Razorbacks leaning on pitching, depth

By: Tom Murphy
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Mike Larabee coached Arkansas softball to one of its best seasons ever in 2013.
Photo by University of Arkansas
Mike Larabee coached Arkansas softball to one of its best seasons ever in 2013.

FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas softball is sitting just outside the top 25 and projected ninth in the powerful SEC, but the Razorbacks believe they are much better than expectations.

“I feel more prepared than we’ve ever been since I’ve been at Arkansas,” said Mike Larabee, who is beginning his fifth season as Arkansas’ coach. “We’re deeper than we ever have been.”

The Razorbacks, who have lost in the NCAA Tournament at the home site of the nation’s No. 1 seed each of the past two seasons, open their season with a doubleheader today at the UNLV Sportco Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas, beginning with a 5:45 p.m. game against California-Davis. Arkansas will play five times in the three-day tournament, including games with preseason No. 5 Washington and No. 16 Baylor.

“We’re excited to play some of the high-ranked schools to start the season, get our RPI down pretty low and get into the top 25 here in the next couple of weeks,” said Devon Wallace, the Razorbacks’ lead off hitter and the national leader in on-base percentage (.627) and walks (79) last season.

Arkansas (36-20 last season) will split its pitching duties to open the season. Led by left-hander Kimmy Beasley (12-9, 2.61 ERA) of Foreman and right-hander Kasey Fagan, a transfer from Florida who was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a senior at Dunnellon (Fla.) High School, the staff also features sophomore right hander Kelly Young (5-0, 2.42); freshman Grace Moll, who is the team’s hardest thrower; freshman right hander Sydney Wright, last year’s Gatorade player of the year in Florida; and left-handed relief specialist Kelsey Berlin, a junior transfer.

“We might throw a different one each game,” Larabee said of the opening tournament. “They’re all throwing the ball really well right now.”

Beasley led the SEC in strikeouts per inning last season with 171 in 128 2/3 innings.

Fagan, who was mostly a third baseman and outfielder during a two-year stint at Florida, which included an appearance in the 2012 Women’s College World Series, is scheduled to pitch in today’s opener and bat cleanup.

“She’ll make a big difference being a middle-of-the order hitter for us,” Larabee said.

“I think we have a lot bigger pitching staff this year, a well-rounded pitching staff,” said Wallace, who is on the American Softball Association/USA Softball player of the year watch list.

Larabee also is expecting contributions from several freshmen, notably first baseman Jessica Harrison and second baseman Parker Pocklington, who are both projected to start the season opener, and catcher Shelby Hiers, who is pushing senior Jayme Gee for playing time.

Larabee said he believes he has put together the team’s most formidable roster of his tenure with the likes of returning starters Clarisa Navarro (shortstop), Chloe Oprzedek (third base), Jennifer Rambo (outfield) and Stephanie Canfield (outfield).

“We’ve got a lot of depth this year, people who can come off the bench and swing the bat,” he said. “We have good team speed and our pitching’s really good, and they’re kind of chomping at the bit to get rolling.”

Sportco Kickoff Classic

ARKANSAS SOFTBALL VS. UNLV WHAT Season-opening tournament with five games in three days for six teams WHERE Eller Media Stadium, Las Vegas WHO Arkansas, No. 18 Baylor, San Diego, UC-Davis, UNLV, No. 5 Washington 2013 RECORDS Arkansas 36-20; Baylor 39-15; San Diego 24-29; UC-Davis 25-27; UNLV 21-31; Washington 44-17

Sports, Pages 21 on 02/07/2014