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    Inside SEC Softball with Tommy Deas

    It’s hard to look at the Alabama Crimson Tide and Florida Gators and not notice the similarities on the softball field.

    While the programs are hardly identical-twins-separated-at-birth mirror images, they have a lot in common:

    They win, and win big.

    They hit home runs.

    They have outstanding pitching.

    They have coaches who rank among the nation’s best in career winning percentage, both hovering around the 80 percent mark.

    And they have something else in common. This weekend, they’ll be playing for the Southeastern Conference championship.

    Again.

    It will play out Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Rhoads Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with ESPN2 televising nationally on Saturday and the Sunday game on ESPNU.

    “I think the consistency of success over the last five or six years, it seems like it’s come down to us and them – for sure the last three years,” Alabama coach Patrick Murphy said.

    Florida won the SEC regular-season title in 2008 and ’09. Alabama won it the last two seasons.

    This time, it will be settled head-to-head. Alabama is 45-5 overall, 21-4 in SEC play. Florida is 43-8, 20-5 in the league.

    The scenarios are intriguing, and myriad. If Florida sweeps, it takes the league title outright. Alabama wins the league outright if it wins two games or sweeps. If Florida wins two out of three, it shares the league title with both Alabama and Tennessee, which sits in the clubhouse with a completed league record of 22-6.

    Florida coach Tim Walton likes the showdown in the final weekend of the regular season.

    “I think it’s not only good for TV, it’s good for softball, it’s good for the NCAA, it’s good for everybody,” he said. “I think this is good for both teams, being able to give Alabama an opportunity at home to win a championship but also in the big picture to prepare to play for a national championship.

    “We get to go into a place where a lot of people are rooting against you. It’s a character-building experience. To me, nothing’s at stake. If we win two or lose two or win three or lose three, it doesn’t mean anything if we continue to improve on the things we need to improve upon.”

    Walton, in his seventh year at Florida, has taken the Gators to the Women’s College World Series for four years in a row. Murphy, in his 14th season at UA, has taken the Crimson Tide to Oklahoma City seven times, including three of the last four years.

    Both coaches agree that each program has won in recent years with standout pitching, power hitting and defense. Each looks at the other and sees a hands-on coach who is driven to succeed, and who recruits tirelessly. And while they do go head-to-head in recruiting battles from time to time, the majority of each roster is made up of players the other program didn’t recruit.

    “For the most part we recruit players that fit what we do, that fit our teams,” Walton said.

    There are, however, differences.

    “I think we’ve had more speed overall,” Murphy said. “We try to get a little more speed (in the lineup) than they do, but it works for them.”

    In this weekend’s matchup, the numbers seem to favor Alabama on offense and Florida in pitching and defense.

    Alabama is batting .321 with 83 home runs and 109 stolen bases. Florida is hitting .304 with 59 homers and 64 steals. The Gators have a 1.13 team earned-run average and a .976 fielding percentage, with Alabama carrying a 2.15 ERA with a .962 fielding percentage.

    The Gators have two ace pitchers in Hannah Rogers (25-4, 1.03 ERA) and Lauren Haeger (13-4, 1.46 ERA). Alabama relies heavily on ironwoman Jackie Traina (29-1, 1.71 ERA).

    Murphy likes the way Florida plays.

    “They play classy softball,” he said of the Gators. “They’re good sportsmen, do the things we like to do. I don’t think I can remember a game where their kids did something that really bugged me. They just play the right way. It’s a good rivalry. There’s a respect there. There’s not a hatred.”

    Walton sees an Alabama team that will be a worthy opponent on championship weekend.

    “I still don’t see very many, if any, weaknesses,” he said. “You still see the stolen bases, you still see runs, you still see a very impressive team that deserves to be at the top of the standings in the SEC going into the last weekend of the year. You see quality of play.”

    And that’s exactly what both coaches expect the fans to see this weekend: top-caliber softball.

    “All the teams in the conference this year, they were better,” Murphy said. “Like Arkansas had a heck of a leadoff hitter, a freshman, that they didn’t have last year and she improved them by a ton. South Carolina was better – they might not have won as many games as they wanted, but they gave everybody tough games. It was like that all over (the SEC). I think for both of us to be in this position is a good thing for both teams.

    “It’s a long, long marathon season in the SEC, one of the longest with the 28-game conference schedule. Whoever did the scheduling did a really good job, and then both teams have done a really good job, obviously, of setting themselves up for this weekend.”

    Stat of the week

    Arkansas freshman Devon Wallace hit four home runs last weekend against Alabama while batting .700. Arkansas defeated Alabama last Saturday, 8-1, marking the first Arkansas victory over the Crimson Tide since 2002 -- a span of 31 games.

    Other notable stats: Alabama sophomore Kaila Hunt and senior Amanda Locke lead the conference with 16 home runs apiece, the most by any two players on a team in Alabama history since 2010, when Locke and Charlotte Morgan each hit 17, followed by Whitney Larsen with 15. The most home runs by any two players in Alabama’s history was 40, set in 1998 by All-American Kelly Kretschman (25) and Carrie Moreman (15). ... Mississippi dominated last month with a 13-2 record, securing the best April winning percentage (.867) in school history. MSU has won 11-straight games (longest streak in SEC West), its longest since the 2008 team began the season 11-0. ... Tennessee sophomore left fielder Melissa Davin has registered a .588 batting average (10-for-17) over her last eight games with a team-best four home runs and 10 RBIs with a slugging percentage of 1.294, reaching successfully 14 of the 21 total times she’s stepped to the plate over that stretch. ... Brittany Mack delivered her first career hit and first career RBI, a two-out RBI double during the fifth inning to lift LSU to a 1-0 victory over Georgia last weekend. ... SEC Pitcher of the Week Chanda Bell of Kentucky struck out 21 batters and walked just two in a pair of wins over Florida last weekend. She struck out 10.5 batters for every one she walked, while limiting the Gators to just one run in 14 innings of work. The shutout in the opening victory was just the fourth of the year against Florida, and the 13 strikeouts she threw in the second victory was the second-highest total against Florida in 2012.

    Tommy Deas is executive sports editor of The Tuscaloosa News and has covered SEC softball since 1997