Gwen Svekis has her catcher’s mitt on the pulse of the Oregon softball team.
After the Ducks’ dropped the opening game of the NCAA Eugene Super Regional 9-6 on Thursday night, the senior tried to lighten the mood at the postgame news conference before saying:
“We are prepared for this moment.”
Top-seeded Oregon is preparing for another trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series after an 11-1 five-inning run-rule win over No. 16 Kentucky on Saturday at Jane Sanders Stadium.
The capacity crowd of 2,522 for the decisive third game of the series did not include the pack of fans watching the action from outside the stadium.
They witnessed another memorable grand slam off the bat of DJ Sanders, whose bases-clearing blast highlighted a seven-run second-inning scoring surge by the Ducks (52-8).
“Somebody pinch me,” Oregon coach Mike White said with tears of joy in his eyes after his team staved off elimination twice by outscoring Kentucky 17-2 in the final two games. “I wouldn’t believe in my wildest dreams that we’d come out and score that many runs. Just a tremendous achievement.”
Sanders has demonstrated a flair for the dramatic during her lone season at Oregon. The senior transfer previously delivered grand slams in road wins at rivals Oregon State and Washington.
“It was just nice to score some runs, give our pitcher a lot of cushion,” Sanders said. “This is probably the best thing that can happen to us as a team because we realize even during regionals we didn’t play as well as we should have or could have. So we were like, maybe this is the wake-up call that we need to come out and play like we should be.
“Really, the first game was probably the wake-up call.”
Miranda Elish (24-1), who threw a complete-game two-hitter during the Ducks’ 6-1 win Friday, beat the Wildcats (35-20) for the second consecutive night after the visitors roughed up Megan Kleist for seven runs Thursday.
Former Oregon ace Cheridan Hawkins attended Saturday’s game, which inspired White’s decision to keep riding Elish’s powerful right arm. He was faced with a similar decision in 2013 and regretted not starting Hawkins instead of Jessica Moore.
“Sometimes your heart gets ahead of your head,” White said. “It’s still a tough decision, don’t get me wrong, we’ve got probably one of the best pitchers in the country sitting on the bench there in the last game. It could have gone either way.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to go with what’s hot. Miranda didn’t let us down.”
Shannon Rhodes hit a solo home run to right center in the second inning to give Oregon the lead.
Lauren Burke, who entered the game 6-for-10 with seven RBIs and five runs in the postseason, drew a walk and later scored on an RBI single by Jenna Lilley to make the score 2-0.
The Wildcats had a chance to get Lilley out after she got caught in a rundown, but she slid safely back into second to keep the bases loaded. With still only one out in the inning, Sanders sent a screaming line drive out of the ballpark off freshman reliever Grace Baalman to give the Ducks a comfortable 6-0 cushion.
“The postseason always comes down to pitching and defense,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. “I think we had a crucial defensive mistake that put one of the best home run hitters in the country up with nowhere to put her. That’s what good players do, they capitalize on their opportunities.”
Svekis and Haley Cruse followed with back-to-back singles to bring Rhodes up again. The sophomore slugger delivered again with an RBI single.
Elish gave up a single to Alex Martens to lead off the second, but a charging Lilley scooped a sacrifice bunt attempt by Brooklin Hinz a few feet in front of home plate at made a crisp throw to second base for an out.
In the third, Elish gave up two singles but ended the Wildcats’ rally attempt by striking out Martens.
“I know it’s a really big decision because Megan is an amazing pitcher,” Elish said of getting the start. “I knew that if I got in trouble then Megan would be able to come in and pick me up.”
Lilley thought she had another RBI, but home plate umpire Calvin Walker ruled that her hit down the left-field line was foul. White vehemently disagreed with the call.
Two batters later, Svekis came through with a two-run triple and Cruse followed with an RBI double to make the score 10-0.
Oregon will face Arizona State in the opening game of the WCWS on Thursday as the quest for the program’s first national title continues.
“As they head out to Oklahoma City, if they could take these fans with them I think it would be really cool,” Lawson said of the Ducks. “They’re well-suited to make a run at the national championship.”