EDITORS NOTE: This story was written prior to No. 4 Oregon’s 5-0 win No. Oklahoma on Thursday.
By Tom Blodgett
Don’t let Oklahoma fool you – winning an NCAA softball championship is difficult under the best of circumstances.
Perhaps the best case in point: Oregon. The Ducks quickly became a national power when coach Mike White arrived for the 2010 season. In the eight seasons since then, Oregon has had four Pac-12 championships, four 50-win seasons, four Women’s College World Series appearances, appearances in the Super Regionals in the other four years, a perfect record in regional play, a top five seeding in each of the past five NCAA postseason tournaments, three different stints atop the rankings as the No. 1 team in the county. …
And no national championships.
But if the Ducks have been the hard-luck women of softball’s elite, they are poised to do something about that this season.
Oregon can win a slugfest or simply keep you off the scoreboard while they scratch out a run somewhere along the way. The Ducks have it all: supersonic speed, Herculean power, dazzling pitching, depth and experience.
“Experience is everything,” Oregon junior left fielder Alexis Mack said. “And I think we have more experience. We’ve already been there (to the Women’s College World Series), and we’ve got a little fire in us because of last year.”
Last year was another 50-win season for the Ducks, and though their four-year streak of winning the Pac-12 came to an end, they advanced to the national semifinals before falling 4-2 to eventual champion Oklahoma. Oregon gave up a 2-0 fifth-inning lead in that game.
Though the Ducks lost two key players from the 2017 team – their leadoff hitter, right fielder Danica Mercado, and cleanup hitter, All-American shortstop Nikki Udria, — they returned their three-headed pitching monster – junior Megan Kleist and sophomores Maggie Balint and Miranda Elish. All three had sub-2.00 ERAs in 2017.
The three have continued that success this season. In fact, Kleist (13-5, 0.86 ERA) and Elish (14-1, 0.85) have improved on last year’s numbers, and Balint hasn’t fallen off the Earth (7-1, 2.09).
“Of course, every pitcher on this staff wants the ball every game,” Kleist said Friday after shutting out No. 7 Arizona State. ”But you know, when one of us is struggling, there’s three more (including freshman Olivia Kinsey). Hopefully, one of them is on that day. We all have each other’s back. At the end of the day, it’s the team that needs the ‘W.’ Whoever is going to get it is the one that’s going to be out there.”
So pitching can keep Oregon in virtually every game. But it’s not a rarity in the Pac-12 this season, either, so the offense must produce.
Oregon replaced an All-American with an All-American, as senior DJ Sanders transferred in to play shortstop from Louisiana, where she led the nation in home runs and RBI last season.
Senior catcher Gwen Svekis also has stepped up her power game, as she has 13 home runs already this season after hitting 10 last season.
Mack, who split time between left field and designated player last season, has settled in at left field, leaving DP duties primarily to freshman Mary Iakopo, who provides more middle-of-the-order punch at .337 with six home runs and 34 RBI thus far season. She spells Svekis at catcher, too.
And right field has been handled ably by committee, half the time by sophomore Haley Cruse and the other half between freshmen Shaye Bowden and Lauren Burke.
The rest of the lineup is back: senior third baseman Jenna Lilley, generally taking up the leadoff spot; sophomore center fielder Shannon Rhodes, usually in the No. 3 hole; senior second baseman Lauren Lindvall and sophomore first baseman Mia Camuso.
While Lilley isn’t the slapper speedster that Mercado was, she has well filled that leadoff role. Her batting average is up more than 100 points from 2017 to .375 and she leads the team in on-base percentage at .497, well above Mercado’s .408 from last season. She can run, too, and provides some occasional pop at the top of the lineup with four home runs.
“It’s a little bit different than last year just because we don’t have two speed people, slappers at the top,” said Mack, the No. 2 hitter who stole a team-high 28 bases last season and 16 this year. “But I think that it’s working really well because we have even more power than before, which we kind of lacked in last year. So we are taking what we got and doing the best with it.”
The numbers bear her out. In 62 games last season, Oregon hit 46 home runs while stealing 103 bases. This year, through the first 41 games, the Ducks already have 55 homers and while the stolen bases are off, too, it’s not like they’ve stopped running. Oregon has swiped 44 so far.
“I think we have a good blend of speed and power throughout the lineup,” Lilley said. “And we also do a good job of picking each other up. So if someone’s not having their day, then next person’s going to get it done. We’ve done that all year long.”
With that mix of talent assembled, White decided to do one more thing to season his team for this postseason: Toughen the schedule.
“I mentioned the whole time that we’re going to be tested, but it’s for a reason,” White said. “And hopefully they’re buying in, and they’re knowing that seeing good teams, seeing good pitching, being in big situations is going to make us a better team.”
That started in the season opener, when the Ducks beat then-No. 25 Georgia 8-3 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe. The Bulldogs have since risen to No. 6/7.
It didn’t end there. They started one five-game stretch with their first loss of the season, a 1-0 decision to No. 15 Mississippi State in Puerto Vallarta, then went to the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, California, and faced No. 18 Oklahoma State, No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 11 Tennessee and No. 7 LSU in consecutive games over three days. They dropped the contests with Texas A&M and Tennessee.
Later, they split a pair with No. 13 Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida.
The uptick in strong opponents didn’t go unnoticed by the players.
“I think that we have gotten a lot more experience preseason with our strength of schedule, and now not only with our preseason schedule so much tougher, but also our conferences is so much tougher when you look at the RPI,” Lilley said.
“So when you combine those two, I think we’re really putting ourselves in a good position. We’re experienced-wise, facing some of the best teams in the country. There’s a big difference between top 20 and top five, top 10. I think the coaches did a great job of making a really tough schedule for us this year.”
White admits it was by design and one factor in his thinking was that Oregon opened the conference season with UCLA. He wanted his team ready to face the No. 3 Bruins right away. The Ducks won two of three games in Eugene that weekend, which White called big for his team.
They followed that up by taking another series from improved Oregon State in Corvallis; sweeping a non-conference doubleheader vs. Portland State, including a perfect game from Elish; sweeping No. 9 Arizona in Eugene; and winning two of three from No. 7 Arizona State in Tempe.
That has moved Oregon into sole possession of third place in the conference, two games behind Washington and 1½ games behind UCLA, both of which have played one more series than Oregon to date.
No. 2 Oklahoma is next, coming in for a non-conference game Thursday in Eugene. Then it’s a weekend series with Stanford before heading to Seattle for three games with top-ranked Washington April 27-29.
The conference schedule is its own meat-grinder. The Pac-12 was long considered the best and even recently with the emergence of the Southeastern Conference, it has been one of the top two.
But White said he sees a return to former glory this season on the strength of the pitching throughout the Pac-12. He and Lilley independently list pitchers up and down the conference, covering virtually every school, who are elite.
“I think they’re starting to realize how hard the game can be at times,” White said. “We’ve been shut out a couple times this year after doing pretty well. Just when you think you’ve got it, the game bites you back. Hopefully we’re in a position right now where we know that we have to work really had no matter how well things are going. We have to continue to play well, work hard and be the best team on the day.”
And there does seem to be lessons learned from the earlier inconsistencies and the tough schedule. For instance, Friday against ASU, the Ducks faced G Juarez, who has been as dominant as any pitcher in the conference this season, having won the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week honor four weeks in a row.
The game was a pitching duel between Juarez and Kleist, who struggled to get going early but then found herself when she started pitching more aggressively in the middle innings. With two outs and Sanders on second in the fifth inning, Mack forced on an error with her speed on a bunt, allowing Sanders to score and sending Mack to second base. Rhodes then singled Mack home.
That seemed to get Oregon untracked as Iakopo hit a two-run home run in the sixth and Lilley a solo shot in the seventh for a 5-0 win.
White dismissed the score as not indicative of the tightness of the game, but he loved the way his team grinded out the at-bats with Juarez.
“We know she’s had a fantastic year, and she’s been very tough,” he said. “We had to get pitches we can handle early on. And we had nine 0-2 counts, so we were behind quite a bit. But we battled, we battled and we got some big hits when we really needed it.”
The Ducks carried that momentum – and their power – into the next game when they hit six home runs and a pair of consecutive doubles to produce all the runs in a 9-1 win. But Sunday, the game – and Juarez – bit back with a three-hit shutout for a 4-0 ASU win.
It was more of the sermon that White has been preaching to his players, who stand 34-7 on the season.
“If you don’t play well, we will lose,” he said. “And I think that’s hopefully the lesson that this team has learned going forward – that everyone is vulnerable.
“We’ve had some ups and downs, some times when we haven’t been successful, and other times we’ve just had to battle and grind. And so I think we are used to that. Now we’re just grinding, you know, and finding ways (to win).”