The University of Alabama softball team begins another highly-anticipated campaign on Thursday night against a South Alabama team ranked No. 23 in the nation.
While the season opener always brings a lot of excitement along with it, there is plenty more to be energized about with the 2015 Crimson Tide. We sorted through the many reasons for optimism to put together the five that have us ready for the first pitch to air on 95.3 the Bear.
Alabama Returns 13 Players
Coming off an SEC Championship in the regular season and a national runner-up postseason finish, the Crimson Tide is in position to once again contend for the Women's College World Series championship.
13 of Alabama's 18 players return from that team a year ago with five of those being seniors. Losing four-time All-American Jaclyn Traina will certainly hurt, but the Tide is set to replace her with experienced pitchers Leslie Jury and Sidney Littlejohn. Freshman Alexis Osorio will also play a role in the rotation.
Overall, this roster has a lot of depth and big game experience.
Crimson Tide Has a Top 5 Preseason Ranking
The two major preseason polls have been released, and Alabama makes an appearance in the top 5 in both polls. Patrick Murphy's squad ranks 3rd in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll and 4th in the ESPN.com/USA softball poll.
The top two teams ahead of Alabama in both polls are defending national champion Florida and Oregon, with Oklahoma being ahead of the Tide in the ESPN.com poll. Alabama was also picked to finish second in the SEC, behind Florida, by the SEC coaches.
Alabama Has One of the Nation's Toughest Schedules
Last year's Alabama team was ranked fourth in the country in out-of-conference RPI, and this year looks even tougher. The schedule includes 14 teams that qualified for last years NCAA tournament and eight of those are non-conference foes.
There won't be any time to settle into the season either. Seven of those matchups will come in the first four weeks of the season. The schedule includes a rematch of last year's national championship series with Florida coming to Tuscaloosa the weekend of March 21.
It's should be another exciting year inside Rhoads Stadium.
Alabama Has Won 50 games in 8 of 9 Seasons
Since head coach Patrick Murphy arrived at Alabama in 1999, there has only been one season where the team failed to win at least 40 games (Alabama won 39 in 1999). Alabama has also advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals in each of the past 10 years, making the Women's College World Series in seven of those years. With all of the talent returning, Alabama is set to extend that streak.
Haylie McCleney is Back After Playing for Team USA
All-American outfielder Haylie McCleney is back in Tuscaloosa for her junior season after an eventful offseason. The Morris, Alabama native started in the outfield for Team USA over the summer, playing alongside former teammate Jacklyn Traina.
Head Coach Patrick Murphy has high praise for McCleney, saying "To me, she's the best outfielder in the country."
She enters the 2015 season holding the Alabama records for batting average (.454) and on-base percentage (.548). It will be a lot of fun to watch what McCleney has in store for the season.