Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Deifel: Big step in lost season
Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel watches from the third-base coaches box against Southeast Missouri Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, during the fourth inning at Bogle Park on the university campus in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Six days before the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to the ball-and-bat sports across America, the University of Arkansas softball team celebrated a seminal upset.
The Razorbacks edged No. 9 Alabama 1-0 on the road for their first victory over the perennial power Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 20 years. First baseman Danielle Gibson went 4 for 4 and drove in leadoff hitter Hannah McEwen with a single in the top of the seventh inning for the game's only run. Senior Autumn Storms (10-2) made it stand up with a five-hitter, all singles.
In the process, Arkansas snapped a 25-game road losing streak to Alabama, which was ranked in the top 10 for 20 of those games.
Though the Crimson Tide rallied to beat the Razorbacks the next two games, Coach Courtney Deifel's club had made a point. They were not to be overlooked in the hotly competitive SEC.
"I think we had all the tools in place to have a really special team," Deifel said last week. "I think we had better talent than we've had, and I think we had better leadership than we've had. We had stronger, deeper pitching than we've ever had.
"So when you look at all those things, you always wonder, 'Oh, what might have been,' especially when you look at our first 25 games, just the learning process and the growing process."
The stoppage came with the Razorbacks at 19-6 overall and ranked No. 19 in the USA Today coaches poll.
For a program that has reached one NCAA Super Regional in its first 23 years, the suspension came at a point when challenging for all-time highs was a possibility.
"I think we would have done things that Arkansas softball hasn't done before," senior Aly Manzo said. "And I definitely could have seen us going past Supers and going into the College World Series."
Said Gibson: "I think it was definitely devastating to stop where we were because we were just getting the gist of accountability and working outside of practice at a level that was definitely nothing that we had before. The cohesiveness of the team was, and is still, almost unheard of."
On a teleconference earlier this spring, senior Sydney Parr and Braxton Burnside talked about the hurt of losing the year.
"This was a very special group and we had a lot of talent on this team, and to see it cut short is just very sad," Burnside said.
"This team this year was so united," Parr said. "I do know that we would have gone a very long way and we would have been successful as a program. I strongly feel that way."
The Razorbacks were hitting .317 to tie with Florida for sixth in the SEC. Their pitching staff of Storms, junior Mary Haff, and freshmen Jenna Bloom and Rylin Hedgecock had accumulated a 1.93 ERA to rank fifth in the conference, fractions behind Florida's staff (1.89) in third place.
Five regulars were batting .323 or better: juniors McEwen (.418), Burnside (.392) and Kayla Green (.375); and seniors Parr (.338) and Ryan Jackson (.323).
The Razorbacks were in the middle of the pack in the SEC with 26 home runs, led by junior Linnie Malkin with six, followed by Burnside and Jackson with five each. They had been successful on 10 of 11 steal attempts, including 5 for 5 by Parr and 3 for 3 by McEwen.
So Deifel's squad was making headway with a blend of power and speed, plus pitching and solid defense.
"I liked where we were at," Deifel said. "I liked our offensive lineup. We had more tools in our lineup than we've ever had, where different people were stepping up and being someone we could rely on."
Arkansas had lost a few winnable games in the early going, particularly against Bradley, Montana and No. 23 Baylor. But the Razorbacks completed the season with back-to-back walk-off wins against Kansas in a doubleheader on March 10, so the mood was upbeat heading into a weekend set against No. 14 Georgia at Bogle Park before the plug was pulled on the season.
Alabama received 11 of 13 first-place votes to win the SEC from coaches, and the other two went to Tennessee. LSU, Kentucky and Florida rounded out the top five in the preseason projections, followed by Georgia and then Arkansas at No. 7.
In the NCAA projections, Alabama was No. 2 behind Washington.
"Alabama started No. 2 and they're stacked," Deifel said. "They're very good ... and I think they were a couple of votes away from being a unanimous first-place team in the conference. You go and take a game at their place, then you really do feel like you can go head-to-head with anyone.
"You talk to the other coaches in the conference and you got the sense it was really anyone's year. So that's what was so exciting. It hasn't been like that for a while. All of our programs are getting better. And I think next year it's going to be even stronger. You're looking at having five classes on every roster. It's going to be a dog fight, but I would expect nothing less."
Storms was rocking along with an 11-3 record and 1.16 ERA in 72 2/3 innings. Haff, coming off an ACL injury in her left knee late last year, was 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA in 37 innings. Bloom had a 4-2 mark and 3.21 ERA in 43 2/3 innings.
"I definitely think those three will get the bulk of our innings, then we have a freshman, Lauren Howell, who's going to get a lot of innings, too," Deifel said. "I'm looking at it as a bonus that we get Autumn back. And just her competitive nature and what she does for us in the circle, I love that our freshmen are going to get a year with her.
"I'm not going to lie, it's going to be tough to balance all those pitchers and the amount of innings that they need. But in the same breath, I'm really happy we get to navigate through that because it means we get Autumn and Lauren Graves back with the whole senior class."
All six Arkansas seniors are expected to return for 2021, which would bring the roster to 32, one of the smaller ones in the SEC.
"We're going to have all of our six seniors back and the seven freshmen coming in are pretty highly recruited," Gibson said. "We're just trying to build all those relationships now so when we get to Fayetteville in the fall and we're all together that it'll just be a smooth breeze, and we'll just focus on softball and just focus on getting better in every aspect."
Manzo said she thinks the Razorbacks will play with an edge when the 2021 season rolls around.
"This is a really special group, and I think there's a reason we have a second chance," Manzo said. "I think there's something out there saying ... we need this second chance with this group of girls, and I think this upcoming 2021 season is going to be so, so special."
Sports on 05/12/2020
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