Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Oregon Profile: When Will the Ducks Be Able to 'Finish It'?

General Overview/2016 Recap: At the season-opening Kajikawa Classic, the Ducks bested the Big Ten's Maryland and Northwestern, as well as Boston College of the ACC, but took a loss to Kentucky on the season's second day.

Only one game of a three-game set against Louisiana-Lafayette went the Ducks' way, as they took the series loss down in Cajunland.

At the Mary Nutter Classic, a loss to Nebraska gave way to convincing victories over Cal State Northridge; Fresno State; and Oklahoma State, as well as a tight battle against Mizzou.

A victory over Florida Atlantic that handed ace Kylee Hanson her first loss of the year was the highlight of the remainder of the early season leading up to conference play.

In conference play, the Ducks swept a top-ten matchup against Washington and also earned three-game sweeps over Stanford; Oregon State; Arizona State; and Arizona. Series wins over Cal and Utah closed the regular season with the Ducks' only conference series loss of the year coming at the hands of UCLA.

In the Regional round, the Ducks made quick work of their competition, including fish-out-of-water Baylor, en route to a berth in the Super Regionals.

Matched up in  what some viewed as an unfair PAC-on-PAC Super regional against UCLA,  the Ducks took game one of the series convincingly by a score of 8-1, but failed to show up on offense throughout the rest of the series, ultimately losing each of the final two Super regional games by identical scores of 2-1.

Sophomore pitcher Megan Kleist will have
some work to do to replace Cheridan
Hawkins in the circle, but she performed well in
her inaugural campaign and should only improve
now that she is 'battle-tested'.
Photo: Oregon Athletics
Around the Horn in 2016: (reflects departed players)
P - (Cheridan Hawkins); Megan Kleist
C - (Janelle Lindvall)
1B - (Hailey Decker)
2B - Lauren Lindvall
3B - Jenna Lilley
SS - Nikki Udria
LF - (Geri Ann Glasco)
CF - (Koral Costa)
RF - (Alyssa Gillespie)
DP - Gwen Svekis

Carrying the Clipboards: 
To head coach Mike White belongs much of the credit for the Ducks' rise to the pinnacle of the nation's softball landscape and under his tutelage, the Ducks have established themselves as championship contenders year-in and year-out. A Kiwi former men's fastpitch player and international superstar, White has long been a renowned pitching coach. He has proven to be one of the nation's top coaches, period, during his tenure at UO. The Ducks have won four straight PAC-12 conference titles and White has been named conference Coach of the Year three times.

Jimmy Kolaitis, arguably the hottest coaching commodity on the market when the Carousel opens each offseason, has made a world of impact on the Ducks offense and is one of the nation's best recruiters. In just three seasons under his tutelage, the Ducks hitters have established themselves as one of the nation's top offenses. Case in point: In Kolaitis' first season in Eugene, his offense had a higher team batting average (.342); more runs scored (445); and a higher team slugging percentage (.518) than any other Ducks squad before it. In 2016, the team's .353 cumulative batting average led the nation, while the Ducks also held top-five spots nationally in slugging percentage; home runs per game; and runs per game, averaging nearly eight runs a game in the latter category.

Former ace professional player and all-American Pac-12 star Chelsea Spencer rounds out the Ducks coaching staff. The one in charge of the Ducks' incredibly sharp infield, Spencer saw three of her infielders earn all-conference honors in 2016, following a season when she saw her entire starting infield earn similar awards, including third baseman Jenna Lilley a first-team all-conference nod. Spencer, a former community college head coach and a longtime all-star in the NPF, spent six seasons as part of the professional softball league, four times earning all-star honors. During her collegiate playing days, Spencer was a part of the 2005 National Championship-winning Cal club and helped lead her school to the Women's College World Series in each of her four years at the school. She earned all-conference; all-region; and all-American honors as a junior in 2004.

In addition to a five-member freshman class that includes infielders Mia Camuso and Shannon Rhodes; right-handed hurlers Maggie Balint and Miranda Elish; and outfielder Haley Cruse, the Ducks welcome in former South Carolina Gamecock transfer Alexis Mack via transfer.

The Ducks said 'sayonara' to a huge senior class following last season including: starting outfielders Geri Ann Glasco, Koral Costa, and Alyssa Gillespie; ace pitcher Cheridan Hawkins; first baseman Hailey Decker; slugging catcher Janelle Lindvall; and role players infielder Stevie Jo Knapp and pitcher Jasmine Smithson-Willett.

The Ducks will kick off their season in the Tempe, AZ-hosted Kajikawa Classic, where they'll take on Virginia and Fresno State, among several other clubs. 

At the Mary Nutter Classic, they'll face off against Kentucky to open their portion of the  tournament and will also face Kent State; Liberty; Cal State Northridge; and Illinois.

A matchup against former Duck assistant Lisa Dodd and her UNLV program will highlight the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu, which will be followed by the Missouri Invitational that will match the Ducks up in two games against the hosting Missouri Tigers, among other clubs.

The Ducks' own hosted Oregon Invitational will play host to Idaho State; Pacific; and former perennial postseason contender Hofstra.

In conference play, the Ducks will host Cal; Arizona State; Washington; and Oregon State and will travel to Utah; UCLA; Arizona; and Stanford. 

A midseason three-game tilt against Florida State in Eugene will certainly earn some serious RPI points... at least for one of the two clubs.

Potential Strengths/Weaknesses ---
Strengths - Jenna Lilley and Nikki Udria make not only for one heck of a left side of an infield, but the duo are both offensive catalysts. Gwen Svekis will soon get her due of national recognition and will be a dependable and solid bat in the middle of the Duck batting order. Megan Kleist may have a tall task with filling Cheridan Hawkins' shoes, but she showed some brilliant talent in 2016 and should only improve now that she is somewhat battle-tested against conference competition.

Weaknesses - Oregon undoubtedly had one of the roughest offseasons of any club nationally and may have seen the most meaningful departure to graduation of anyone; losing five offensive starters, along with ace hurler Cheridan Hawkins, leaves more holes in the batting order; the defense; and the pitching staff than the Ducks have battle-ready players. With the PAC-12 level of competition expected to pick back up this season, Mike White's club will have to quickly find their 'land leagues' if they're to be and stay competitive come conference play.

Outlook for 2017: The PAC-12 suffered from a down year in 2016 and the Ducks couldn't quite take advantage of it; despite a conference championship and a Super Regional berth, the Duck offense went cold against some familiar competition in the Supers and went home early. This team does still have some serious talent, but it will be tough to replace the many players they lost to graduation last year. A postseason berth is a foregone conclusion for the Ducks, and I believe another Super regional berth is fairly likely. If the Ducks do get that far in the postseason, they will undoubtedly shaken off their 'sea legs' and be ready to compete for a spot in Oklahoma City.

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