Old habits are hard to break. So forgive Marla Townsend for driving past the new on-campus UAB softball field Jan. 11, the first day of practice. The softball coach was headed to George Ward Park — the place where the Blazers had held every practice and played every game during its first 10 years of existence.

An agreement struck in several years ago in Tuscaloosa will bring the University of Alabama to UAB for the women’s softball home-opener Tuesday, Feb. 23.
“I was quite embarrassed that I did that,” Townsend says. “I had in my head that I was headed to practice. I wasn’t thinking about it being at the new field.”

Townsend and her team made it to practice in the place they can now call their own — a newly constructed field with full-sized dugouts, a state-of-the-art scoreboard and 350 spectator seats.

“When the girls walked in and stepped in that dugout — they were just so excited,” Townsend says. “There was an enormous sense of ownership and pride.”

The Blazers are practicing at the new field on 11th Street South adjacent to the UAB baseball field almost daily as they prepare for this season — the 11th in school history. Their season opener is Feb. 12 at the Mississippi State Bulldog Classic, and anticipation already is building for the Tuesday, Feb. 23 home-opener against second-ranked national power and rival Alabama at 6:30 p.m.

UAB opened the Crimson Tide’s softball stadium in 2000 and recorded the first hit, RBI and run. Several years later, Townsend told Alabama coach Patrick Murphy that she wanted the Crimson Tide to return the favor when UAB constructed its own field, and he agreed to do it.
“I’m glad we were able to make it happen,” Townsend says.

UAB’s first 10 years at George Ward Park are filled with memories — both good and bad.
But Townsend says her teams always appreciated the opportunity to play at the facility and did everything they could to help maintain it.

“The neat thing about these ladies — and it’s been this way since day one — they took pride in George Ward Park,” Townsend says. “They took care of the field, and they worked on it. They picked up trash, they raked and they worked. I think that’s why there’s a tremendous sense of ownership now with the new field. They have something they can call their own.”

Townsend saw one of the benefits of the new field the first day of practice — a scene she long has dreamed of witnessing. Midway into practice, several players from the baseball team made their way over to the field to watch.

“I just had this wonderful feeling come over me when I saw that because that’s what we want,” Townsend says. “We want to be side-by-side with baseball and soccer — all of us right there together where we can support each other.”

Program rewarded
The new facility has recessed dugouts, bullpens for each team, storage facilities and a scorer’s platform with a public-address system.

The spacious dugouts have restrooms, a training area, power outlets and phone lines. There also are racks and additional space to hang equipment bags, and the large scoreboard in right field features a state-of-the-art LED video screen.

The playing surface also is impressive. The outfield has an elaborate draining system that will enable the field to dry quickly and enhances player safety.

UAB Athletics Director Brian Mackin says the field is a reflection of years of dedication by Townsend, her coaches and players to build a quality program.

“It’s a reward to Marla Townsend and all her hard work for more than a decade, and it’s a showcase for our current and former student athletes,” Mackin says. “They’ve all been part of building a program, and now they have an on-campus stadium to show for their work.”

The softball field is part of the Phase II facility plan for athletics, which involves bringing all sports on to campus. The construction also includes new hitting facilities for the softball and baseball programs. A field house with locker rooms and offices for baseball and softball coaches will be added if private funding is secured.

Many accomplishments
Townsend not only is excited about the new stadium and the possibilities it brings, she also has a great sense of pride in her team for their accomplishments on and off the field.

UAB sophomore shortstop Catherine Douglass and fifth-year senior outfielder Martina Landrum were selected to the Conference USA 2010 Preseason All-Conference Team, marking the first time two Blazers have been selected.

Off the field, 13 of the team’s 20 members are academic scholarship recipients with four named to the President’s List and seven named to the Dean’s List. Ten Blazers were selected to the Conference USA Honor Roll (3.0 GPA) in 2009 and seven were Conference USA Academic Medal winners (3.75 GPA) — the most of any sport at UAB.

That’s one reason Townsend is hesitant to say the field is the sole reason UAB now may be more attractive to future recruits.

“The academic tradition and reputation that UAB has is the way we get the talented athletes we get,” Townsend says. “Will the field help? Yes, it’s a plus. But the academic structure that’s in place here is why they choose UAB. I am proud of the student athletes because they focus on their academics first and understand the order of their priorities.”

Townsend is working to keep her priorities in order, and she doesn’t want her team looking past the first two weeks of games before the home-opener.

Still, she’s excited about the possibilities for the Feb. 23 game.

“The environment for that first game is going to be awesome,” Townsend says. “We want to play the top teams in the country. For our athletes, it’s going to be a chance to show what we’re made of in front of a large crowd. We want to show them we’re competitive. It’s our job to bring them in here and keep it a low-scoring game and come out on top. That’s what we want to do.”

Visit uabsports.cstv.com/tickets for ticket prices and packages, call 975-UAB1 or e-mail tickets@uab.edu.