What a difference a year can make. With an offseason to retool the depleted roster she was left with one season ago, Oregon head softball coach Melyssa Lombari used the transfer portal and a highly regarded incoming class of recruits to refashion a roster that was populated with walk-ons and inexperience in her first season at the helm.
With returnees Haley Cruse, Rachel Cid and Allee Bunker leading the way the 15-0 Ducks are one of three teams left in the country without a loss.
At this point in the schedule one year ago the Ducks were 11-4 and given the exodus of players in the wake of Mike White’s departure cautious optimism was the vibe as Lombardi’s squad showed early on that grit and tenacity would be mainstays of their style of play.
Then came harsh a dose of cruel reality when the Ducks faced then 15th-ranked Oklahoma State in the 2019 home opener and then began Pac-12 play at 12th-ranked Arizona before hosting 7th-ranked Washington – all losses.
With the reduced numbers – particularly in the circle where Jordan Dail was Oregon’s only option – against the better teams in the country and the conference the Ducks were simply outmanned.
The silver lining in that cloud was a lot of freshman and redshirt freshman saw a lot of playing time and those dividends – along with the influx of some new talent – has the Ducks better positioned to avoid a similar fate in 2020.
Cruse is leading the team in hitting with a .478 average, runs with 25 and hits with 22 and is eight for eight stealing a base.
Cid has picked up where she left off as a freshman, a true long ball threat that leads the Ducks with four bombs and is second on the team in RBI’s with 18.
One of the key additions this season is that of catcher Terra McGowan who was forced to sit out last season when Arizona State wouldn’t grant an inter-conference exemption. Her 19 RBI’s lead the Ducks and with a .417 batting average she adds some muscle to the Oregon batting order.
Freshman Ariel Carlson has come strong out of the gate. The Marist High grad is sure to improve on her current batting average of .250 and has shown an ability to come up with the clutch hit with a dozen RBI on ten hits.
One of Lombardi’s early messages was solid defense and even in as challenging a season as last year was, the Ducks fielded at a .969 clip and committed six fewer errors than the opposition. So far in 2020 Oregon has committed only six errors and a stellar fielding percentage of .982.
Part of that improvement is due to a pair of transfers in the circle. With the opposition no longer able to dial in on Dail the way they were last year, the Oregon defense is seeing fewer sharply hit balls and have been swallowing up the routine plays.
Brooke Yanez, who joined the Ducks from UC Davis and Samaria Diaz of New Mexico State along with Dail have given Lombardi the ability to set a rotation according to the opposing lineup, a luxury she wasn’t afforded in 2019 and it is paying off in spades.
Yanez leads the team with seven wins, 56 strikeouts and sports a 1.58 ERA after 35.1 innings of work. Samara has been impressive as well with a miniscule .030 ERA in 23.1 innings to go 4-0 while Dail continues as the solid lefthander she was a season ago with a 3-0 record and only three free passes in 25.2 innings.
When the pitching is that solid the defense can shine and so far this season both have contributed to Oregon’s early success.
That success will be challenged more in the coming weeks than it has to this point it is true. The Tulsa/OSU Invitational awaits and with it a rematch with the again 15th-ranked Cowgirls.
Oregon’s home schedule opens up at the Jane with Oregon Tournament beginning Friday, March 6th. With a field of Seattle University, Loyola Marymount and Portland State, the tournament will serve as a final tune up before Pac-12 play begins at California on March 15th.
The Ducks host Team USA in an exhibition on Wednesday, March 8th, before welcoming Stanford on March 21st in the conference home opener.
~ Rick Morgan