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Improved defense not to be overlooked in ascent to No. 1
Courtesy: GoDucks.com
Release Date: 04/24/2014
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By Rob Moseley
Editor, GoDucks.com

It wasn’t good enough.

When Mike White took a look this past offseason at historical data for Women’s College World Series teams, he saw that a fielding average around .970 was a benchmark. Oregon has been trending upward from around .950 in recent years, but the Ducks finished 2013 short of that goal, at .967.

It wasn’t good enough.

When Nikki Udria assessed her own play earlier this spring, the shortstop saw a lot to like about her freshman season at Oregon. She also saw 10 errors through the Ducks’ first 31 games.

It wasn’t good enough.

Lately, however, defense has become a strength for the No. 1-ranked UO softball team, which opens a three-game series at Stanford on Friday (7 p.m. PT, ESPNU). The Ducks (41-5, 14-1 Pac-12) are hitting the heck out of the ball, entering the week ranked fifth nationally in batting average (.350) and runs per game (7.00); Cheridan Hawkins and the pitching staff rank 16th in team ERA (1.83); but Oregon is also 25th in fielding at .972, and trending upward.

Senior third baseman Courtney Ceo, who has five errors in 46 games, said defensive improvements have been a point of emphasis for the Ducks under second-year assistant Chelsea Spencer, a former two-time all-American shortstop at California.

“We have a lot of people going in for extra work and really getting those extra reps, and focusing on the things they need to work on rather than the things you’re good at,” Ceo said. “Coaches make it a very comfortable atmosphere at practice to work on the things you need to work on. To have that confidence to work through some stuff that may need attention, it’s a great feeling.”

White said the staff’s philosophy to teaching new techniques has been to have players “hear it, see it and feel it.” Defensively, Spencer can verbalize and then demonstrate skills, and then the staff will put players through drills at slow speed to help them get a feel for their movements on the field.

Time has helped Oregon’s defense improve this season, too. Early on, the Ducks played on several new, unfamiliar fields during nonconference play – and not all of them well-maintained, which could create tricky hops. And the infield had to adjust to the loss of projected starting second baseman Danica Mercado to injury in the preseason.

Sophomore Karine Shaver, a reserve shortstop last season, has taken over at the keystone position, and Udria is starting at shortstop as a freshman. It took the new-look group time to jell, but they’ve hit their stride in conference play.

In Pac-12 games, Oregon is fielding at a .977 rate, which would rank tied for seventh nationally on its own. Udria, who had those 10 errors through 31 games, committed just two over the next 14.

“I didn’t think how I started was acceptable,” Udria said. “So I’ve definitely been working hard to prove myself, and show better for my pitchers and my team.”

Ironically, Udria and Ceo each committed an error in Tuesday’s nonconference win over Portland State. Prior to that, the Ducks hadn’t committed an error in Pac-12 series with both Oregon State and California, a big factor in Oregon’s 6-0 record after earning the first No. 1 ranking in the program’s history.

Udria said her lapse Tuesday was a flashback to early nonconference games, when her level of focus wasn’t as sharp as it’s been since Pac-12 games began. She wants to get back to that level this weekend at Stanford, and attack groundballs rather than waiting back on her heels.

“That’s when I get into trouble, when I let the ball play me,” Udria said. “When we’re successful as team and I’m successful as a fielder is when we’re charging balls and being aggressive.”

The Ducks have had that attitude at the plate and in the circle for the last several years under White. Now they’re showing it in the field, as well.

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