Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Razorbacks undefeated in SEC play entering third series
Arkansas softball coach Courtney Deifel is shown during a game against North Dakota State on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021, in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/David Beach)
FAYETTEVILLE — The No. 15 Arkansas softball team will look to continue its red-hot SEC start when it hosts Mississippi State for a three-game series beginning tonight in Bogle Park.
Tonight’s game is set for a 6 p.m. start, while the Saturday’s and Sunday’s games are set for 1 p.m. All three games will be broadcast on SEC Network-plus.
The Razorbacks (25-3, 6-0 SEC) are off to their best start ever in league play and sit atop the SEC standings. They have won 24 of their past 25 games after taking two nonconference road victories over Missouri-Kansas City and Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Arkansas Coach Courtney Deifel said she couldn’t be more pleased with how the Razorbacks have found different ways to win all season long.
“It’s what it’s all about,” Deifel said. “It’s not relying on one so much, although we’ve had a few who are obviously incredibly steady. But it is someone different every day, and I think that’s big. I think even just this past weekend, I thought the bottom of our order was huge for us in getting things going, making the pitcher work and setting the table for top of our order.”
The Razorbacks came up with back-to-back extra-inning victories last weekend in sweeping Ole Miss. Danielle Gibson, the reigning SEC Player of the Week, hit a home run in the eighth inning for Arkansas’ 3-2 victory Saturday and Keely Huffine repeated with a walk-off home run in the eighth Sunday.
Redshirt junior Linnie Malkin said the Razorbacks are a confident team.
“We’re feeling pretty unstoppable for lack of a better word,” said Malkin, who hit her 10th home run of the season in Arkansas’ 7-4 victory over Kansas on Wednesday. “All the time we’ve put in this year is really paying off. I’m really excited to see where we go from her.”
Arkansas still ranks second in the country with 58 home runs, keyed by a potent 1-2 punch of Gibson and shortstop Braxton Burnside. Burnside is second nationally with 16 home runs, tied for fourth with 37 RBI and fifth with 86 total bases.
Gibson leads the country with 14 doubles, is tied for third with 90 total bases and tied for fifth with 35 RBI to go with a team-best .436 batting average.
However, Arkansas will likely be without Gibson this weekend since she missed Wednesday’s game at Kansas in concussion protocol, Deifel said. She hit her head diving into second base in Tuesday’s game at Missouri-Kansas City, Deifel said.
“We just have to be really mindful of taking our time and letting her get back as she feels ready,” Deifel said.
But Malkin said there’s a great deal of faith among the group that anyone who is called upon will get the job done.
“No matter who’s out there, everyone trusts them and we know that they are going to do their best and it’s going to work for us,” Malkin said. “Whoever’s out there is what’s going to work for us.”
The Bulldogs (15-11, 0-6) have lost six games in a row and only scored one run thus far in conference play, but Deifel said they are still a dangerous team.
“I would say not to get distracted by their numbers,” Deifel said. “Sometimes this conference is brutal and if you hit a team at the right time when they’re hot, it can be hard. We are expecting a tougher Mississippi State team than has necessarily showed up the past couple weeks.”
Redshirt junior Mary Haff has come up big in the circle for the Razorbacks, going 15-2 with a 1.02 ERA. Her 15 victories lead the nation, as do her 102 2/3 innings pitched.
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