Arkansas softball in 'good spot' entering SEC finale

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Thursday, May 2, 2019
Courtney Diefel, Arkansas head coach, watches vs South Carolina Sunday, March 17, 2019, at Bogle Park in Fayetteville.
Photo by Ben Goff
Courtney Diefel, Arkansas head coach, watches vs South Carolina Sunday, March 17, 2019, at Bogle Park in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Expectations were high for Arkansas softball coming off a historic season in which it advanced to an NCAA super regional for the first time.

Last fall after facing off with national power Oklahoma - the program that eliminated the Razorbacks in the Norman Super Regional - in an exhibition at Bogle Park, Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel said managing those expectations would go a long way toward following up with another strong season, and she felt confident in her program’s direction.

Early on this season, it was a bit of a struggle, Deifel said Thursday, and she had to remind her club that the high bar that’s been set shouldn’t be viewed as a negative. Arkansas enters the final weekend of regular-season play 35-17 overall and 9-12 in the Southeastern Conference.

“I think that took our girls some time to realize,” Deifel said. “You earn expectations. You deserve those, and that’s a good thing. It’s been a learning curve, but I think we’ve gotten better as the year has gone on. You have to be your best version. Everyone is gunning for you and no one is looking past us anymore.

"I think we’re in a pretty good spot now."

This weekend, Arkansas closes out SEC play against No. 23 Auburn at Bogle Park in a series that could determine a lot in terms of seeding for next week’s SEC Tournament in College Station, Texas. The Razorbacks enter Friday's series opener one game back of the Tigers in the league standings.

Arkansas lost two of three games last weekend at Texas A&M. The Razorbacks, in the series finale on Monday, lost 4-1 and were unable to fully capitalize with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh inning. Aside from taking advantage with runners on base, Deifel said she wants to see cleaner games defensively.

“When we’ve challenged them to respond throughout the year, they have done that and then some,” she said. “I’m hoping they do that this weekend. It’s a huge series to try to gain momentum going into postseason.”

Auburn features an aggressive offense and runs often, forcing teams to be sound in the field. Tigers pitcher Makayla Martin, who is 11-2 with a 1.31 ERA but hasn’t pitched since mid-March, is a difference-maker but a question mark in terms of availability, Deifel said.

Senior infielder/catcher Kendall Veach leads the Tigers with 19 home runs, tied for fifth-most in the conference, and 46 RBI.

Auburn also ranks fourth in the SEC in stolen bases with 67.

“They’re a complete team,” Deifel said. “It’s fun. You just have to be at your best every game and every series. The conference is as strong as it’s been top to bottom. You have to work your tail off every game and anybody can beat anybody. Every weekend is like a super regional - it really is.”

As was the case last season, pitchers Mary Haff and Autumn Storms have been instrumental to the team’s success in the circle. Storms leads the staff with an 18-6 record and 1.74 ERA to go with 155 strikeouts. Haff has followed a stellar freshman season with 17 wins and seven shutouts.

Deifel said Storms has been “incredibly consistent” all season.

“She’s just pitching the best I’ve seen her pitch,” she added. “She’s stronger and healthier than she’s ever been. She’s been a huge competitor for us all year.”

Haff dealt with some physical limitations early this season that proved difficult for her, but is in a great spot now and pitching as well as she has all season.

"There’s different things you battle with your sophomore year - it’s information, it’s expectation," Deifel said. "Her and Autumn are making a great 1-2 punch."

Auburn (20) sits two spots ahead of Arkansas (22) in terms of RPI ranking, so the series is crucial in that respect, but Deifel's main focus is beyond that.

"It’s more so just to be a better version of ourselves," she said. "I think the thing I want to see more than anything is just us competing at a higher level and not having the mistakes we had this past weekend, handling the ball a little bit better and making some better adjustments offensively.

"It’s a bigger series for us to just take care of that more so than the battle of the numbers."

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