Tako Tuesdays: Oregon Softball, Destroyer of Worlds

YAY WINNING! - Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

But are the Ducks Oklahoma City-bound?

During head coach Mike White's five year tenure as Oregon's softball skipper, the Ducks have joined college softball's elite programs with four-straight NCAA Super Regional appearances and a Women's College World Series trip in 2012. But this year's team is reaching new levels of dominance, with a stranglehold on the #1 ranking and, at present, a 14-1 record in the notoriously-difficult Pac-12. Ranked in the top 10 the entire season, the Ducks have been nearly unstoppable in April, winning ten of eleven contest while averaging almost 10 runs per game, and taking two of three - and the #1 ranking - from the UCLA Bruins. A trip to the NCAA tournament has been an expectation since the season began, and the Ducks are 4-0 in regional play in the Mike White era. But is it Oklahoma City or bust for the top-ranked Ducks?

2013's regular season ended with Oregon ranked #3 in the country, and a favorite to make it to the WCWS for the second consecutive year. That was not to be, as the Ducks were upset by Nebraska in the Super Regional round. The problem in that series was hitting and defense; Oregon's bats were silenced by Cornhusker pitchers Tatum Edwards and Emily Lockman, and the Ducks committed four errors in the three-game series. Add in a series where Jessica Moore was slightly less than her usual dazzling self, and it led to a disappointing finish to the season. But the veterans have been able to build from that experience, and it's led to a more dominant and well-balanced team. The 2014 Ducks are getting on base more often, scoring almost a run more per game, and fielding at a higher percentage. With veteran leaders like Courtney Ceo, Janie Takeda, Kailee Cuico, and Alexa Peterson, this year's team is fundamentally stronger, and battle-tested.

The question mark coming into 2014 was whether Cheridan Hawkins could replace the production of Moore, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year in 2013. That proposition looked dicey at best after the first two games of the season, where Hawkins gave up 10 earned runs in only 5 2/3 innings. But those outings turned out to be a mere hiccup, as Hawkins would give up one earned run in her next nine starts. She currently holds a 1.43 ERA; take out those two games, and that number drops to 1.04. Like a hot goalie in the NHL playoffs, a softball team can ride a hot starting pitcher all the way to the World Series, and Hawkins - who got Oregon's only win in Game 2 of the Super Regional - is certainly pitching at a championship-caliber level.

Oregon is new to the juggernaut game; their tournament runs in 2010 and 2012 came while playing the role of the plucky upstart. After five years of elite recruiting, Oregon is now a legit national title contender, and will be getting every team's best shot in every game. There is still work to be done with series against Stanford, Arizona State, and Arizona still to come, but make no mistake, Oregon is a powerhouse this year, and it's completely reasonable to expect a second trip to the WCWS in three years.

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