It’s spring in Eugene and Oregon fans are flocking to see their favorite spring team battling toward a national championship. Here’s a surprise — it’s not the men’s or women’s track team, even though you’d probably have to take off your shoes and socks to count the number of championships they’ve brought home.
No, the team that has Duck fans most excited is women’s softball. The Ducks were No. 1 in the national softball rankings last week, ahead of SEC stalwarts Florida and LSU. This week, they slipped to No. 2 after going 2-1 against No. 9 UCLA on the road. How did this new power in softball come about, and why is Eugene ground-zero for softball on the West Coast?
The answer comes from a visit to an Oregon practice. An hour before the session begins, a lone batter, Jenna Lilley, works in the batting cage out beyond the right field fence; the thwack of her bat, rhythmic and purposeful in the late morning stillness. Another player, freshman pitcher Cheyene Powell, rakes the bullpen; her zen-like movements precise, as if everything must be perfect for the coming practice session.
As practice nears, Duck softball players drift onto the field, joyful, happy to be in their element. They spent the first long weeks of the season far from the Northwest on a southern road swing; playing in softball hotbeds like Tempe, Waco, and Houston, going 21-3 with their losses all to top ten teams. Now, they’re in the meat of the Pac-12 regular season.
Lilley, the frosh phenom from Canton, Ohio, returns from the cage. With her freckles, Huck Finn smile and heady bush of blond hair, she looks as if she’s been drawn by Norman Rockwell, but in her eyes you notice blue-grey steel determination. Her hours in the cage have paid off; she’s hitting .408 and starting for the Ducks at third base. Another new player for the Ducks, Hailey Decker, a transfer from Nebraska, is coming into her own, hitting .308 with six homers in the last eight games.
Powell has finished grooming her bullpen and warms up with yet another freshman, catcher Gwen Svekis. Powell is from Tuttle, Oklahoma, and Svekis, a .451 slugger, comes to Eugene from Davie, Florida — Gator territory. Geri Ann Glasco, the combo hitter/pitcher starts to warm up as well. She’s a transfer from Georgia, hitting .382.
Perennial favorites like the Ohio State University, Florida and Georgia must wonder how the Ducks attract great players. The answer first and foremost is head coach Mike White. White, a New Zealand native, came to Oregon with impressive credentials. A Hall of Fame pitcher, he led the United States to a World Championship bronze medal in 2000 when he went 2-0 with a .89 ERA and 19 strikeouts. This isn’t White’s first tour with the Ducks. He coached as an assistant in 2003 and 2004, helping the team reach the regional finals each year. His strength as a pitcher and a teacher has helped the Duck pitching staff to become one of the strongest in the nation. Glasco for one, is very clear that she’s transferred to Oregon to learn from White, the pitching guru. She’s learning well — for the season she’s 6-1.
When White addresses the media, he’s comfortable, a man in his element. He says that he’s pleased with where Oregon is as the team moves deeper into the conference season, but he still sees room for improvement. Beyond its ace, Cheridan Hawkins, the pitching staff needs to develop depth. That’s why Powell, who languishes at the bottom of the rotation, rakes the bullpen an hour before the game toiling to improve her technique, for this is her year of seasoning.
According to White, hitting also has to improve. Though Oregon leads the Pac-12 in batting with a .369 average, he demands more. The Ducks have been to the softball World Series twice in the last three years, but White isn’t satisfied. He’s on a quest to bring a national championship to Eugene.
The University has bought into White’s mission. It will build a new softball facility to replace aging Howe Field. Built on the same location, it’ll be ready for the 2016 season and have a new name, Jane Sanders Stadium, with state-of-the-art facilities and expanded seating for 2,500 fans.
The support for softball isn’t just monetary. Oregon’s success in athletics always begins with its organizational expertise. Some think that Oregon’s success relies on Phil Knight’s money, but there’s more to the story. There are some very smart people in the athletic department; innovators like ex-Assistant Athletic Director, James Harris, a leading expert on sports nutrition. When Chip Kelly went to the Philadelphia Eagles, he snagged Harris to accompany him. Another is Jim Radcliff, the Duck fitness and conditioning coach. He’s the man who enables the football and basketball teams to be among the fastest in the nation.
Softball may be a secondary sport at some schools, but Oregon treats it with the same care as football at Autzen Stadium. On game day, Howe Field purrs like a European sports car. Buying tickets is painless. The concession stand personnel are pleasant and helpful. The experience for fans is first rate.
Another sign of the University’s commitment to women’s sports is the three story high picture of Duck outfielder, Janie Takeda hanging down the side of Mac Court. Takeda, the glue person who holds the team together, is out with an arm injury — yet another challenge for the women of Oregon to overcome.
The softball establishment may sneer at the upstart Ducks, but they forget that top to bottom, the Pac-12 is arguably the strongest conference in the nation, owning six spots in the top 25 rankings. Eight of the last 12 national champions are from the Pac-12. With White at the helm, don’t count Oregon out for making that nine of 13.
Top Photo by Dave Peaks