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Arkansas softball players celebrate after the final out of the championship game of the SEC Tournament on Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. (Leslie White, via SEC Media Portal)
The University of Arkansas is the SEC softball tournament champion for the first time in program history.
No. 4 Arkansas (44-9) headed to Gainesville, Fla., for the 2022 SEC Tournament on a mission. After a three-day stint, that goal was accomplished as the top-seeded Razorbacks shut out No. 24 Missouri 4-0 in the championship game, backing up a regular-season crown with a tournament title.
“I’m just really, really proud,” Arkansas Coach Courtney Deifel said. “I’m just grateful for all the players since we got here from Year One. Everyone keeps reminding me that we weren’t that good in Year One, but we needed that.
“Every step that we’ve taken is an important part of our journey. I’m just really proud of our players, really proud of our staff and just really grateful for everyone that’s taken a chance on us and trusted us.”
Arkansas controlled the game from start to finish behind a shutout from Chenise Delce and 11 hits from its the offense.
Delce, who was named SEC Pitcher of the Year on Friday, made it a long day for Missouri. She closed the game by retiring 13 batters in a row and only allowed two hits. Delce (17-2, 2.07 ERA) needed 68 pitches and recorded five strikeouts.
“She looked absolutely dialed from the first inning,” Deifel said. “Missouri is a very, very good offense and they really just didn’t have an answer for Chenise today.”
The Razorbacks jumped ahead early. After leadoff singles from KB Sides and Hannah McEwen, the Razorbacks scored once in first inning on an RBI single from Danielle Gibson.
Missouri’s Megan Schumacher replaced starter Laurin Krings to start the second, but the Razorback bats didn’t skip a beat.
Freshman Kacie Hoffmann hit a leadoff triple and Marlene Friedman, who only had 10 at-bats prior to the game, hit a bloop RBI single to put Arkansas ahead 2-0.
After Sides drew a leadoff walk to begin the fifth inning, McEwen sent a single to right. The speedy Sides capitalized on a throwing error from Tigers’ right fielder Alex Honnold, going from first to home.
With the bases loaded, a wild pitch allowed Gibson to slide home and give Arkansas a 4-0 lead.
Hoffmann paced the Razorback bats, going 2 for 3 with a single and triple. McEwen, LaValley and Taylor Ellsworth also produced two hits each.
Delce went the distance to slam the door on Missouri and secure the win.
“I don’t think I ever really feel like I have it until the game is over,” Delce said of her mindset to finish games. “I’ve watched too many games where people lose it in the last inning. Going out there and knowing I have the stuff to win a game helps me, but knowing we have an offense and a defense that can win games … I’m pretty confident in this team.”
The Razorbacks have played with a chip on their shoulders this season.
After sharing the SEC championship last year with Florida, pundits on the national level discredited the title, saying it was the result of a weak league schedule. The disrespect didn’t sit with Deifel or any of the 16 returning players.
“I know that we had a pretty p****d off group coming off last year, feeling like everyone made excuses for why we were good,” Deifel said prior to the tournament. “When you accomplish something and then you hear everyone making excuses for why you did it, it’s really frustrating. Because you don’t hear them do that about your counterparts.
Even the other ones that you’re tied with, they’re saying, ‘Oh, they deserved it.’ But we didn’t? I mean, it’s just ridiculous. We competed, we were consistent through this year, too…and now people are saying that we’re good? Well, we’ve been good.
“We’ve been playing high-level softball. I don’t know that the chip’s ever going to leave.”
The team made certain no one can dispute the legitimacy of its achievements this year. Arkansas not only won its first ever outright SEC regular-season title, but backed it up by winning the conference tournament convincingly.
The Razorbacks outscored opponents 11-1 through the three-game stint in Gainesville. Mary Haff and Delce each tossed a shutout in the process.
“The game runs on pitching,” Deifel said. “So to see them do what they’ve done throughout the SEC, leading the SEC in ERA, and then getting here and continuing to improve their game against really, really talented offenses is huge. It just gives the rest of our team so much confidence.”
After beginning the year 6-3 with two blowout losses to Washington, the Razorbacks have won 38 of their last 44 contests.
“We knew early, even before we started clicking, that we had all the pieces we need to do something really special this year,” Deifel said. “All of the not clicking, we needed it because we had to work really hard to get to where we are clicking. We’ve had teams in the past where we shot out of the gates and clicked right away, and didn't really have the year we wanted.
"I can honestly say I think we’re playing our best softball right now, right at the time that we want to be. We needed all of that adversity. We grew as a group, and we became stronger as a group through it.”
The 2022 season has been a statement season for Arkansas.
“It always feels good to prove anyone wrong in anything you do,” Deifel said of her team taking the conference by storm this year. “I think competitive people just always want to prove people wrong. I think there was even times this week that it was like, ‘Well, we’ll see if they can win the tournament.’ There just continues to be questions about us.
"I think that at this point we’ve established ourselves as a national contender. I think our play is consistent enough and proven we belong in those conversations. We’ll continue to move forward with that chip on our shoulder, knowing that the only thing we really need is each other’s approval.”
One major goal remains ahead: the program’s first Women’s College World Series appearance.
Arkansas awaits to see if the road to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series will run through Fayetteville. In the latest D1Softball.com projections, Arkansas is forecast as the No. 4 seed. The overall top-eight teams are guaranteed to host through the super-regional round. The Razorbacks are 24-4 at Bogle Park this season.
The NCAA Softball Tournament bracket will be revealed during a selection show Sunday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.
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