Loaded Ducks are aiming high
No. 3 Oregon
Last season's record: 45-18
Key returnees: Courtney Ceo, Samantha Pappas, Kailee Cuico, Kaylan Howard, Jessica Moore, Alexa Peterson, Janie Takeda
Key departures: Kelsey Chambers, Christie Nieto
Tournament finish: Lost in WCWS (1-2)
1. Jessica Moore's legacy
Let's be clear about this. Senior pitcher Jessica Moore has already etched her Oregon legacy in stone, shouldering big innings in the circle for three consecutive seasons while coach Mike White, not coincidentally, rebuilt a program that had been all but erased from the postseason map. She is already the program's career leader in wins and strikeouts and does not always receive the respect she has earned in conversations about the nation's best pitchers. But because Moored doesn't have a top-10 strikeout rate (256 in 303 2/3 innings last season) and her ERA reflects her heavy workload, the way to open eyes nationally will be to get back to the Women's College World Series and win a week's worth of games in Oklahoma City.
"I think that she's just getting tougher and tougher," White said. "She's extremely durable; she's a strong person. She's able to pitch numerous innings. I think that her ERA, if you look at it, it was around 2.00; it doesn't really tell the whole story of how good a pitcher she is. I would put her up against anybody in the country, and I would really love to see her get an opportunity to try out for the U.S. team because I think she's in that kind of class right now."
He was the pitching coach on the national team over the summer, so he ought to know.
2. Giving away runs
They did everything else well, but the Ducks weren't just a subpar defensive team by championship standards; they were a subpar defensive team by any standard. They committed 91 errors in 63 games last season. No other Pac-12 team, all of which played at least 56 games, committed more than 61 errors. It was the same in 2011, when Oregon committed 24 more errors than any team in the conference. Moore doesn't strike out hitters with the same frequency as pitchers like Oklahoma's Keilani Ricketts; instead she often forces opponents to beat balls into the ground. That puts a premium on defense, and although White concedes this may never be a team with a great fielding percentage, it needs to avoid letting mistakes compound mistakes.
"I think that our focus is to stay aggressive and not get defensive, not get too worried about the fact that we do make some errors," White said. "I think that's how you ultimately get to be a better ballplayer is when you don't worry about making those mistakes and you always stay aggressive and understand mistakes are going to happen."
3. Careful what you wish forOn the strength not just of last season's trip to the World Series but also of back-to-back super regional appearances the two previous seasons, Oregon welcomes a large and well-regarded freshman class. Janelle Lindvall, younger sister of UCLA outfielder Devon Lindvall, might be the most highly touted of the bunch and is already showing why at the plate, according to White. Danica Mercado and Koral Costa are making cases for immediate playing time. And pitcher Cheridan Hawkins could help take a few innings off Moore's workload. Bringing in better and better talent is part of the process in building a championship program, but it also means a period of coexistence between old and new. Oregon didn't lose many starters, and the returnees have a lot of postseason wins to show for their efforts. Ideally, depth is an asset that provides insurance against injuries and pushes starters in practice. Ideally. There are also plenty of examples in softball history of roster rifts and divisions sinking talented teams. Like every elite team, Oregon now needs to prove it has the culture to make it work.
4. Lineup cornerstone
Oregon's offensive production didn't just hold steady once the team hit Pac-12 play, typically a time when weaknesses are exposed. In some ways (namely, slugging percentage), the offense got better down the stretch. That had a lot to do with balance. Players like Courtney Ceo (whose season-ending injury halfway through conference play was a big blow), Kaylan Howard and Kailee Cuico, in addition to since-graduated Kelsey Chambers and Christie Nieto, made it a run-producing lineup from top to bottom. But it didn't hurt that Oregon had an offensive ace to match Moore's production in the circle. After a somewhat shaky sophomore season that tempered the enthusiasm that had come with her debut, Samantha Pappas stepped up as one of the game's elite hitters as a junior. Pappas, who as a sophomore slugged just .373 in Pac-12 play, kept the production going with a .703 slugging percentage in conference play last season. She's one of just two returning players in the Pac-12 who had double-digit home runs and stolen bases last season.
5. Treacherous road ahead
It's pick your poison when it comes to Pac-12 schedules, but even by conference standards, Oregon faces a tough road back to Oklahoma City. The Ducks face Arizona State, California, UCLA and Washington in three-game series away from home. That encompasses the other three conference teams in espnW's preseason top 10 and the Bruins, who are certainly Top 20 material and whom the Ducks last beat in Westwood in 2005.