UO softball team aims for World Series title
Oregon has won 52 of 60 games this season, and the Ducks are in the Women's College World Series for the fifth time in seven seasons.
About the only thing the program hasn't done under coach Mike White is win the whole thing.
That challenge begins at 9 a.m. PT Thursday against No. 8 seed Arizona State. As the No. 1 seed, Oregon's double-elimination bracket includes the No. 8 Sun Devils, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 5 Washington.
The Pac-12 champion Ducks are also joined in Oklahoma City by third-seeded UCLA, giving the conference four of the eight teams. For what it's worth, Oregon is 8-2 this season against the other three teams in its double-elimination bracket. In fact, Oregon has played six of the other seven teams in the field and is 10-3 overall against them all. Second-seed Florida is the only team at the WCWS the Ducks have not faced this season.
Oregon ranks seventh nationally in team batting average (.323) and third in ERA (1.16). The Ducks' fielding percentage (.975) dropped to 16th in the nation after the four errors in last Thursday's 9-6 NCAA super regional loss to Kentucky. The Ducks rank third nationally in slugging percentage (.529) and seventh in home runs per game (1.27), trailing only two-time defending champion Oklahoma in those categories among the World Series teams.
So, the odds of the Ducks breaking through and at least reaching the best-of-three championship series are pretty good, right?
Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson, whose Wildcats placed 10th in the tough Southeastern Conference, likes what Oregon will bring to Oklahoma City.
"They are very versatile. They can do a lot of different things," Lawson says. "They are well suited to make a run at the national championship."
Oregon sophomore Miranda Elish, who pitched another fine game on Saturday against Kentucky, agrees.
"Coach White always says we need to just to pitch with intent and purpose," she says. "This team can do it. We can win a national championship. We have to go game by game, but I know we can do it."
"The funny thing is you may be the top seed, but you never feel that way. You always feel like the other team is so close," he says. "You see teams like Florida, Oklahoma, UCLA, and you could go on and on, and they're all great teams and what's the difference in separation? Not much.
"We have to go down there with a defense and pitching mind-set and then get our runs. When opportunities come up, we have to take them. This team is closer than any team I've coached, and you can tell they're very close to each other."
One thing the Ducks wish they could have in Oklahoma is their home-field advantage.
Lawson gave kudos to the magic place Jane Sanders Stadium has become after her team's season ended there for a second consecutive season.
"For someone who has been doing this for a long time, to see this kind of fan base at a college is awesome," Lawson said. "It wasn't too long ago we were begging for this many people to come to the World Series, and to see it on a college campus here in Oregon is really cool."
Ducks senior shortstop DJ Sanders says losing Game 1 to the Wildcats was "probably the best thing that could have happened to us. Even during regionals, we didn't play as well as should have or could have, so maybe this was the wake-up call that we needed."
The first-game loss cost White some sleep, but he didn't lose confidence in his team.
"You have to make adjustments and you have to trust your team, you have to trust the work you put in," he says. "We didn't get to where we are at unless we're a good team. So we just had to play like we could. We had to break it down into the fundamentals of the game."
Lawson says one big difference in the Ducks from 2017 to 2018 is the look of their All-American pitcher, junior Megan Kleist.
"I will say one thing about them that I thought was cool coming back: Their strength and condition program has got to be awesome," Lawson says. "When we saw Kleist take the mound on Thursday, she looks dramatically different. The amount of work she had to put in in the weight room and all of the reps and all of the things she did I think has to be tremendous."
The story of Oregon's softball rise is built around a successful coach and a first-class facility, the combination that has brought some of the best softball players in the nation to Eugene and raised the program's profile to the point that on Saturday fans watched from apartment building rooftops and balconies and from outside the fence.
They were there to support players from a dozen states who make up this Ducks team. Freshman Lauren Burke, who homered in her first two career postseason at bats, is a Eugene native and the lone Oregon product on the team.
Four seniors from different corners of America epitomize what this program has become. Third baseman Jenna Lilley, the top-rated 2014 recruit in the nation, came from North Canton, Ohio. Catcher Gwen Svekis, ranked in the top 20 of that recruiting class, is from Davie, Florida. Second baseman Lauren Lindvall, a top-70 prospect in 2014, came from Stevenson Ranch, California. Sanders is a Mississippi native who transferred to Oregon this season after earning first-team All-America recognition as a junior at Louisiana-Lafayette.
Svekis, Lilley and Sanders were drafted this spring by National Pro Fastpitch teams. Lilley was selected 22nd by her home state Cleveland Comets team, Svekis (No. 3 overall) and Sanders (No. 21) by the Chicago Bandits.