Ducks hope to be World Series-ready
The Oregon softball program tied the NCAA record for most victories to start a season last year.
Mike White would be pleasantly surprised if the 2018 Ducks were 35-0 this spring.
“I’d love to go 35-0,” White said before Tuesday’s practice at Jane Sanders Stadium. “That means we’re going to beat some really good teams because our schedule this year is really beefed up.”
Oregon, which was picked first in the Pac-12 coaches poll and No. 3 in the preseason USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, will open the season at the Kajikawa Classic on Thursday in Tempe, Ariz.
Three of the Ducks’ six games in the tournament — against No. 25 Georgia (4 p.m. Thursday), Fresno State (8 a.m. Friday) and Missouri (10:30 a.m. Saturday) — will be televised on the Pac-12 Networks.
“It’s different for us this year than in my past three years because we’re playing a really good schedule to begin with, whereas in the past I think we’ve blown teams out pretty early,” senior catcher Gwen Svekis said. “This year our coaches did a really good job of setting up a very intense preseason going into (Pac-12 play).”
Oregon expects to contend for the program’s first Women’s College World Series crown.
All three starting pitchers — junior Megan Kleist, sophomore Maggie Balint and sophomore Miranda Elish — return to a rotation that led the Pac-12 with a 1.41 earned-run average in 2017.
White said Kleist has earned the No. 1 spot entering the season, and Balint and Elish have the mentality to start or close big games. Freshman Olivia Kinsey adds even more depth to the bullpen.
“I’m never going to have to face Megan Kleist again,” Louisiana-Lafayette transfer DJ Sanders said. “That’s comforting to know.”
Sanders, who will replace Nikki Udria at shortstop, earned first-team all-American honors last season after leading the nation with 29 home runs and 82 RBIs.
“Like playing against them, we were the underdogs and Oregon was the big, bad team we were trying to find a way to stay on the field with,” said Sanders, who was 2-for-8 against the Ducks during a three-game series with the Ragin’ Cajuns in 2016. “So my expectations were over the top. I didn’t know if I would fit in with the team, I didn’t know if I had the skill set to play with these girls.
“But they made it really welcoming. I’ve learned a lot in the past month that I’ve been here.”
White said he doesn’t want Sanders to feel the pressure of trying to duplicate last year’s statistics with the Ducks.
“With her, it’s just a matter of relaxing,” White said. “We don’t have to have her hit 30 home runs or 29 home runs. If she comes out and hits 10 home runs, I’ll be more than happy with that if she contributes obviously very well from playing good shortstop.”
Sanders will be flanked by seniors in the infield with Jenna Lilley at third base and Lauren Lindvall at second base. Sophomore Mia Camuso returns at first base.
Oregon’s outfield features junior Alexis Mack in left field and sophomore Shannon Rhodes in center. With the graduation of Danica Mercado, White said the competition in right field includes junior Cherish Burks, junior Darya Kaboli-Nejad, sophomore Haley Cruse and freshman Lauren Burke.
“I think these first couple weeks will be very important for us to get our identity,” Svekis said. “For people to sort of find their roles, fit their spots, and then for us to gel together going forward from there. …
“We want to build on what we accomplished last year and push towards that national title.”
After going 35-0 in nonconference play last season, Oregon finished 54-8 overall and second in the Pac-12 (17-6), a half-game behind Arizona (52-9, 18-6).
The Ducks lost to eventual national champion Oklahoma at the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City.
Oregon’s early schedule this season also includes games against No. 6 Texas A&M. No. 8 LSU, No. 9 Florida State, No. 12 Tennessee, No. 14 Mississippi and No. 24 Oklahoma State.
The Pac-12 has four teams ranked in the top seven: No. 3 Oregon, No. 4 Washington, No. 5 UCLA and No. 7 Arizona.
“We’ll have to be patient but that’s not my forte. We’ll see how we go,” White said. “If you take a page out of Oklahoma’s book the last two years, they haven’t necessarily been the best team in February or March or April, but they’ve been the best team in June.
“I think that’s what we’ve got to try and focus on is learning from this experience.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @rgduckfootball .