Walsh keeps name in NBA draft
Arkansas wing Jordan Walsh is going all-in on his professional basketball career.
Hannah McEwen rounds third and high fives Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel following a home run in the Razorbacks' game against Wichita State Sunday May 20, 2018 during the NCAA Regional Softball Tournament at Bogle Park in Fayetteville. Arkansas won 6-4 and advanced to its first super regional.
FAYETTEVILLE — An Arkansas softball program with increased expectations will open its season this Friday and test itself in nine tournament games on the road over the next couple of weeks before making its home debut on Feb. 21.
After a 42-17 campaign last season that ended a step away from the Women's College World Series, fourth-year Razorbacks coach Courtney Deifel’s team enters this season ranked 12th nationally in the ESPN/USA Softball poll, 14th by USA Today/NFCA and 15th in the first-ever Softball America poll.
Those are the highest preseason rankings ever for a program that finished 16th last season in the ESPN/USA Today poll and has been picked fifth by coaches in the preseason SEC poll behind Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina.
“There’s no pressure,” Deifel said Tuesday afternoon at the team’s media day. “It’s just managing expectations and that we just continue to focus on what we do, what we do well and being the best version of ourselves every day.
“It’s something we definitely worked through in the fall with how great last year was and the steps we took as a program. This team hasn’t done anything yet. You are going through a new year, you have more expectations and more of a target on your back.
“We have to figure out how to be our best version because teams are going to be gunning for us.”
There is increased interest in the program with around 2,000 fans attending the NCAA Fayetteville Regional Tournament games during the postseason.
“They’ve been awesome,” Deifel said. “Our fans have shown up for us big-time and we knew when we got here we were setting out to win over our fans. It wasn’t just about winning games, it was about putting a product out there that they wanted to support.
“I’ll give our team a ton of credit because they have poured everything into how they play. They play with a ton of heart, they have a ton of character and our fans can see that and they have been incredibly supportive.”
Deifel was hired June 11, 2015 to take over a program that had finished 16-37 overall and 1-23 in SEC play the last season under former head coach Mike Larabee.
Her first team went 17-39 with the same SEC record as the year before, but then improved to 31-24 and 7-17 with a NCAA Tournament berth in 2017 and continued the turnaround with the 42-17 mark last season, the third-most wins in program history, and a 12-12 league record.
Deifel, an All-American catcher who went to the Women's College World Series four times and was part of Cal’s 2002 national championship team, admits she didn’t think there would be this much success this quick.
“When you come in I think you always have the hope that you can just move the program forward and the quicker the better,” Deifel said. “But it is not my doing, it is the players doing and how they want to take those jumps and how they want to buy in to the work that it takes to do that, we are going to move as they move.
“If we have prodded that a little bit and got them moving, then we have done well there, but it is their doing.”
The Razorbacks’ season will get underway Friday in Lake Charles, La., with a 3 p.m. game against Campbell and another against McNeese State at 8 p.m.
Arkansas will play another pair of games on Saturday against Samford (noon) and Lipscomb (3 p.m.) and finish up the opening weekend on Sunday with a 9 a.m. game against Campbell.
The Razorbacks will then trek to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the following week with contests scheduled against North Dakota State, Washington, Northern California and Sacramento State.
That will set the table for the Razorback Invitational, which will have the host team playing six games from Thursday Feb. 21 through Sunday, Feb. 24.
“I think it is always exciting to go into these games to see what this team is going to be about,” Deifel said. “As a coaching staff, we had a pretty good idea, but until you cross those lines on game day, you never know how deep that is going to go. I am looking forward to seeing our team compete and come together a little bit more and see who is going to step up in big moments.”
Arkansas sophomore pitcher Mary Haff has been tabbed a second-team All-All-American after a freshman season in which she went 29-7 with a 1.51 ERA and had 249 strikeouts in 213 1/3 innings.
She joined returning junior pitcher Autumn Storms (12-10, 2.67) in pitching 365.2 of the 387.1 innings last season.
“They have huge talent,” Deifel said. “You are also going to see (Maryland transfer) Lauren Graves and Katie Warrick, but you are going to see the majority of Mary and Autumn. The way they compliment each other, the skillset, we like giving them the ball.”
Sophomore outfielder Hannah McEwen (.339, 12 HRs, 57 RBIs) is back to power the offense with infielder Warrick (.304, HRs, 25 RBIs), second baseman Haydi Burg-in (.246, 4 HRs, 19 RBIs and catcher Kayla Green (.237, 6 HRs, 26 RBIs) also returning starters.
“The team looks a lot different this year,” Deifel said. “It is pretty consistent with who we have in the circle, but outside of that we have a lot of new faces that are going to contribute. It is going to be interesting to see who steps up and when.”
Former White Hall standout Graves is one of four transfers, including outfielder Ryan Jackson (Bethune-Cookman) and infielders Danielle Gibson (Arizona State) and Braxton Burnside (Missouri), a former Paragould star and the only one of the transfers who has to sit out this season.
“Anytime we have a chance to make our program better and its the right fit, then we are going to go for it,” Deifel said, “so adding Braxton and Lauren last summer and adding Ryan and Danielle this January, all four are huge additions and they made us better immediately.”
Jackson is a two-time MEAC Player of the Year who led that league last season in batting average (.467), home runs (17), RBI (50), runs scored (54) and total bases (127).
“She swings it with such confidence so the level doesn’t matter and it’s the skillset and the mindset,” Deifel said. “Her offensive approach is just getting in there and knowing who you are as a hitter and it’s clear that she knows that.
“With the power that she has been able to put up and the numbers that she has put up in two years at Bethune, I think she’ll be able to have a good run here, too.”
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