by Rob Moseley
From the packed-to-the-gills grandstands surrounding Howe Field, a cheer arose.
It was the middle of the seventh inning in Sunday's NCAA Super Regional game, and host Oregon — designated the visiting team for the second game of the series — was three outs away from eliminating Minnesota, and moving on to the Women's College World Series in Oklahoma City. The record crowd of 1,997 chanted and clapped in acknowledgment of the impending achievement.
"OKC! OKC! OKC!"
Amidst that maelstrom of sound, UO sophomore Cheridan Hawkins was warming up for her 13th inning of work in the Super Regional, every pitch of both games. Oregon coach Mike White, who had been coaching at third base in the top half of the inning, was headed back to the visiting dugout across the infield.
White walked by Hawkins, and without breaking stride offered some final words.
"Slam the door," he said.
Though Minnesota would manage a single in the inning, Hawkins otherwise took the advice to heart. With that, White showed he continues to push all the right buttons with this Oregon softball team, which beat the Gophers 6-2 on Sunday and will open WCWS play Thursday against Florida State.
Oregon (54-7-1) tied the school record for wins in a season, and advanced to the WCWS for the second time in three years.
The Super Regional sweep for the Ducks followed last season's heartbreaking loss to Nebraska that left them a game short of Oklahoma CIty. Feeling his team got too wrapped up in the big picture last spring, White constantly preached a mantra of sticking to the process this season — focusing on each game, each inning, each pitched — and it paid off.
When the victory was secure, White was doused with ice water by his team. Hawkins got the same treatment, while conducting a live postgame television interview. The Ducks saluted the crowd from the field, and then ran over to the scoreboard for a team picture.
"I'm too excited to talk right now," outfielder Janie Takeda said as she settled into her chair for a postgame interview.
For White on Sunday, few words were necessary. Hawkins had just one slip on the day, walking the No. 9 hitter before allowing Minnesota shortstop Tyler Walker's team-leading 12th homer of the year, her second in two games. White visited the mound after another walk two batters later, and Hawkins responded by retiring the next 12 Gophers to protect a 3-2 lead.
"Sometimes with Cheridan it's just about snapping her out of her funk," White said. "Sometimes she starts thinking a little too much."
Hawkins (33-4) tied her predecessor as Oregon's ace, Jess Moore, for second on the UO single-season record list for victories. She allowed the two runs on three hits with seven strikeouts and three walks.
The walk that preceded White's mound visit was the last of the day for Hawkins, who got through the fifth inning on nine pitches, all strikes.
"To help get the team to OKC, I was going to have to change something," she said. "I just tried to make that adjustment and attack the zone."
As with Hawkins, White kept the message to his hitters simple Sunday, too.
Takeda singled and scored in the first, and her RBI double was the big hit in a two-run rally in the third. But the Ducks squandered chances in the fourth and fifth, after the Gophers pulled within 3-2, and Oregon went down in order in the sixth. The one-run lead was too close for comfort, White felt.
The Ducks had the top of the order coming up in the seventh. White sensed an opportunity, and told his team to "make a statement" in their huddle prior to the start of the inning.
"I felt like we were kind of hanging on a little bit," White said. "But we've got the top of the order here. We can put this thing away."
Courtney Ceo, Oregon's all-time leader in hits and runs, responded in fitting fashion in her last plate appearance at Howe Field, beating out a bunt in front of home plate as she had so many times before. Alyssa Gillespie followed with her first hit of the Super Regional, and Takeda cleared the bases with a two-run triple, before scoring on a wild pitch.
Takeda had been the only UO starter without a run or RBI on Saturday. She was 2-for-2 on Sunday, and either scored or drove in all six runs.
"I've felt good in batting practice all week, so it was just trusting my preparation and trusting it's a new day, and I'm still the same player," said Takeda, whose triple was her UO-record eighth this season.
Sunday's game was much tighter than Saturday's run-rule-shortened 10-2 victory for Oregon, in no small part because of Minnesota's improved infield defense. The Gophers had four errors Saturday, but none Sunday.
And yet while Minnesota's defense was certainly impressive, so too was Oregon's. Alexa Peterson made a sliding catch for the first out in the sixth inning, and the next hitter was retired when UO shortstop Nikki Udria jumped to snare a line drive at the top of her glove.
The plays brought the Howe Field record crowd to its feet, and not for the last time.
"(The crowd) was like our 11th player out there," White said. "It made a big difference, and really pumped us up."
Thanks to their seventh-inning insurance runs and then Hawkins' shut-down inning to close the game, the Ducks responded in kind.
All year Oregon has talked about taking the "Road to OKC." Sunday was the last possible off-ramp, but the Ducks are still cruising along in the same direction.