New hitting coach Kolaitis gives credit elsewhere for scoring

by: COURTESY OF GEOFF THURNER - Courtney Ceo has been one of the big sticks for the No. 1-ranked Oregon Ducks softball team.It’s hard not to be awestruck by the University of Oregon softball team.

The Ducks are ranked No. 1 in the nation. They have a 46-5 record and are scoring seven runs per game, more than one run ahead of last year’s average. They have forced 17 games to be cut short because of the eight-run rule.

Hitting coach Jimmy Kolaitis says he doesn’t think his hiring last summer propelled the Ducks to these new heights.

“I don’t know if I’ve specifically brought anything,” he says.

Kolaitis credits everyone but himself.

Courtney Ceo, a 5-8 third baseman from Meadow Vista, Calif., iignites the Ducks’ dynamic attack, he says.

“She sets the table for us every game,” Kolaitis says. “This kid is getting on base 50 percent of the time, which is unheard of. ”

Add the likes of 2013 All-American Alexa Peterson, a 5-8 senior outfielder from South Salem High ... and 5-6 senior first baseman Kailee Cuico from Carson, Calif., the Ducks’ all-time home-run leader ... and nearly a starting lineup worth of .300 hitters ... and “we’ve got a good thing going,” Kolaitis says.

Kolaitis tells the Ducks to focus on fundamentals, not results.

“All you can do is see the ball in the zone, get in position and take a pretty good swing at it,” he says. “Whatever happens after that, happens.”

What also helps, Kolaitis says, is that fifth-year coach Mike White and assistant coach Mike Roberts have strong pitching backgrounds that provide the Ducks with invaluable live ball experience in practice.

“Most coaches can’t throw it like Coach White and Coach Roberts,” Kolaitis says. “Not only can they throw live, they can duplicate pitchers that we see.”

Plus, Kolaitis says Coach White’s ability to read opposing pitchers like a book helps Oregon’s hitters immensely.

“He sees opposing pitchers and predicts their pitches. It’s pretty impressive. He teaches hitters to pick the pitches as well,” Kolaitis says.

Kolaitis, meanwhile, helps the team make adjustments. Against California on April 18, with the Ducks down 2-0 in the fourth inning, he told his players to tweak their strategy at the plate. The results were staggering — Oregon scored 15 runs in the bottom of the fourth, with three home runs and 12 hits.

“We were passive in the count, so I told them to start working the other side of the field,” he says. “And then they blew it open.”

The Ducks haven’t come out of nowhere. They won the Pac-12 last year and have been to the NCAA super regional four years in a row, reaching the Women’s College World Series in 2012.

But, since taking two out of three from then-No. 1 UCLA the first week of April, they have been in uncharted territory, ranking ahead of strong top-10 programs such as Michigan, Florida, Florida State, Alabama and Tennessee.

Oregon has won 10 in a row since dropping the finale of the UCLA series. UO leads the Pac-12 by two games over the No. 2 Bruins and three games over No. 4 Arizona State going into a key series against ASU Friday through Sunday at its home Howe Field in Eugene.

The Ducks, however, talk every day about staying grounded, so what happened to them last year doesn’t happen again. In 2013, Oregon got as high as No. 3 in the national rankings, won the Pac-12 and reached a super regional, before losing to Nebraska 4-2 in the penultimate game. The defeat cost the Ducks a return the Women’s College World Series, and they settled for ninth in the final Division I poll.

“Last year put a bad taste in their mouth,” Kolaitis says. “They felt pretty big about themselves, and then didn’t show up in the super regional. This year, we’re trying not to make the same mistake.”

Fourteen years ago, after blowing out his knee to end his college baseball career, Kolaitis never would have fathomed that he would become a softball coach.

He coached four years of high school baseball in Alabama and four years at Troy. Then the South Alabama softball program called him about an opening on its coaching staff.

“I thought, ‘No way I’m going to jump to softball.’ But after I interviewed and met the girls, I thought it was the right fit,” he says.

Kolaitis also switched sports because he didn’t want to get stuck in the mud as a small-time baseball coach.

“Baseball is an absolute grind. There are so many people for so few jobs,” he says. “I was kind of stuck in limbo, so I decided to start a career instead of sticking at the bottom of the totem poll.”

In just four years at South Alabama, he turned a No. 180 RPI startup program in just its third year of existence into the 13th-ranked team in the nation.

While there, he declined assistant coaching jobs in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference, but after talking to White, he realized Oregon was his next


“It just kind of clicked,” Kolaitis says. “He told me what he expected, and I felt like it was the type of program I wanted to be a part of.”

White wanted him to help with recruiting, as well, and Kolaitis was more than ready for that.

“South Alabama was a program no one gave a chance to. I did the majority of the recruiting. I was everywhere, all across the country, at fields all night,” Kolaitis says. “I love recruiting. I could sit on the road all day long.”

In softball, many players verbally commit to colleges before their sophomore year in high school. This forces recruiting gurus such as Kolaitis to make educated guesses and hope for the best.

“It’s like playing blackjack — you’re hoping you have a card higher than they’ve (other teams) got,” he says.

Oregon already has four commitments from the prep Class of 2017, and the Ducks will soon be bringing in eighth graders to visit the Eugene campus.

“If five schools in the Pac-12 bring in eighth-graders and we aren’t one of them, we will lose contact with them,” he says.

But, with the postseason looming, Kolaitis is even more focused on the Women’s College World Series.

“Our goal,” he says, “is to be sitting in Oklahoma City with a national championship.”

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