Lombardi's deeper Ducks aim for better times, NCAA berth
The 2019 softball season at Oregon was a stark contrast from the previous years when the Ducks were established Pac-12 and Women's College World Series contenders.
Might 2020 — which begins Thursday against Utah Valley with the first of five games at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico — be a stark contrast from the struggles of last year?
Buoyed by improved depth and experience, second-year coach Melyssa Lombardi promises the Ducks will have more fun.
"This is a fun group. They love the game of softball, and I think you're going to like watching them play," Lombardi said.
Last season was defined by struggle, as Lombardi stepped into a challenging situation after coach Mike White left for Texas and a number of key players fled the program.
But a No. 18 preseason ranking indicates the softball world expects much more out of the Ducks in 2020.
Oregon's roster is much deeper than it was a year ago, starting in the pitching circle. Left-hander Jordan Dail worked 248 of the team's 332.1 innings in 2019, a load that ranked atop the Pac-12 and fifth nationally.
A transfer from Virginia Tech, Dail was a second-team all-Pac-12 selection after going 18-18 with a 4.50 ERA as a sophomore. The Forest, Virginia native mixes a rise ball, curve and changeup to keep batters off balance. In the fall and winter, she worked on getting stronger.
Even better, Dail will be much fresher this season because the Ducks have four capable pitchers.
Junior left-hander Brooke Yanez was one of 50 players on the initial USA Softball Player of the Year watch list. The Big West Conference pitcher of the year last season at UC Davis, Yanez went 25-7 with a 1.03 ERA and 273 strikeouts in 203.2 innings. Lombardi said the 5-7 Ventura, California native brings great leadership skills and a steady demeanor along with talent.
"She's got excellent movement. The ball comes out of her hand really easy, and she really knows how to use her entire zone," Lombardi said.
Senior transfer Samairia Diaz pitched three seasons at New Mexico State and was the 2019 Western Athletic Conference pitcher of the year (16-9, 2.10 ERA, 228 strikeouts). The 5-10 native of West Covina, California, is a right-hander who "has long fingers. She throws hard and does a real good job of working the ball up and down," Lombardi said.
Freshman 5-11 right-hander Makenna Kliethermes was the 2019 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year. Kliethermes was 21-2 with seven no-hitters and 300 strikeouts in 134.1 innings as a senior at Blair Oaks (Missouri) High.
"What I like about her is the amount of spin she puts on her ball. It makes it look like a Wiffle ball," Lombardi said. "She knows how to use the entire zone. She does a good job of changing speeds. The way it comes out of her hand can be tricky at times for hitters."
Lombardi had not determined a pitching rotation as of last week but said all four are capable of starting, pitching middle relief, or closing, depending upon matchups.
Behind the plate, junior Shaye Bowden caught 38 games last season among her 49 starts and was especially effective at keeping base runners on their toes, leading the Pac-12 with 14 caught stealing.
The catching position is boosted by Terra McGowan, who had to sit out her freshman season after spending the fall of 2018 at Arizona State.
Sophomore Annalisa Williamson out of Jesuit High made 19 starts as designated player or in right field as a freshman but has worked hard behind the plate and communicates well with the pitchers, according to Lombardi.
Freshman Vallery Wong can play anywhere in the field, including behind the plate.
Starters return as sophomores at shortstop (Jasmine Sievers, 45 starts), second base (Allee Bunker, 52 starts) and third base (Rachel Cid, 52 starts). Sievers made the Pac-12 first team and all-defensive team after committing only seven errors.
Lombardi said the competition for playing time at every position is pushing improved play across the board.
There will be a new starter at first base, with April Utecht's graduation. Mya Felder, a sophomore transfer from New Mexico State who was the WAC freshman of the year in 2019, is a candidate for that position.
Freshman Ariel Carlson, the Oregon Gatorade Player of the Year out of Marist High, is working at the corner positions and in the outfield.
Sophomore Katelyn Howard, who appeared in 12 games (primarily as designated player), is also in the mix at first base.
The outfield is anchored by senior center fielder Haley Cruse, who has played 141 career games and is focused on a successful final season.
"Anything that's in the outfield, I expect she's going to catch it, and I think she expects the same," Lombardi said. "She really wants to walk away knowing that she did everything she could for herself and for this team."
Lexi Wagner made 28 of her 42 starts as a freshman in the outfield and had a strong fall and winter according to Lombardi. Ditto for Scappoose native Hannah Galey, who is healthy and playing well after injuries hampered her development as a freshman. Freshmen Wong, Carlson and Deijah Pangilinan also could see time in the outfield.
"Last year, we were versatile, but we needed to be because we were a little depleted. This year, we've got a full roster," Lombardi said. "I really like the athleticism we have on this team, the versatility we have on this team. They're all very capable of playing more than one position, which gives us a lot of options to work with as a coaching staff."
Offensively, a year of strength training and the addition of a few lively bats has Lombardi excited.
"You can see the returners are stronger, you can see their ball flight looks a little different this year. The ball's traveling a lot farther," she said.
Lombardi, in fact, used the word explosive to describe her team.
"We can hit the ball off the wall and then come up the next at-bat and drop a bunt and be safe," she said. "So I think you'l get a lot of different looks from us."
Cruse, who last season led the Ducks with a .348 batting average and .465 on-base percentage, figures to bat leadoff or second in the order.
Bunker was Oregon's top hitter in conference games last season and finished right behind Cruse with a .347 batting average. She struck out only 10 times all season as a freshman.
The top returning RBI generator is Bowden, who knocked in 33 runs while hitting .315 with seven home runs and 10 doubles. Four of her homers came over the final 15 games.
Sievers led the Ducks last season with 20 extra-base hits. She played with the United States Women's Junior National Team last summer.
Cid was second behind Utecht (10) with nine home runs last season and had 31 RBIs.
Newcomers Felder and Carlson, the Eugene native, will add pop to the lineup.
Felder, Lombardi said, "can step to the plate and change the game with one swing."
Of Carlson, Lombardi said: "the way the ball comes off her bat is pretty awesome to watch. She's going to do some great things at the plate for us."
After a chaotic first season, Lombardi likes the dynamic of her second Ducks roster.
"Our journey this year is a lot different than last year's journey," she said. "What I loved about our team last year was their fight and how they responded to adversity. They showed up and played hard every game and expected to win."
She sees similar tenacity with her 2020 Ducks, with a better chance of turning competitiveness into results.
"You'll see these guys really unite and step on the field and expect to win every game," she said. "But their journey is different. They're a year older, a year smarter."
Last season: 26-19, 8-14 (sixth) in Pac-12
Coach: Laura Berg, eighth season
Schedule: The Beavers will open Friday and Saturday at Las Vegas, Nevada, versus Southern Utah and UNLV. The schedule includes a March 17 game vs. Team USA at Hillsboro. The OSU home opener is in the March 21-23 series vs. Washington.
Key returnees: Junior Mariah Mason enters her third season as the Beavers' top pitcher. Last season, she was second-team all-conference, 12-7 with a 2.70 ERA and had 166 Ks in 174 innings. … Sophomore first baseman/catcher Frankie Hammoude led the team in HRs (11) and slugging percentage (.583). … Junior infielder Missy Nunes was second on the team in home runs (7). … Sophomore shortstop Maia Rader was an Pac-12 all-Freshman selection and batted .289 with nine extra-base hits and six stolen bases.
Key newcomers: Grad transfer Trystan Melancon provides pitching depth. She went 7-4 with 2.28 ERA at Houston last season. … Freshman infielder Grace Messmer was a member of Canada's junior national team in 2019. With redshirt freshman catcher Bailey McLaughlin still injured, freshman Val Pero or redshirt sophomore Rylee Matson, a transfer from Arizona State, likely starts behind the plate.
Outlook: Oregon State was picked seventh among nine Pac-12 teams in the preseason coaches poll … OSU is aiming to return to the NCAA tournament after missing it last season. The Beavers will need to improve their .237 batting average and 5.44 ERA in conference play to better last season's sixth-place finish.
Last season: 20-31, 8-9 Big Sky
Coach: Meadow McWhorter, fourth season
Schedule: The Vikings will open Friday against Western Michigan and Arizona State at Tempe, Arizona. The first home game at the Gordon Faber Complex in Hillsboro is on March 17 against the U.S. national team, followed by a March 21 double-hader against Idaho State to open Big Sky play.
Key returnees: Senior RHP Katie Schroeder was 9-8, with a 3.33 ERA as a junior who transferred from Utah State. … Shortstop Darian Lindsey (.404, 7 HRs, 20 doubles in 2019), outfielder Marissa Bruno (.313, nine doubles), infielder Jessica Flanagan (.306, eight doubles, two triples), infielders Ashley Doyle and Riley Casper (.248, eight extra-base hits) are seniors. … Junior catcher Rachel Menlove (.301, six homers, 11 doubles) is a two-time second-team all-Big Sky selection.
Key newcomer: Freshman Olivia Grey pitched Woodland (Washington) to consecutive Class 2A state titles.
Outlook: With nine seniors, the Vikings were picked to finish third in the conference by Big Sky coaches and are shooting for the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 2013. To make that happen, PSU must improve its 2019 batting average (.292) and ERA (4.36).
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