By Rob Moseley
Equal parts encouraging and frustrating, Oregon softball's finish to last season is fueling even bigger goals this spring.
Coming off just their second 50-win season and first conference title, the Ducks aren’t running away from expectations for the 2014 season, which begins next week in Hawaii. No, the UO softball team is actually raising the bar, and isn’t being shy about it.
“Join us on the road to OKC,” reads the team’s promotional materials. The reference is to Oklahoma City, site of the Women’s College World Series.
The Ducks came up a game short of qualifying last season, losing a Super Regional to Nebraska in Eugene. They intend to finish the job this time out.
“We’ve used that to fuel our fire,” said senior Alexa Peterson, who hit .424 last season and had 24 extra-base hits, most among the team’s returning players. “It makes us want to get to Oklahoma City that much more.”
Oregon lost four seniors from the historic 2013 squad, including all-time program ace Jessica Moore and the power bats of Samantha Pappas and Kaylan Howard. But with left-handed sophomore Cheridan Hawkins set to assume Moore’s role in the circle, and a deep offense that wants to work counts and run the bases better in 2014, the Ducks feel they have the pieces in place to set their sights on the Women’s College World Series.
A team retreat to the Oregon Coast last fall convinced UO coach Mike White his 2014 team has the mentality to reach Oklahoma City.
“They just bought into everything we’ve brought up,” said White, whose team was No. 8 in the preseason top 25. “Every time we introduce something new, there’s no push-back. They all see the big picture.”
Expectations weren’t all that different a year ago. The Ducks expected to contend for the Pac-12 title, and talked openly about it entering a three-game home series against rival Oregon State. The Ducks ended up sweeping the series and clinching the conference title that weekend.
“We weren’t ignoring it,” said junior outfielder Janie Takeda, who hit .442 to lead the team last season. “We were saying, ‘This is a big game; we’re still going to play our game.’ I think it’s better for us to acknowledge it’s happening.”
Problems set in after the Civil War series, however. The Ducks still had one more regular-season series, at ASU; White pushed them to keep playing at a high level, and they ended up losing the first two games. In hindsight, he said, he might have downplayed the significance of that series, and saved their energy for the postseason.
Oregon made it through the NCAA regional round at home with wins over Brigham Young, North Carolina and Wisconsin, but then lost two of three to the Cornhuskers.
“Subconsciously, maybe (the Pac-12 title) was good enough; I don’t really know,” said Peterson, who has been working in the outfield after the loss of seniors Pappas and Allie Burger. “For the future, we need to make sure we’re not settling.
“It’s easy when you’re tired – you’ve got school or outside issues going on – you want to take a day off. But we can’t afford to take a day off. Other teams aren’t, and if we want to get to Oklahoma City we have to go 100 percent every day.”
Oregon’s path to the Women’s College World Series begins next week at a tournament in Tempe, Ariz. The Ducks figure to be tested early by the likes of Cal Poly and North Carolina State at the Kajikawa Classic, the first of four tournaments in four February weekends for Oregon to open the season.
After a weekend off, White will then take his team to one last tournament, in Hawaii. Conference play begins March 22 at Utah, and Oregon’s home opener is March 28 against Washington.
Along with Peterson and Takeda, the offense also returns 2013 regulars Courtney Ceo, Kailee Cuico, Janelle Lindvall and Koral Costa. The Ducks have been encouraged by the play of freshman shortstop Nikki Udria; her middle-infield partner could be another freshman, Sammie Puentes, after projected starting second baseman Danica Mercado suffered a season-ending leg injury in practice.
Infield defense will be at a premium with Oregon’s No. 2 starter, Karissa Hovinga, in the circle trying to coax groundballs. Hawkins, a riseball specialist, also hopes to force grounders with increased frequency as a sophomore, having developed her arsenal so that she can work lower in the strike zone more often.
“She’s kind of got to reinvent herself this season, and I think she can do that,” White said. “She can prove she’s more than a one-pitch pitcher.”
Hawkins’ development will be one of a few elements crucial to the Ducks being able to meet their ambitious goal of getting to Oklahoma City this season, after coming oh-so-close last year.
“We learned a valuable lesson: to just play the game,” Takeda said. “Because the game doesn’t know who’s supposed to win. Look at the game as a third party; it’s us, them and the game. And we just have to focus on the game, and playing our game, no matter who we’re playing.
“This program for so long has been the underdog, and now we’re a team people want to beat. It’s a mentality that we have to change.”