Arkansas softball faces higher expectations

By: STEVE ANDREWS Special to the NWA Democrat-Gazette
Published: Friday, February 8, 2019
Arkansas pitcher Autumn Storms winds up during a scrimmage against Oklahoma on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Charlie Kaijo
Arkansas pitcher Autumn Storms winds up during a scrimmage against Oklahoma on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Coming off its best season in the program's 22-year history, the expectations have sprung to a new level for the University of Arkansas softball team.

As the Razorbacks open the new season in Lake Charles, La., today in the Cowgirl Classic against Campbell University, they find themselves ranked 12th nationally in the ESPN/USA Softball Top 25 and 14th in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll, both all-time highs.

"There is no pressure," fourth-year coach Courtney Deifel said. "I think it's just balancing expectations and making sure we continue to focus on what we have always focused on, and that's doing what we do, doing it well, and just being the best version of ourselves every day."

Deifel took over a program that went 17-39 (1-23 in the SEC) in 2015. In 2018, her third season, she led Arkansas to a 42-17 mark (12-12 in the SEC) and its first-ever Regional championship. The Razorbacks ended last season with a loss to then-defending national champion Oklahoma in the Super Regional.

"I give our girls a ton of credit because they have poured everything they have into it," Deifel said of the program's turnaround. "These girls play with a ton of heart, they have a ton of character, and I think our fans have seen that and been incredibly supportive.

But, this is a new year, the coach is quick to point out.

"With how great last year was for us as a program, this team hasn't done anything yet," Deifel added. "So you're going into a new year, you have more expectations, and more of a target on your back. Teams are going to be gunning for us."

The team will have familiar faces in the pitching circle, including All-SEC hurler Mary Haff, a Top 3 Finalist for the Schutt Sports/NFCA National Freshman of the Year Award a year ago. The sophomore posted a 29-7 record with a 1.51 earned run average. She pitched a no-hitter against Northern Colorado, as well as seven one-hitters.

Complementing Haff's splendid rise ball will be drop-ball specialist Autumn Storms, a junior with 28 wins over the past two seasons.

"It's just been great to embrace everything, especially with the progress we have made as a program, it's just been crazy," Storms said with a wide smile. "I think Mary and I are a great one-two punch, especially with me being a drop-ball pitcher and her being a rise-ball pitcher, we really do complement each other really well."

The Arkansas batting lineup will feature three all-conference players from a year ago, although only one, sophomore outfielder Hannah McEwen, was an All-SEC performer. The Razorbacks have welcomed in second-baseman Danielle Gibson, an All-Pac 12 transfer from Arizona State, and outfielder Ryan Jackson, a transfer from Bethune-Cookman, who is a two-time MEAC Player of the Year.

"The team looks a lot different than it did last year," Deifel said. "Of course, it is still consistent with who we are going to have in the (pitching) circle. But outside of that, we have a lot of new faces that are going to contribute.

"Anytime we have a chance to make our program better, and it's the right fit, then we're going to go for it."

Gibson had a .343 average for the Sun Devils last season, with 12 home runs and 39 RBIs. Jackson led the Wildcats with 17 homers and 50 RBIs.

"I had a pretty good year last year, but this is a new year, clean slate," Gibson said. "My main focus is just on hitting the ball hard and helping us produce as a team. Whatever the team needs, that's what I'm going to do."

In Softball America's Top 100 Player Rankings, released Thursday, four Razorbacks made the list. Haff was the highest Hog at No. 18, followed by McEwen at No. 40, Gibson at No. 62 and Jackson at No. 99.

"Ultimately, we are just trying to find the right kids that fit our system here," Deifel said. "I think it's always exciting to go in this first weekend to see what this team is going to be about. As a coaching staff, we have a pretty good idea, but until you cross those lines on game day, you're not really sure how deep that's going to go.

" I'm looking forward to seeing our team compete, come together a little bit more, and see who is going to step up in the big moments."

Arkansas will get things started with Campbell at 3 p.m. today, then will face tournament host McNeese State at 8 p.m. Following another tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, next weekend, Arkansas will return home to host the Razorback Invitational at Bogle Park, beginning Feb. 21.

Sports on 02/08/2019

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