made the Regional last year and put up a fight to go further. I knew success was coming.
When this season began, I watched from the periphery until SEC play. That's when I really started to take notice. When this team started going through the season winning SEC series after SEC series, I knew they were a force. The SEC has been a power conference in Softball, and Auburn was beating almost everyone they played.
I still wasn't too involved, though. I knew some of the names. I knew the team was known for hitting the long ball. My interest slowly built over the season. I knew they were doing really well, but I didn't know just how well. It wasn't until the final series of the regular season that I started to become a real softball fan.
I did not know until that final weekend that Auburn entered with a chance to win the SEC regular season title. I followed what happened as closely as I could with the games that weekend. I still had not watched a complete game, though. I'd seen bits and pieces, but not a whole game.
The first softball game of my life that I watched from beginning to end was the SEC Tournament Championship against Tennessee. Of all the games to be my first, that was one hell of a game. The girls went up, they went down, they fought back through a tough situation at the last moment, and they triumphed.
What struck me was that as tough as that game was, they never looked out of it. While the SEC Network continuously showed shot after shot of the Vols fans and never a single Auburn fan and talked of that Tennessee team while largely ignoring Auburn, the Tigers never gave up. When it was all on the line, they did what champions do and they found a way to win.
If I wasn't watching every game of the Regional, I was glued to Twitter to follow along. It as a sight to behold as the pictures flowed in of sold out Jane B. Moore Field. The fans set up outside the stadium. The lines. Just the general excitement.
I was running errands with the girlfriend during the first half of the first Super Regional game. I was still glued to Twitter, watching in dismay as inning after inning ended with the bases loaded and Auburn failing to keep pace with the Ragin' Cajuns. We made it home in time to watch that bottom of the 7th inning, though. It's a testament to this team that I knew even then that they were capable of winning.
And win they did. The last half-inning of regulation might be some of the most stressful non-football related sports watching I've ever experienced. I was on the edge of my couch as batter after batter worked the UL-Lafayette pitcher and the Tigers plated five runs on walks. When they won the game in extra innings I knew in my heart they were bound for Oklahoma City. The emotional letdown for ULL must have been tremendous.
Sure enough, they finished the drill on Saturday. I wasn't able to watch the end of the game. I was driving to my hometown for my mother's 60th birthday party. I was following as closely as I could, though. I stopped to write an exultant article from my phone as soon as I was able to announce that our Tigers were going to the Women's College World Series!
The excitement among the Auburn Family about softball was building in a tangible way. I watched as our small little site with relatively few page views and readers among other SB Nation blogs started putting up numbers even bigger than we have during football season. The majority of those hits were going to the softball articles. Thousands of people were searching for how to watch this team. I had visible proof before my eyes of the phenomenon this team was creating.
The loss to LSU was heart breaking. Climbing into the finals from the Loser's Bracket is near impossible. Only two teams have won it all after losing Game 1 in the thirty-three year history of the Women's College World Series. I knew the Tigers had a good chance against Tennessee given the regular season and SEC Championship. I was really worried about playing LSU again in the elimination game.
That's when my lack of knowledge about softball began to show. I had an article pre-written to publish as soon as the Tennessee game ended on the next game against LSU. I wrote it late the night before, because I was that sure the Tigers would win. I started hearing on the broadcast that Auburn would be playing UCLA because the Loser's Bracket flips. This was yet another new thing about softball to me. I was learning on the job! UCLA is a dominant program historically. I hadn't followed them this season, but I felt good about Auburn's chances because I had confidence in our girls in any game.
I had to follow that UCLA game entirely on Twitter since I was at my cousin's wedding. Auburn fell behind by five runs. That was ok, though. There was time. Sure enough, the Tigers came roaring back with six of their own! Then it was back and forth until the end of regulation. I was in the parking lot ready to leave and writing a victory article when Auburn was in the Bottom of the 7th. Then the base-running mishap.
I decided we would go ahead and leave Amicalola Falls State Park and get on the road for the hour and a half drive back to Atlanta. I was trying to keep up with the game via WatchESPN (thank goodness for the "trick" I used to keep unlimited data on my phone!). The game lasted until we were back on I-285 almost an hour and twenty minutes after we left.
They were coming off two grueling games in one day, little rest, and the best team in the nation in the dugout across the field; yet, I still had confidence they could win on Sunday. They were so close. They hit the best pitcher (and best player) in college softball better than almost anyone else has this season. They played awesome defense just as we've come to know and love. It just wasn't enough.
It was encouraging to see them fight all the way back to the final four in their first trip to the Women's College World Series. It was heart breaking to see it end just shy of the finals.
I wish I could thank each and every player by name. There are some specific few I could name and list reasons for how enjoyable they made softball be to this 33 year old guy with virtually no experience with the sport. However, I don't want to leave anyone out, and this group deserves to be recognized for the TEAM that they are. So thank you, Auburn Softball. Thank you for the excitement, the stress, the highs and lows, the amazing comebacks, the grit and heart you showed, and your refusal to quit.
You did something I never would have thought possible. You made Auburn a Softball school. You rallied the Auburn Family behind you in a way I've never really seen for any sport other than football. You gave us something new and exciting to love about this wonderful school in this little village on the rolling Plains of eastern Alabama.
Now let's do it again, next year.
War Eagle. Always.