Oregon softball fans are keeping a watchful eye on Melyssa Lombardi’s turbulent transition.
A handful of them have told the first-year coach exactly where they will be observing her first season from this spring.
“One thing that’s been pretty cool is they’ll introduce themselves to me, and as soon as they introduce themselves they’ll tell me exactly where their seat location is at Jane Sanders,” Lombardi said. “Which I think is awesome."
There is some concern among a faction of the diehards about the state of the program entering the 2019 campaign.
Since being hired to replace Mike White, who led the program to five Pac-12 championships and five Women’s College World Series appearances over nine seasons, Lombardi has watched five talented players transfer.
Ace pitcher Miranda Elish and former Marist High star Lauren Burke have reunited with White at Texas. Two other rising stars, projected starting catcher Mary Iakopo and centerfielder Shannon Rhodes, have also left Oregon, along with freshman Alyssa Pinto.
Lombardi acknowledges the change has been hard and said she wishes the departed players the best.
But the respected longtime Oklahoma assistant also remains confident the Ducks can achieve all of the lofty goals they would have been chasing without the roster attrition.
“My expectations haven’t changed, they’re still the same as when I first came in and accepted this job,” Lombardi said. “My expectation is to win a Pac-12 championship and to put ourselves in a position to be standing in Oklahoma City at the end of season vying for a national championship.”
The NCAA rule change that allows players to contact other schools about transferring without permission from their current institution went into effect Oct. 15.
The transfer-seeking player database portal works both ways.
Lombardi added lefty Jordan Dail, a Virginia Tech transfer who had 116 strikeouts last season as a freshman, to Oregon’s pitching staff Friday.
“Yeah, a little,” Lombardi said when asked if she was surprised that so many Ducks decided to fly out of Eugene this winter. “I think what’s tough is, with this new portal, it gives opportunities that maybe players didn’t have in the past. And so if they’re wanting to try something different, it gives them an opportunity to do that.”
Elish and Burke will be able to play for the Longhorns without sitting out a redshirt season. If players transfer to a program within the same conference, stricter rules can still be applied.
“It’s a different rule with being able to put your name in the portal and being able to move on,” Lombardi said. “I think it will be interesting for our sport, and even the other sports, in these next couple years to see what the portal does and if we feel like it’s positive or negative.”
The recent exodus of familiar faces from Oregon, the defending Pac-12 champion, has led to speculation from some followers about Lombardi’s culture change.
“I think any time a new coaching staff comes in to a program, there’s going to be change. It’s just a part of it,” Lombardi said. “My job as a coach, I think of much more than getting them prepared for our games. I want to help guide them as young girls and get them to transform into women.
“I think softball is just a short spot in their life, and the things that we do through softball will help prepare them for that next chapter of their life, for that real world, the work world.”
Lombardi was asked specifically about rumors of a dress code for players away from the field and if she has asked or encouraged players to attend church.
“I don’t have a strict dress code,” Lombardi said. “To me, with our athletes, one, they represent the University of Oregon and they represent Oregon softball. So any time they’re out on the field, they’re in class, they’re on a field trip for an extracurricular activity, I want them to look their best and be their best. …
“I’m a strong believer and not forcing anything on anybody, regardless of whether it’s religion, politics, etctera. Everybody has their own beliefs, and I respect their beliefs.”
A source close to one of the prominent transfers said that player’s decision had “nothing to do with rules."
Elish posted a 37-2 record with a 1.42 earned-run average over the past two seasons at Oregon. As a sophomore, the former No. 1 overall high school recruit threw a perfect game against Portland State and pitched two games in the Women’s College World Series.
Burke, a prep all-American at Marist High, batted .351 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 36 games as a true freshman. She had pinch-hit home runs against Albany and Drake during the NCAA Regional at Jane Sanders Stadium.
Iakopo, a second-team all-Pac-12 selection who was the only catcher on the roster, left after finishing an impressive freshman campaign hitting .306 in 62 games with eight home runs and 37 RBIs.
Rhodes was an emerging Pac-12 star after hitting .347 with 11 home runs and 42 RBIs as a sophomore. Pinto was a top-100 recruit who did not play last season.
Oregon landed three players during the early signing period, including Marist High standout Ariel Carlson, all listed in the top 35 of the recruiting rankings.
“I’m thrilled with our recruiting class. I can’t wait to get them going in the next year,” Lombardi said. “I think each one of them will be an impact player to our program.”
For the upcoming season, Lombardi still inherits a strong one-two punch in the circle with the return of Pac-12 pitcher of the year Megan Kleist and Maggie Balint, who is healthy again and looking to return to her dominant 2017 form.
“What I like is that you have two veterans,” Lombardi said. “They’ve played on the grandest stage, they know how to handle a tough Pac-12 schedule, and I think they will do a great job in leading this team.”
Other experienced players Lombardi hopes to lean on include juniors Mia Camuso and Haley Cruse, and seniors Alex Mack and Cherish Burks.
April Utecht, a senior who has come off the bench in 61 of her 71 games played, also will have a chance to step into the spotlight as the top candidate at catcher and with a swing made for the heart of the lineup.
“I think you’ll see a little bit of everything,” Lombardi said of the style of play she expects Oregon to have. “We’ve got speed, we’ve got athletes that can hit gaps, we’ve got athletes that have power. One thing I was really excited about this fall was watching April Utecht swing. From the beginning of the fall to the end, you could really see her confidence at the plate and hitting balls off the wall, hitting balls over the wall, was something that we were really excited to see from her.
“She’s in a great place. She’s passionate about what she’s doing. As a senior she’s going to be another leader for this team.”
Oregon went 8-0 and outscored the opposition 114-2 during the fall exhibition season. Lombardi’s first season begins at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., on Feb. 8.
“The veteran players have been great. They’ve done a good job of really teaching the young ones about Oregon and our culture and the expectation,” Lombardi said. “I commend them for that. And they know what it takes.
“Our veterans have played on the highest stage ... so to prepare our younger, talented athletes, I think they’ve done a great job, and we’ll be ready in the spring.”