by Rob Moseley
Despite dropping the third game in the series, Oregon's softball team made a case to be No. 1 in the nation by taking two of three from UCLA at Howe Field this weekend.
The Bruins bounced back from two straight losses to win 6-1 in Sunday's finale, getting to UO starter Cheridan Hawkins early and denying the Ducks in the few chances they had to get back into the game. But the No. 3 UO women won 9-7 and 12-4 in the first two games of the series with the top-ranked Bruins, making a case for the top spot when new polls are released Tuesday.
"I can't be too disappointed," UO coach Mike White said. "Today was the only day where we didn't capitalize on some opportunities."
UCLA was a near unanimous No. 1 entering the weekend, in both the USA Today/NFCA coaches' top 25 and the ESPN/USA Softball ranking. The consensus No. 2 team, Tennessee, dropped two of three to LSU, opening up the possibility that Oregon could unseat UCLA for the top spot for the first time in the program's history.
Oregon (34-5, 8-1 Pac-12) came into Sunday on a seven-game win streak, including a run-rule shortened blowout of the Bruins on Saturday.
"It's definitely what we can do, and that's a good thing," senior first baseman Kailee Cuico said. "We just now have to recognize that and run with that, be very confident that that can be our M.O. — just pounding on teams.
"But we also can't take any pitches off. All these teams are good in the Pac-12; we play in one of the best conferences, and we can't take pitches off, can't take an inning off. Even though we won the series, we had to show up today, and we didn't really mentally show up."
That was reflected in all three phases Sunday. UCLA's first two runs off Hawkins were unearned due to UO errors, and the Bruins (34-4, 8-4) later had players score who had reached on two walks and a hit by pitch.
Oregon scored its only run in the fifth on a bases-loaded bloop single by Janie Takeda. There was one out at the time, but cleanup hitter Alexa Peterson then struck out and Janelle Lindvall grounded out to end the threat.
"We started chasing balls up in the strike zone, and that was a difference maker for us today," White said. "Earlier in the series we got the ball down, we got balls we could handle. Today we tried to make things happen."
Sunday's loss denied the Ducks a chance to post impressive weekend sweeps back to back. Oregon won three against then-No. 5 Washington at home last week, and was in position to sweep the top-ranked Bruins entering Sunday.
"It's hard not to maybe let down, but I'm hoping we learned something from this weekend and we improve from it going forward," White said. "Obviously it's mentally tough to play two good teams in a row, and I don't know if that played a part or not, but we certainly weren't at our best today."
The Ducks now take the conference's best record — and perhaps a national No. 1 ranking — into a road series at Oregon State (13-20, 3-8) beginning Friday. Oregon is looking for its second straight Pac-12 title, after winning the first in school history last spring.
"It's up to us; we keep winning, we're good," White said. "Which, you always like to be in that situation. Last year we did a good job of that — we went right out and did what we were supposed to do.
"But going into next weekend against Oregon State, that's a team that, if we think we're just going to turn up and win, it's not going to happen. They're good enough to beat you, and they're going to want to beat us at home, I'll tell you that. We need to make sure we bring our 'A' game."