Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Razorback softball turns to next year
Arkansas softball coach Courtney Deifel is shown Saturday, May 29, 2021, during an NCAA super regional game against Arizona in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — University of Arkansas softball Coach Courtney Deifel was effusive with her praise of the Razorbacks’ accomplishments this season. But she acknowledged coaches and players alike want more going forward.
Arkansas enjoyed a season full of firsts, which included winning a share of the SEC regular-season title and hosting a super regional. But Arizona knocked off the Razorbacks twice in front of sold-out crowds in Bogle Park last weekend to end their season.
She saw a fire their eyes when talking to players during exit meetings this week. They wanted to be in Oklahoma City this week rather than turning in uniforms.
“They were disappointed. They were heartbroken,” Deifel said Thursday. “This year we fully expected to be at the Series and we know that’s the next step for us. And we feel like we’re on the brink of that.
“I can tell you we’re all not over it and we’re all committed to still be playing and that’s gonna be the driving force of how we continue to move this program forward.”
The Razorbacks completed a worst-to-first turnaround in Deifel’s sixth season in Fayetteville. They went 43-11 overall with the best winning percentage in school history, but also 19-5 in the SEC to tie perennial power Florida for the title. That’s a huge jump from a 17-39 record, including 7-18 in the SEC in 2016, Deifel’s first season.
Deifel added this season was especially extraordinary considering the pandemic. She said the team’s unselfishness was on display the entire season.
“We had the talent, but in a year like this year the talent’s not going to do it for you,” Deifel said. “That’s not gonna be enough. It’s never enough but especially in a year like this year. It’s not even gonna scratch the surface of what you need to have
“We had great leadership. Just tough-minded, team-minded, resilient athletes. That’s how you make it through a year when you have covid and you have injuries and you have all these things that take out some of your best players.”
Five position players who started the final game, will move on. Shortstop Braxton Burnside headlines that group. She and pitcher Mary Haff broke new ground for the Razorbacks, becoming inaugural first-team All-America selections by the National Fastpitch Coaches’ Association on Wednesday. Arkansas had just two All-Americans in program history before earning three selections this year.
Burnside led a Razorbacks team that finished among the best in the country at hitting the ball out of the ballpark. She finished with a single-season Razorbacks record 25 home runs, which is currently second in the nation. Haff and first baseman Danielle Gibson, a second-team All-America selection, will return to join outfielder Hannah McEwen to form a strong core for next season.
Deifel felt like the program’s improvement had already drawn attention from recruits nationwide, but that’s obviously improved with this historical season. The postseason crowds in Bogle Park on television don’t hurt either.
“I thought the environment in our regional and super regional was absolutely electric,” Deifel said. “Recruiting’s our lifeline to continue to keep this thing going and we felt like we were in a really good spot recruiting before in the SEC. If we can get them in here to see this place they’re big-eyed and just wowed by it as we all were when we went through process of choosing to come here.
“We have attention from that top-tier athlete that wants to come play on a big stage. They’re seeing 3,000 fans in Bogle. Who wouldn’t want to play in front of thousands of fans every day, in one of the most beautiful facilities in the country?”
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