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Ducks Face Stern Test in Softball Regional

Arkansas, Wichita State, Princeton Await in Fayetteville

COLLEGE SOFTBALL: APR 17 Oregon at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

An up-and-down season unsurprisingly sends Oregon’s softball team on the road for its shot at the Regionals. The Ducks travel to Fayetteville, Arkansas for games beginning Friday, May 20. Oregon will face Wichita State in its first match-up, while host and #4 seed Arkansas takes on Princeton. Regionals are 4-team, double-elimination tournaments with everyone playing at least 2 games and the eventual Regional Champion having lost no more than one game. The entire field of 16 such mini-tournaments features 64 of the nation’s best teams, with the top 16 seeds each hosting a Regional. There are 32 automatic bids, and 32 at-large bids. The Regionals winnow this field down to 16 squads, who will compete in best-of-three Super-Regionals (May 26 – 29) with the 8 winners heading to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series June 2 – 9/10.

The Ducks have a difficult road to the Women’s College World Series – if they win this Regional it sets up a likely Super-Regional best-of-three at either Washington or Texas – but the way forward for Oregon is one game at a time. Beat the team in front of you and the future takes care of itself.

OREGON DUCKS – 31 – 17 – Fifth in Pac-12 Conference

As noted in previous commentary here on ATQ, the Ducks play in one of the toughest top-to-bottom Conferences in the country. The Pac-12 season has given Oregon the chance to play against some of the nation’s best, before reaching this Regional or the WCWS. Oregon lost only 3 games to non-Pac-12 opponents, including a 1 – 0 loss to Northwestern which is the #9 seed in the Regionals and a 6 – 2 loss to Missouri the #15 seed, both in the Mary Nutter Classic in late February. Oregon sports victories over several Regional participants, including UC San Diego, Cal State Fullerton and Ole Miss. Against Pac-12 schools that qualified for the Regionals, the Ducks won a Conference game against Arizona, swept Oregon State and won the series against Stanford. Oregon went a combined 0 – 9 against Pac-12 Conference Champion Arizona State, UCLA and Washington. Interestingly, Oregon was 14 – 8 on the road and 8 – 2 on neutral ground. Their 9 – 7 home record reflects being swept in Eugene by Arizona State and Washington.

COLLEGE SOFTBALL: APR 17 Oregon at Washington Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Oregon was led at the plate during the regular season by Sophomore Hanna Delgado, who hit for a .374 average. Senior Allee Bunker and Sophomore KK Humphreys are the only other Ducks above .300, hitting .353 and .307 respectively. Junior Ariel Carlson led the Ducks in home runs with 13 while Bunker and Junior Vallery Wong each added 10. Bunker had 39 RBIs, while Carlson had 34, Wong had 28, Humphreys 26 and Freshman Paige Sinicki 25. Wong, Carlson and Bunker produced slugging percentages over .600. Delgado drew 21 walks and Carlson 14. Oregon was successful on 82 percent of its attempted steals with Delgado leading the team in attempts with 18 and successful steals with 14. Oregon averaged just under 6 runs per game while holding their opponents under 4.

It’s fair to say that Oregon’s pitching staff was unsettled this season. Losing projected #1 pitcher Senior Brooke Yanez to injury before the season left the Ducks in “next woman up” mode and in the long run forced Freshman right-hander Stevie Hansen to step into an expanded role probably a season early. Many of Oregon’s losses hinged on a pitching breakdown frequently combined with an inability to deliver a key hit at the key moment.

Hansen showed tremendous growth over the course of the season, particularly over the last several weekends. She ended up leading the staff with 22 starts, a 13 – 8 record and an ERA of 3.10. Hansen pitched 115.1 innings and struck out 120 while walking only 28. Junior Makenna Kliethermes, who seemed to have also settled a bit late in the season, earned 15 starts and compiled a 9 -5 record with a 3.79 ERA. She pitched 101.2 innings, striking out 103 and walking 41. Fifth year player Jordan Dail had 9 starts with a 7 – 4 record and a 3.91 ERA. Dail worked 62.2 innings, striking out 62 and walking 22. Sophomore Raegan Breedlove and Freshman Allison Benning each earned one start, and Breedlove came on in relief in 17 other games. Neither is likely to see action in Fayetteville. Oregon had a good season fielding and throwing the ball. The Ducks made only 29 errors all season, and fielded at a .976 clip, while opponents were at .950 and made 68 errors.

WICHITA STATE SHOCKERS – 33 – 16 – Second in American Athletic Conference

The Shockers come in following a disappointing finish in the AAC Tournament, losing their second game to South Florida 5 – 4 and missing the Championship match-up despite compiling the 2nd best Conference record during the regular season. Wichita State lost to Arkansas in Fayetteville earlier in the season 7 – 4 and lost run-rule games to Oklahoma and to Oklahoma State twice. Their only victory over a ranked opponent was an 11 – 4 Conference win over #21 University of Central Florida in their series which UCF won 2 – 1. UCF earned a #16 seed in the Regionals.

Wichita State scored 407 runs during the 2022 season, averaging more than 8 runs per game and has a bunch of players who have hit for average. The Shockers have not faced a lot of elite pitching but will provide a solid test for Oregon’s pitching staff. Junior Sydney McKinney leads the team with a .511 average. Sophomore Addison Barnard is hitting .409 and leads the Shockers with 32 home runs and 82 RBI. Barnard also has a team-leading 25 stolen bases. Sophomore outfielder Lauren Lucas hit .400 and three other players are hitting over .300. Zoe Jones has hit .327 and has 50 RBI while Lauren Mills hits .297 and has 49 RBI. Both are Juniors and have contributed 15 home runs each. It’s hard to overstate Barnard’s contributions to the Wichita State offense. She has an outrageous 1.541 OPS percentage, which combines on-base percentage and slugging percentage. If Oregon’s pitchers can keep Barnard and McKinney off the base paths, the chances of a win go way up.

Wichita State has relied on three pitchers pretty evenly for the bulk of its starts. Right-hand Senior Erin McDonald has started 16 games, has a 10 – 8 record and a 4.01 ERA in 103 innings. Senior Caitlin Bingham has 14 starts and compiled a 12 – 4 record and a 4.27 ERA in 100 innings. Freshman lefty Alison Cooper has the lowest ERA on the staff at 3.36 and has started 13 games with an 8 – 3 record in 60.1 innings. Overall, Wichita State’s pitchers have given up more walks than is typical at almost 3 per game. As an example, Cooper has walked 30 batters while striking out just 35. None of the regular starters has even a 2 – 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Wichita State’s defense is decent, fielding at a .971 clip, but some regular starters have more errors than you want to see. Shortstop McKinney, for instance, has made 9 errors and has a .943 fielding average. Oregon should be able to put the ball in play against the Shockers pitchers and may have a chance to take advantage of Wichita State’s defense. The Ducks may also be able to take some chances on the base paths, as Shocker’s catchers have thrown out only 4 of 42 opponents on steal attempts.

PRINCETON – 27 – 15 – 2 – First in Ivy League

The Tigers racked up 2022 season wins in Ivy League contests, finishing 17 – 4 in Conference. Princeton won only 10 non-Conference tilts and had a losing record outside the Ivy League. You don’t see ties that often, but Princeton managed it twice in one season against Lehigh and Rider in the second games of double headers when the teams ran out of daylight. Artificial lighting of sports fields is apparently an innovation that has yet to make it to the East Coast. The Tigers ventured West for some action in early March. They lost two games each to UC San Diego and Loyola Marymount but beat UC Santa Barbara. Princeton saw no action against ranked teams.

Princeton sports 6 players hitting over .300 this season, but no one will mistake the Tigers for a power hitting team. Princeton has only 15 home runs and 4 triples on the season. The team averages just over 4 runs per game. Junior Adrienne Chang leads the team with a .368 average but has started only 34 of the Tigers 44 games. Junior Serena Starks has a .356 average and leads the team with 27 RBI. Freshman outfielder Lauren Sablone is third on the team at .330 and leads Princeton with 5 home runs. She also has 26 RBI. The Tigers have shown some aggression on the base paths, attempting 62 steals and completing 50. Starks and Sablone are the two biggest base theft threats with Sablone successful on 17 of 19 attempts and Starks 7 of 11.

The Tigers have relied on two pitchers for the bulk of their 2022 season starts. Junior Alexis Laudenslager leads the staff with a very good 1.93 ERA. She has started 19 games, pitched 109 innings and has compiled an 11 – 7 record. Laudenslager has struck out 138 batters and walked 55. Junior Ali Blanchard has started 20 games and appeared only twice in relief. She has a 10 – 3 record and an ERA of 2.65 in 105.2 innings. She has struck out 151 and walked 52. The other two pitchers – Sophomore Molly Chambers and Freshman Meghan Harrington – have handled mostly relief work. Chambers has started 5 games and appeared 19 times in relief. She has a 5 – 3 record and a 3.50 ERA in 62 innings. Harrington has no starts and 13 relief appearances and has pitched only 18.2 innings. She has a 1 – 2 record and a 9.37 ERA. If Oregon faces the Tigers, they aren’t likely to see either Chambers or Harrington unless things are really out of hand early in the game. Princeton’s defense is vulnerable, with the team fielding at only a .965 clip. Interestingly, Blanchard who has started 20 games in the circle for the Tigers has only 13 put-out attempts and has made 4 fielding errors. Princeton has also given up 47 stolen bases.

ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS – 44 – 9 – First in the SEC

The Razorbacks are the #4 overall seed in the Tournament and certainly deserve to be hosting the Fayetteville Regional. They won both the regular season SEC title and the SEC Tournament title. Some of their results however give us pause. In two February match-ups in Mexico, Arkansas lost to Washington twice, 8-0 in 6 innings and then 10-5. The Razorbacks went 3 – 1 against Ole Miss, a team Oregon beat 3-0 early in the season. Arkansas played 5 nationally ranked teams within the SEC, winning every series against those schools.

Arkansas is a veteran, experienced team that really hits the ball. The Razorbacks have 6 regular players hitting .300 or higher. Two other infrequent starters are also above .300. Senior Danielle Gibson leads the team with a .442 average. Senior Linnie Malkin and Senior KB Sides are right behind her at .397 and .395 respectively. Malkin has 20 home runs, and she and Gibson are tied for the team lead in RBIs at 63. Gibson has hit 18 home runs, as has Sophomore Hannah Gammill. Gammill has a .381 average. Graduate player Taylor Ellsworth has 52 RBI and sports a .344 average. Arkansas is averaging just over 7 runs per game. Sides is the only real threat to steal – she has been successful on 28 of her 32 attempts and has 73 percent of all Arkansas stolen bases. Sides has also drawn 41 walks.

The Razorbacks rely on two pitchers primarily in a starting role. Junior right-hander Chenise Delce has 20 starts and has compiled a 17 – 2 record and a 2.19 ERA. Over 128 innings pitched, Delce has struck out 161 and walked 33. Senior righty Mary Haff has 19 starts, an 18 – 4 record and a 2.79 ERA. She has pitched 133 innings with 140 strikeouts and 32 walks. These pitchers allow runners on base only grudgingly. In their combined 261 innings, Delce and Haff have allowed just 213 hits, 65 walks and have hit 24 batters. Unless you’re going to hit the ball over a fence, it’s pretty hard to score a run averaging one baserunner per inning. The other 13 starts for Arkansas have gone to Sophomore left-hander Callie Turner and Sophomore right-hander Jenna Bloom, who appear to be the Razorbacks future in the circle. They have also appeared 19 times combined in relief roles and have a total of 75.2 innings pitched. Oregon’s not likely to see either of these pitchers if they play Arkansas in this Regional. Arkansas is a good defensive team, fielding at a .972 clip with just 38 errors over their 53 games.

This is a Regional in which Oregon, playing as it has shown it can, could do well. Building confidence with a well-pitched win over Wichita State would give the Ducks an early chance to test themselves against the Razorbacks and learn what it will take to beat them – a something Oregon may already possess. Advancing out of this Regional is probably a stretch goal, but not out of the realm of possibility for the Ducks with sustained high-level play the team is clearly capable of delivering.