Oregon would be happy with its draw in the NCAA softball tournament even if it wasn’t the No. 1 overall seed.
That’s because coach Mike White’s hand includes an ace who’s going to be tough to beat.
The Ducks believe that Megan Kleist, the Pac-12 pitcher of the year, can lead the talented roster to the program’s first national championship next month in Oklahoma City.
“I love being her other battery parner and sort of just being there to watch her grow as a player and a person,” senior catcher Gwen Svekis said. “I mean, the change she has made from freshman year to now is incredible. She’s so dominant. That’s the word that comes to my head is just a dominant human in the circle. …
“I think she’s a huge part of what’s going to take us to the end.”
If Oregon, which begins play in the NCAA Eugene Regional against Albany at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Jane Sanders Stadium, is able to win the Women’s College World Series, the drama might not match what Kleist has already experienced on a championship stage.
During her junior season in high school in 2014, Kleist remained in the circle throughout Kimberly High’s epic 15-inning victory over Westosha Central in the Wisconsin state championship game.
Kleist threw 225 pitches and stranded 25 Westosha base runners during the longest title game in the Badger State’s history, a three-hour, 45-minute marathon.
“As it went on, after the seventh inning, each inning progressed into a more intense inning,” Kleist recalled. “After the game, it kind of took a bit to settle down, and I was a little more tired than I was during the game.
“It’s always fun to pitch in those games because you want to be that pitcher and you want to be able to get that win for your team.”
After Kleist’s team, the Kimberly Papermakers, took a 6-5 lead in the top of the 15th, Westosha loaded the bases with two outs and the state’s most dangerous batter coming to the plate in the bottom half of the inning.
Kayla Konwent, who now plays for Wisconsin, was 5-for-5 with a triple and three walks before Kleist was able to get her to hit a looping fly ball into the glove of Claudia Randerson, who had come in to replace the team’s starting shortstop, to end the game.
“It was a nail-biter. That was a very stressful game,” said Kleist’s mom, Brenda Kleist.
‘They had my back throughout this whole journey’
The memorable state championship game turned out to be Kleist’s final pitching performance for Kimberly High. She played second base during her senior season after a shoulder injury that threatened to derail her plans to pitch in the Pac-12.
White didn’t know if the elite prospect would ever throw a pitch for the Ducks until she arrived on campus in 2015.
“We actually had met with coach White before the fall season was going to start, and he was, like, ‘If she can’t pitch, she can’t pitch. We don’t want it to ruin her for the rest of her life,’” Brenda Kleist said. “We still didn’t know in August if she was ever going to pitch again. So the first time she was out on the field for fall ball, I had tears in my eyes.
“I never thought I’d see her in the circle again because nobody could figure out what was going on with her. So that was very cool.”
Kleist had also struggled with a back injury during her sophomore year of high school and was questioning herself during a visit to Oregon.
“It was kind of scary, to be honest, but I know they had a lot of faith in me,” Kleist said of White and his coaching staff. “I went to a skills camp here at the university and I was really nervous coming in. I was struggling pitching to live batters because I was just getting back into the swing of things.
“I knew right from then they had my back throughout this whole journey no matter what happened.”
So have Kleist’s parents. Her dad, Mike, and Brenda have moved from Wisconsin to Oakridge so they can watch all of Oregon’s games at Jane Sanders Stadium and travel to nearby road games at Oregon State and Washington.
“We just left it up to her, really,” Mike Kleist said of his daughter’s college choice during the recruiting process. “She really liked the green of it all. She kind of fell in love right away.”
'The mindset definitely shifts’
As soon as Kleist was medically cleared, she was also mentally prepared to contribute as a true freshman. She was 17-6 with a 2.36 earned-run average over 29 appearances (22 starts) in the role as the staff’s No. 2 pitcher behind decorated senior Cheridan Hawkins.
“It meant a lot to pitch with Cheridan,” Kleist said. “I learned a lot from her, because she was my role model when I was a freshman here and I looked up to her a lot. She had a lot of success, and I kind of picked her brain on how she got the success. I think that’s why we were so complementary to each other.”
The 2016 Ducks, despite having a strong one-two punch in the circle and a powerful lineup that led the nation in home runs, did not advance to the WCWS.
Kleist, just two outs away from packing a bag for Oklahoma City, allowed a game-tying home run to UCLA’s Gabrielle Maurice in the seventh inning of the super regional at Jane Sanders Stadium. The Bruins went on to stun Oregon with back-to-back 2-1 wins.
As a sophomore, Kleist bounced back with an all-American season, finishing with a 21-5 record and a 1.32 ERA. She pitched in all four of the Ducks’ WCWS games as the team advanced to the semifinals, where it lost to eventual national champion Oklahoma.
During the run, Kleist also mentored freshmen pitchers Maggie Balint and Miranda Elish, who have both shown flashes of brilliance during their budding careers.
“The mindset definitely shifts because I’m not the youngest one," Kleist said. "I was the oldest one as a sophomore, which is kind of scary when you think about it. I think it worked out well. We had two top recruits coming in and they were pretty much ready to go from the get-go, they didn’t really need that year to kind of get into the swing of things. Maggie had a great year, Miranda had a great year. ...
“Not a lot of programs have three pitchers that caliber that can pitch any time, any place.”
Balint, a first-team all-Pac-12 performer as a freshman, is starting to regain her form after struggling with a back injury throughout the 2018 season. Elish earned first-team all-conference honors this year with a 20-1 record and a 1.01 ERA during the regular season.
But Kleist, who leads the nation with a 12.5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, has taken her game to an even higher level. She has more wins (20) than walks issued (16) this season.
“She just focuses, she just refuses to walk people,” White said. “We talk about quality pitches and we have to attack. Every pitch has to have an intent and purpose. We want to aggressively attack the zone. You cannot get behind in this game.”
Even when Kleist has fallen behind in the count this season, her confidence has seemingly never wavered. Her mentality is simple: Don’t let the next pitch exacerbate the problem when it can fix the problem.
“My biggest thing growing up is just trying to take it pitch by pitch,” Kleist explained. “If it’s a 3-0 (count) and people are hacking, it only takes one pitch to get them out. When I’m out there and I’m 3-0, I literally say, ‘one pitch’ as I’m pitching it, just to kind of release everything, release the tension.
“Sometimes I look down at my glove. It’s just having those resets where you kind of have to know yourself in order to reset and get a strike.”
Kleist has thrown two no-hitters this season and a one-hit shutout against then-No. 2 Oklahoma. White said the lone hit given up to the Sooners should have been ruled a fielding error.
Oregon’s ace was voted Pac-12 pitcher of the year by the other eight coaches in the conference, beating out a list of strong arms that includes Arizona State’s Giselle Juarez (23-4, 0.92 ERA), UCLA’s Rachel Garcia (21-2, 1.08 ERA), Arizona’s Taylor McQuillin (25-10, 1.59 ERA), Washington’s Taran Alvelo (21-4, 1.14 ERA) and Elish.
“They didn’t look at the five losses she had, they looked at the quality of her work," White said. "I’m impressed they decided to go with Megan. Obviously, I can’t vote for her. I would have, but I can’t. She impressed other coaches as well. That’s pretty tough to do when you mention those pitchers that are in our conference.”
Kleist, who has 200 strikeouts in 160 2/3 innings, is ready to see how far her powerful right arm can help take Oregon this postseason.
“My freshman year, I thought we had all the talent in the world, but the chemistry wasn’t how it is this year," Kleist said. "I think last year we had all the talent in the world once again, and the chemistry got a lot better than it was my freshman year. This year I just think it's been building upon that. We have had girls throughout this program who have seen us progress each year, and I think that’s something that has helped us be closer.
“We have the talent, it’s just if we’re going to beat ourselves on the field. That comes with chemistry and having each other’s back and being able to pick them up when you make a mistake.”