Paul Boyd is a sports reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He was voted Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year in 2018.
UA softball aims to build on ’22 success
Courtney Deifel, head coach of Arkansas, claps her hands on Saturday, May 28, 2022, before the Texas Longhorns' 3-0 win in Game 3 of the NCAA Softball Super Regional at Bogle Park in Fayetteville. Visit nwaonline.com/220529Daily/ for the photo gallery.
FAYETTEVILLE — Courtney Deifel acknowledged she and her coaching staff needed some time to recover from the sudden ending to what was the best season in program history.
The Razorbacks (48-11) claimed their first outright SEC title, won the conference tournament and set a single-season program record for wins.
But their season ended with back-to-back losses to Texas in the NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional at Bogle Park after winning the first game of the series. The Longhorns went on to the championship series at Women’s College World Series before falling to Oklahoma.
“I will speak for our coaching staff in just kind of needing our hearts to heal a little bit,” Deifel said. “And then getting to work on next year and figuring our how we’re going to be better.
“To be honest, we just didn’t play well for those two days. Seeing a very hot Texas team that I think they felt like they were wronged in the selection process, and they were on a mission and we were in their path.”
But Deifel didn’t let the fact the Razorbacks fell short of their goal of getting to the WCWS at Oklahoma City dampen an incredible season and amazing careers for seniors, who laid the foundation for the program’s championship run.
More from WholeHogSports: Coverage of Arkansas baseball advancing to the College World Series
“In reality, we finished a top-10 program probably and had a ton of accomplishments this year,” Deifel said. “It was the best season in program history, and we have to celebrate this group for doing that.
“They [the seniors] were the ones at the forefront of putting this program on the map,” Deifel said of the seniors. “Mary [Haff] and Hannah McEwen were two of our very first commits when we got here. They came here because they wanted to leave their mark on this place. It’s why we came here, too.
“I think we saw how special this place is and really believed that we could do it, and they did, too. They trusted our vision.”
The Arkansas program has blossomed into being among the best in the league with perennial powers Florida and Alabama.
But that’s quite the change from when Deifel arrived at Fayetteville in 2015. From 2001 to 2018, Arkansas had one winning SEC record not counting the 2020 covid year, which included 1-23 mark in Deifel’s first season. But the Razorbacks have slowly risen to the top of the SEC standings over the past seven seasons, culminating in back-to-back 19-5 league marks.
McEwen finished her career as the program’s all-time leader in hits (206), total bases (389), runs scored (201) and second in RBI (144). Haff leaves as the all-time leader in wins (97) and saves (15). Those are just two of a handful of seniors, who will leave their mark on the program.
Another senior who left her mark was first baseman Danielle Gibson, the first two-time All-American in program history. She set single-season school records in batting average (.445), hits (81), RBI (70) and total bases (155) this season. She transferred to Arkansas from Arizona State after after earning first-team All Pac-12 honors in 2018.
Gibson said she is pleased with the progress she’s made as a player and her growth as a person, saying that’s a credit to Deifel and her staff.
“Her love for the game and love for everyone else around her is contagious,” Gibson said. “I’ve loved being about to love that from her. … The support and the trust that she’s given us as elite-level collegiate athletes, elite-level humans who are motivated and who want to win every single day, that kindness and that loving nature that she has, I think really helped us along the way kind of not lose track of who we are physically especially going through slumps and stuff.”
While Gibson said she’ll definitely remember the success on the field and helping to move the program forward, she said the relationships built will last forever.
“I think about our 23-hour trip we had from Charlotte to South Florida and just the memories that we will have,” Gibson said. “I’ll always remember those bus trips. I can’t help but smile as I talk about it because it’s been such highs in my life. People who are going to be lifelong friends. People who are going to be aunts to my children. People who are going to stay in my life forever.”
The Razorbacks picked up key performers like KB Sides, the SEC Player of the Year, and Chenise Delce, the SEC Pitcher of the Year, among others through the transfer portal lately. That’s no accident, Gibson said.
“I think it’s how she [Deifel] gets great athletes to transfer there and to buy into her system,” Gibson said. “It’s because her love and her kindness is contagious, and you want to be a part of something. Everyone wants to be cared for. Everyone wants to know that their coaches trust them.”
Deifel and her staff have now turned their attention to next year’s team, which will obviously look very different. At least five of the players who started Arkansas’ final game will not return, including Haff.
But the Razorbacks welcome an incoming freshman class of nine that was ranked No. 1 in the country by Extra Inning Softball. Sophomore pitcher Lauren Howell has entered the transfer portal after pitching five innings in five games this season.
“We’re looking for transfers and the pieces we feel like put us in position to have another great year,” Deifel said. “We have some great returners and some really exciting freshmen coming in, so it’s going to be a very different team. But we’re really excited about it and it should be fun.”
Third baseman Hannah Gammill hit .374 with 18 home runs to earn All-American honors this season as a sophomore. She and Delce, a transfer from Tulsa, will obviously be key returners. Freshman Kacie Hoffman hit .273 with 8 home runs in 51 games.
Gammill, who also earned All-American honors as a sophomore, said she believes she’s been a leader by example already. But more will be asked of her going forward.
“Maybe more a vocal leader and more on-the-field leader now,” Gammill said. “I’m excited for that. I’m excited to use God’s gifts through me.”
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