Schroeder's record season helped power Arkansas to NCAA Tournament

By: Matt Jones
Published: Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Arkansas players congratulate Nicole Schroeder (29) as she crosses the plate Friday, March 3, 2017, after Schroeder's two-run home run in the fourth inning against Nebraska at Bogle Park in Fayetteville.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas players congratulate Nicole Schroeder (29) as she crosses the plate Friday, March 3, 2017, after Schroeder's two-run home run in the fourth inning against Nebraska at Bogle Park in Fayetteville.

— Nicole Schroeder laughs when she hears the question.

It’s clear she has been asked about her softball-loving family before. She has an answer rehearsed.

“My whole life, I grew up being the little Schroeder,” said the fifth-year Arkansas senior from Yorba Linda, Calif.

The Schroeder family is well-known in softball circles. Nicole is the youngest of four sisters who all played the sport on the Division I level.

Katie Schroeder won a national championship at UCLA and is a member of the U.S. national softball team. Jennifer Schroeder was a Women’s College World Series runner-up at UCLA and Michelle Schroeder played at Stanford.

“I grew up around a softball field,” Nicole Schroeder said. “When I was in middle school, I watched them play in the Women’s College World Series. It was big for me to see the level of play before a lot of other players. They had a big impact on my life and they’re my role models in everything.”

The “little” Schroeder has made a big name for herself in her final season with the Razorbacks. Her 16th home run last week at the SEC Tournament broke the school record and, like her sisters, she'll end her career in the NCAA Tournament, which begins Friday at 11:30 a.m. when Arkansas plays Tulsa in Norman, Okla.

In addition to her home runs, Schroeder also leads the team with 48 RBI and 33 walks. She was twice named SEC Player of the Week and she garnered national player of the week honors by USA Softball for a six-game stretch in early March when she hit 5 home runs, 3 doubles, walked 4 times and had 16 RBI.

"It was huge for her in the production she had, but then with everybody rallying around her as they saw what she could do power-wise and just get on base," said Courtney Deifel, Arkansas' second-year head coach. "She wasn't stretching her zone and earning walks was huge for us. Then it gives everybody more confidence when you're seeing one of your hitters step in and dig in the way she does. It gives everybody confidence to do that, too."

Schroeder hasn't been alone in hitting for power. Arkansas leads the SEC with 57 home runs this season. Outfielder Tori Cooper has hit 10 and A.J. Belans - a second-team all-SEC infielder - has hit 8 home runs.

"The long ball has the ability to change the game in a swing and that's been our M.O. all year that we can put it out one through nine," Deifel said. "That's the big thing is making sure we're setting ourselves up for that long ball to make the difference."

What makes Schroeder’s power surge more notable is her numbers as a junior in 2016. She had only 8 home runs and 28 RBI that year.

She credits her improvement to a tweak she made in her batting mechanics last summer.

“Our hitting coach emphasizes legs a lot,” Schroeder said. “Last year I understood it, but I didn’t fully grasp it. In the summer, I went home and told my dad what she wanted, and we really tried to understand everything. I really worked on taking my back leg to the ball.

“When I came into this year, it was funny because I told (my coach), ‘I’m so sorry for being stubborn. You were right the whole time.’ I just focus on my legs rather than my upper body. As a girl, we don’t have arms like men, so we have to use our lower body. It just took me understanding that.”

She also said she has changed her mental approach.

“I’ll walk away from the field after a bad day of hitting knowing that it doesn’t define me, and I’ll get better from it,” Schroeder said. “Sometimes when you have bad days, they can make you step back, but I’m not letting that happen.”

Schroeder’s improvement mirrors that of her team. Arkansas went 17-39 last year and was 1-23 in SEC play for the second consecutive season. It was the first season under Deifel, who was hired away from Maryland after Mike Larabee was fired as the Razorbacks’ coach in 2015.

Larabee had guided Arkansas to two NCAA Tournaments in six seasons, but failed to do so his final two seasons. Schroeder was a true freshman on Larabee's final NCAA team in 2013. She also was on teams that won a combined seven SEC games the next three seasons, including her redshirt season as a sophomore.

“It gave us an advantage because we know to handle adversity," Scroeder said. "A lot of players go into a winning team and they think that’s how it’s supposed to be, but they didn’t learn the lessons that we had to learn.

“Last season was definitely hard because we lost a lot of games and that takes a toll on a lot of people. I think that motivated our team in the preseason to become better.”

The Razorbacks (31-22) had the program's best start ever to a season with 19 wins in their first 20 games. Arkansas was just 7-17 in conference play, but all 13 SEC teams made this year's NCAA Tournament.

“We all knew we were about to do something different," Schroeder said. "Before we even came into the season we were meeting as a team, discussing what we wanted to be. The mentality is a lot different.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Hawgs Illustrated

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