by Rob Moseley
Officially, the mascot of the Oregon softball team is of course The Duck.
Unofficially, the nation's top-ranked squad has adopted a plastic snake named Seth as a mascot as well. Seth is in the dugout for games, and even has his own Twitter account.
A case could be made for a third, lurking on the Ducks' shoulders all season long. Oregon has had a monkey on its back for 12 months now. This weekend, the UO softball team finally has a chance to get rid of it.
On Saturday, Oregon begins a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional series at Howe Field against Minnesota ( 7 p.m. PT, ESPN2). The Ducks and Gophers will meet again Sunday at 2 p.m. on ESPN, with a potential tiebreaking game to be played Sunday at 5 p.m. on ESPN2.
No. 1 Oregon (52-7-1), which swept its three Regional games by a combined score of 24-2 last week, will face a Big Ten opponent in the Super Regional for the second straight year. Last spring, Nebraska took two of three in Eugene from the Ducks, denying them a second consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series.
That heartbreak has been a constant presence for Oregon in 2014, whether in interviews with media or discussions amongst the team. Finally, the UO women have a chance to shed that monkey from their backs, against the 16th-seeded Gophers.
"It's been in the back of our mind, and it has been since it happened," UO senior third baseman Courtney Ceo said. "So it definitely is a motivator for our team. The postseason is not about rankings, it's about making it to the end. A mistake can put you out, and you're done for the year."
Minnesota (44-10) reached the Super Regional round for the first time in school history, after finishing third in the Big Ten. The Golden Gophers are coached by former Oregon assistant Jessica Allister, who worked one season on UO coach Mike White's staff in 2010.
Led by ace right-hander Sara Moulton (27-6, 1.71), Minnesota has posted a 1.85 team ERA this spring, just behind Oregon's 1.79. While the Ducks complement that with .348 hitting, the Gophers bring a .289 team average into this weekend, though White doesn't want to get too caught up in the numbers.
"We know what's expected of us," White said. "We're the No. 1 seed and they're the No. 16 seed; the paper says we should win. But we know the game doesn't know that. We need to go out and play the game the right way."
That's been Oregon's mantra all season, after the Ducks learned a hard lesson last spring. Entering Super Regionals as the No. 3 seed, the Ducks have admitted, they were already peeking ahead to another WCWS trip. No. 14 seed Nebraska had other ideas.
So the Ducks have worked hard to stay in the moment in 2014, fueled by a desire to reach the WCWS but knowing they need to address each small detail in order to get there. They've rarely deviated from that, and in each case of a loss, Oregon has bounced back with a win, by a combined score of 64-26 in those seven instances.
"We know what it feels like to lose this year; we know what it felt like to lose last year," Ceo said. "They're just reminders that we have to be better, and we have to bring our 'A' game every game."
It's been nearly two months since the Ducks lost to a team not ranked in the top 10 nationally, though White believes there's very little separation between the top 20 or so teams in the country this season. Oregon run-ruled No. 3 Arizona State on May 3 and No. 9 Arizona a week later, before roaring through the Regional round at Howe Field last weekend.
That's in contrast to 2013 when, after clinching their first of what's now two straight Pac-12 titles, the Ducks dropped two of three at ASU to close out conference play, and were good but far from dominant in Regionals.
"This year I think it's a little different," White said. "We feel like we're playing well and doing a lot of things right. We just need to continue doing those things."
Do so and the Ducks can finally get rid of that monkey on their back, and reward what will be a sellout crowd at Howe Field this weekend.
"Whether we win or lose, this is the last time for us seniors to play on this field," said Ceo, speaking for herself and classmates Kailee Cuico and Alexa Peterson. "To have a sellout crowd days before the actual game is outstanding. We're playing our best ball right now. And we can still get better, which is the great part about it."