By Rob Moseley
A year ago, the Oregon softball team had wrapped up the first Pac-12 title in its history prior to the final weekend of the season.
This year, the No. 1 ranked Ducks have no such luxury. Although in the big picture, facing No. 9 Arizona in three games this weekend without having the title secure could be a luxury of a different sort.
After beating Oregon State to secure the 2013 title, Oregon travelled to Arizona State and dropped two of three. The losses proved deflating, a feeling that carried over into the postseason, where the Ducks lost in the Super Regional round; perhaps, UO coach Mike White said later, he might have been better served telling the Ducks not to worry about their results against the Sun Devils, given that the conference crown already was theirs.
“I do feel like that did have some (effect),” UO pitcher Cheridan Hawkins said. “We’ve talked a lot about that and how that felt, and how we don’t want to have those emotions again.”
White doesn’t have to worry about which motivational buttons he should push this week. Oregon (47-6-1, 18-2-1 Pac-12) enters the final weekend of the regular season 1 ½ games ahead of UCLA in the conference with three games left to play. The No.2 Bruins are at No. 3 Arizona State this weekend.
“This weekend’s importance speaks for itself,” White said. “If we learned anything from last year, we just want to keep playing like there’s nothing on the line, other than getting ready for the postseason.”
The Ducks have talked all season about contrasting their big picture goal – getting to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series – with limiting their immediate focus to each game, each inning, each at-bat and each pitch. They want to take that same focus into the series at Arizona, which begins Thursday (5 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks) in order to accommodate Sunday night's announcement of the NCAA tournament field.
“We still have our goal to reach, we still have something to look for,” Hawkins said. “It’s motivating us.”
Hawkins, the Pac-12 leader with 28 wins, will face the conference's top hitting team in the Wildcats. Arizona (40-11, 13-8) is hitting .357 as a group, 12 points higher than second-place Oregon, and has 95 home runs, a remarkable 28 more than second-place UCLA.
Chelsea Goodacre leads the conference with 21 home runs and 69 RBIs, and the Wildcats boast three of the Pac-12’s top-10 batting averages individually.
“Their power numbers are gaudy,” White said. “It should be an interesting matchup.”
Hawkins is second in the conference in batting average allowed, at .166, and second in strikeouts, with 263. That said, as a riseball pitcher she figures to leave a couple of pitches up in the zone this weekend that will be deposited over the fence.
Hawkins said she’s trying not to focus on that possibility this week. White will be watching to see how the Ducks respond at the plate.
“They’re going to hit home runs; there’s nothing we can do about it,” White said. “The question becomes, we have to score runs. We have to get out there and score probably five runs a game.”
So far in 2014, Oregon is averaging 6.83 runs per game, and 8.48 in Pac-12 play. Arizona is averaging 7.78 runs per game overall this spring, though the Wildcats have dropped to 6.71 per game in conference games.