Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
Razorbacks softball gearing up for spring
Arkansas softball coach Courtney Deifel is shown Saturday, May 29, 2021, during an NCAA super regional game against Arizona in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas softball team used a power-hitting lineup to put together an impressive 2021 season of firsts, claiming a share of the SEC regular-season title and hosting an NCAA super regional.
Despite losing key pieces, the Razorbacks have reloaded with four Division I transfers along with a talented freshman class. That has Coach Courtney Deifel excited for the spring as the team finished fall workouts with a final intrasquad game over the weekend.
The Razorbacks outscored four opponents by a combined score of 54-1 in games against outside competition, and every facet of the game shined, Deifel said.
By the numbers
11 — Home runs by Arkansas in four fall games
1 — Run allowed by Arkansas pitchers in four fall games
4 — Division I transfers on the Razorbacks’ roster
2 — NFCA All-Americans returning for the Razorbacks
54 — Combined runs scored by the Razorbacks in four fall games
“I thought our defense played exceptionally well,” said Deifel, who is beginning her seventh season in Fayetteville. “I thought our pitchers were lights out. I thought our offense was very explosive and had different layers that we haven’t had in the past.
“We’re deep. We’re strong. We have the right pieces. We’re not sure exactly where to put them yet, but that’s a good problem to have.”
First baseman Danielle Gibson, one of four returning starters, had one prevailing thought looking over the roster.
“I tell you the difference is we’re just flat-out more talented,” said Gibson, a second-team National Fastpitch Coaches Association All American selection last season. And she believes the Razorbacks have the talent to make their first-ever appearance in the Women’s College World Series.
The Razorbacks weren’t far away a year ago, losing to long-time Pac 12 power Arizona in a super regional at Bogle Park. As Gibson noted, the roster is again stacked, but K.B. Sides, a graduate transfer from Alabama, noted that the team chemistry is also special.
Sides recalled seeing Deifel and the team’s reaction on television after winning a share of the SEC title last season.
“I remember Coach Deifel crying and I was just like, ‘Wow, they really love her,’” Sides said. “Obviously I didn’t expect to transfer, but when I got in the portal and she called, I fell in love with this program.”
Gibson said the difference is players were genuinely excited about the new additions. That’s not the case everywhere, she said.
“We’ve seen them all perform at a really high level,” Gibson said. “When we saw we got them, it was an extremely exciting experience for everyone versus in most programs where they might have been a little bit jealous.
“We were more like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to the World Series this year.’ That’s our mindset. We’re going to the World Series.”
Deifel credited the returners for helping 11 newcomers get acclimated, but it’s also easy to see the team’s culture is genuine.
“What you see is what you get,” Deifel said. “That’s who we are every day. I always tell people I’m not creative enough to be anybody else.
“You can compete at a high level and do it the right way and treat people the right way. I think that’s why we’ve gotten to where we are.”
Arkansas showed in the fall it can still hit the long ball, hammering a combined 11 home runs against outside competition. But a key difference for this group is the depth of the lineup, Deifel said.
Hannah McEwen, an All-SEC second-team selection last season, has been a productive lead-off hitter for the Razorbacks, but the speedy Sides provides a different dimension for a team that had only four stolen bases the entire season last year.
Now they bring a formidable 1-2 punch to the top of the lineup.
Sides was also a member of last season’s SEC All-Defensive team and will likely anchor center field for the Razorbacks in the spring. But she’s flashed some power, too, accounting for four home runs against the outside competition.
“I think Hannah McEwen is one of the best lead-off hitters in the country,” Deifel said. “When you have someone like K.B. and what she can do. I’m like, we have the potential to score one before the game even starts.”
It will be new roles for both as Sides hit further down in the lineup for Alabama and McEwen hasn’t hit in the two-hole since her freshman year, Deifel said. But she’s convinced it’s going to work well.
“Man, I just like that 1-2 punch at the top,” Deifel said. “I just think those two were a really good tone-setting duo.”
Pitchers Callie Turner and Chenise Delce, both transfers, will bolster an already talented staff led by Mary Haff, who shared the SEC Pitcher of the Year award, even deeper. Turner, a left-hander, went 10-3 with a 2.28 ERA for Tennessee, while Delce was a two-time first-team All-American Athletic Conference selection at Tulsa.
The entire group was electric this fall, combining to allow just one run combined over the four fall games.
Taylor Ellsworth, a graduate transfer from Texas, looks to be the heir apparent behind the plate with Kayla Green graduating. She hit .372 for the Longhorns last season.
But there are a few spots still up for grabs heading into the spring.
Spencer Prigge, a freshman from Phoenix, Ariz., could occupy the shortstop spot vacated by All-American Braxton Burnside, who graduated. Prigge has played mostly third base in the past, but she’s impressed with her athleticism and Hannah Gammill could stay at third after a promising freshman season. But Deifel acknowledged nothing’s set in stone.
In addition, redshirt sophomore Rylin Hedgecock, who had just 20 at-bats last season, and freshman Kacie Hoffman are in the mix in right field.
“Rylin, we always knew she could swing it,” Deifel said. “The question with her was the defensive piece … she’s gone to work out in right field and every day she’s getting better and understanding that position a little more.
“The way she’s swinging it is forcing us to give her a shot out there.”
Deifel said second base is still up for grabs at the end of the fall with returner Audrie LaValley, along with freshmen Ally Sockey and Raigan Kramer in the mix.
LaValley, a redshirt junior, played in 23 games with 19 starts last year, but hit only .136 and got only two at-bats in SEC play. However, she’s impressed in the fall could be the leader for the spot right now, Deifel said.
“I think Audrie’s playing as good as we’ve seen her play,” Deifel said. “I think she made some great range plays and I think she’s swinging it really well. She’s gotten back to what makes her so good offensively, which is just being patient and making them work.”
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