By Rob Moseley
There was a point late in the 2014 softball season when Oregon was ranked No. 1 in the country, UCLA was No. 2 and Arizona State was No. 3.
Not only were the Ducks considered the best team in the nation, for the first time in school history, but they clearly were battle-tested, with Pac-12 rivals – Pac-12 rivals Oregon beat at least once each -- rounding out the rest of the top three spots.
Once the postseason began, Oregon ran roughshod over the competition. After winning a second straight conference title, the Ducks swept through NCAA Regionals and Super Regional, going 5-0 by a combined score of 40-6.
The Ducks were moving like a tremendous machine. They had every reason to be confident as they headed to the Women’s College World Series. But a funny thing happened once they reached Oklahoma City.
Players, UO coach Mike White said, seemed a bit “awe struck” by the likes of Florida and Alabama (the two teams that beat Oregon to eliminate the Ducks from the WCWS, and the two that eventually played for the title).
“There’s still that ‘wow’ factor from the SEC,” White said. “Part of that could be the media blowing it up, but we’ve just got to get over that and understand we’re just as good.”
For most of Oregon’s roster, the WCWS appearance was a first, as the Ducks last made the trip in 2012. With most of the team returning – though three important seniors must be replaced – the hope is that a return trip in 2015 will end in different fashion.
“I think they’re going to have the tools and the experience to win it all,” said outfielder/catcher Alexa Peterson, Oregon’s fourth-leading hitter in 2014 and one of those three departing seniors.
Oregon piled up a school record 56 wins, including an unprecedented two in Oklahoma City, thanks to record-setting offense, dominant pitching and improved defense. The Ducks set new team records for runs (445) and batting average (.342), got a school-record 330 strikeouts along with 35 wins from sophomore pitcher Cheridan Hawkins and improved their team fielding by four points to .971, third-best in the Pac-12 and No. 25 nationally.
None of that was enough to get the Ducks past Alabama and eventual national champion Florida in Oklahoma City, however.
“If you told me at the start of the season we’re going to finish third in the country, I would have said, tremendous, there’s nothing wrong with that,” White said. “But when you go there and realize how close you are, and there’s not a lot of difference there – we don’t see Florida or Alabama being a lot better than us talent-wise. …
“Really it’s just a matter of us getting back there and experiencing it more often. So we can have that experience of being in the finals.”
The Ducks will try to get back to Oklahoma City next spring with Hawkins again in the circle as their ace. The left-hander is well on her way to establishing a UO record for career strikeouts, with 542, more than halfway to Jess Moore’s record of 915. And Hawkins has 54 career wins, on pace to break Moore’s school record of 100.
Over the last year, Hawkins (35-6, 1.66 ERA in 2014) worked to expand her repertoire so as not to be so reliant on her devastating riseball. This offseason, she’ll work on ways to keep right-handed hitters from crowding the plate, which happened with increasing frequency late this spring.
“That’s what her goal is, to work on a pitch we can throw inside to right-handers,” White said. “Because that’s something everyone in the country’s going to take notice of.”
While Powell may have a tough time cracking the rotation as a freshman, some of the other newcomers could be in line for early playing time.
Along with Peterson, the Ducks graduated third baseman Courtney Ceo, the UO career leader in hitting (.416) and runs (.193), and first baseman Kailee Cuico, Oregon’s all-time leader in home runs (46) and RBI (180). Those corner infield spots could be filled by freshmen, namely the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in Jenna Lilley at third and slugger Gwen Svekis at first.
In the infield, the Ducks also will welcome back sophomore Danica Mercado from a season lost to injury. They’ll play with shortstop Nikki Udria, who had a sterling freshman season capped by a postseason run in which she hit .364 and played errorless defense.
“We were talking about that with Nikki and Danica, that they’re going to be the senior leaders and they’re just sophomores,” White said. “If it weren’t for the fact that Nikki Udria stepped up in the biggest situations, and she’s just a freshman, I’d be worried about it. But I’m not too worried.”
The Ducks will have plenty of leadership elsewhere. Outfielder Janie Takeda, whose .388 average trailed only Ceo’s school-record .493 in 2014, will be a senior, and the junior class will include returning starters Alyssa Gillespie, Koral Costa and Janelle Lindvall, whose younger sister Lauren is the Ducks’ fourth incoming freshman.
Combine all that returning production with the announcement of a $10 million donation to a new facility, and White’s disclosure that his staff of assistants received raises – increasing the likelihood they’ll return as well – and the UO softball program will bring some major momentum in 2015.
“We made it the farthest we ever have, so that in itself is a good accomplishment,” Peterson said. “We’re very happy (the seniors) have been able to turn this program around, and make that a standard.”