After years on the cusp, Patrick Murphy and Alabama finally broke through and brought the Southeastern Conference its first Women's College World Series championship last year. Now, there's a budding tradition to uphold.

Murphy kept a watchful eye as Nick Saban and his Crimson Tide won back-to-back titles, emerging as the most powerful of the SEC's mighty football teams. Before that, the women's gymnastics team also repeated as NCAA champions.

Suddenly, it seems like just one championship isn't enough at 'Bama.

"This is the glory days of Alabama athletics, for sure," Murphy said.

Murphy can only hope to keep up the trend, and he might have the squad to do it with ace Jackie Traina and slugger Kaila Hunt surrounded by a bunch of speedsters - as many as seven that Murphy says could have the green light to steal at any given moment.

The first games of the 2013 season were scheduled for Thursday, with Alabama and many other teams opening up today. It's the Crimson Tide's crown to defend, another step in the sport's gradual growth from a West Coast phenomenon to one where the title is up for grabs to any number of programs across the nation.

Oklahoma, which lost the championship series 2-1 to the Tide, is loaded once again with 2012 national Player of the Year Keilani Ricketts both on the mound and in the middle of a potent lineup. Two-time national champion Arizona State, California, Tennessee, Oregon and Missouri are all near the top of the preseason rankings, and it's impossible to count out traditional powerhouses UCLA and Arizona.

Cal will do its best to move on without two-way star Valerie Arioto and navigate the Pac-12, which has had four teams win national championships in the past six years.

Then there's the motivated group at Oklahoma led by Ricketts, who had 457 strikeouts, a 1.08 ERA and also swatted 17 home runs last season. The Sooners, playing on practically a home field at the World Series stadium in Oklahoma City, won Game 1 of the finals and led before Alabama rallied following a rain delay in Game 3.

"Definitely, it hurt a lot. That was the most pain I'd ever been in, in softball," said Ricketts, a senior. "Just being one game away and one run away from winning it all."