By Rob Moseley
Editor, GoDucks.com

After what could only be termed a dominant freshman season, Oregon softball coaches sat down with Cheridan Hawkins late last spring and reminded her of a hard athletic truth.

If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

The Ducks were set to lose ace starter Jessica Moore to graduation after reaching the NCAA Super Regionals in 2013. Hawkins was a phenom as Oregon’s No. 2 starter last season, relying on a dominant riseball to average 10.6 strikeouts per seven innings. But if she was going to step into Moore’s shoes, Hawkins needed to keep developing.

“She’s already proven she can be a very successful pitcher at this level,” UO coach Mike White said. “That’s not the issue. It’s about trying to get better. And I think she sees that.”

Armed with the benefit of national team experience she got last summer, and some new pitches to complement that outstanding riseball, Hawkins is set to lead the Ducks into their 2014 campaign beginning Friday at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. Oregon is scheduled to face Cal Poly and Fresno State on Friday, Appalachian State and North Carolina State on Saturday, and Boise State on Sunday.

“I’m just excited to get going,” Hawkins said. “There’s those butterflies, but I think once we start, those will go away. Not that there’s no need to be nervous, but we’ve put in a lot of work and I believe in my defense and hitters.”

It’s the starting pitcher who probably has the most say in a softball team’s success, though, and this year that’s Hawkins, along with senior Karissa Hovinga. They’ll look to ease the hit of Moore’s graduation, after a record-setting career in which she set UO career standards for wins and strikeouts.

Hawkins actually led the Ducks in ERA a year ago, at 1.55, finishing with a 19-5 record. The left-hander had 212 strikeouts in 140.3 innings, with 19 starts and 39 appearances in Oregon’s 61 games.

For all of Hawkins’ success last year, it was an early start in which she was roughed up by Oklahoma, to the tune of 10 runs in four innings, that opened White’s eyes. Some young pitchers would have let the disappointment of that outing linger, but Hawkins quickly moved past it and focused on the future.

“That told me a lot about her,” White said.

Among other things, it told him he could tinker with Hawkins’ repertoire this offseason without worrying that the changes would mess with her confidence. Hawkins threw her riseball around 90 percent of the time last season, mixing in changeups and curveballs here and there, and while it’s not uncommon for a starter to have a single dominant pitch, White wanted to see Hawkins add another hard pitch with different movement.

Throwing pitches with more horizontal and downward movement will help Hawkins work down in the strike zone. Opposing hitters will have some familiarity with her once Pac-12 play starts, and now she’ll also be able to present a different look.

“It hasn’t taken away from her riseball, it’s only added stuff, so I’m excited to see how those other pitches play out for her this season,” UO catcher Janelle Lindvall said. “We’ll see, but I’m really excited for her to have all those tools in her back pocket.”

“It’s going to be a process,” White said. “She’s not immediately going to be comfortable with these other pitches, and if it’s a process that takes the whole season, so be it. But she’s going to have to make that decision, to get to the next level.

“There’s going to be times where she doubts her ability to throw those other pitches, and she’ll go back to what she does best. And I have no issue with that. Just as long as we continue to progress forward.”

Hawkins’ development since last season goes beyond her pitching repertoire, though. She’s a more mature player now, having pitched the U.S. Junior National team to the title game in the World Junior Championships last summer. Following that tournament, she also made several appearances with the U.S. Senior National team.

“I played with a lot of older, very experienced girls, and learned a lot,” Hawkins said. “It was a great experience. I feel like I picked up a lot of traits I could bring back to school and apply.”

Among the lessons that resonated most with Hawkins was the level of focus the national team players have, from one pitch to the next. She and Hovinga have applied that in their bullpen sessions, sometimes demanding complete silence so they can devote all their attention to the next pitch.

That won’t be an option during games, obviously, but Hawkins said the drill has helped create a sort of tunnel vision that she’s able to bring to practices and scrimmages, too.

“I do feel like I’ve gained more of an ability to close off outside distractions,” she said.

On Tuesday, Hawkins pitched a short simulated game to Lindvall, with no one else on the field. In such a casual atmosphere, it might have been easy to go through the motions, but she was sharp as ever, and attacked the strike zone with her new repertoire.

Both the mental and physical developments Hawkins hoped to make this offseason were on display.

“It’s always hard to get used to something you’re not totally comfortable with,” Hawkins said. “But we’ve been working on it all year, and it’s getting to be more natural.”