Last Tuesday, the first day of softball practice, Alexis Mack stood away from the crowd and explained why she was still at Oregon when so many of her former teammates were not.
At that point, six players had left the team after a turbulent coaching change. It had been rumored that Mack was considering a transfer as well, but as the Ducks looked ahead to their 2019 season, she seemed settled on remaining at Oregon and helping the team navigate its difficult transition.
“It’s been tough, but at the end of the day it’s going to be rewarding,” Mack said. “Especially as a leader, having to deal with change is not easy. I’m really happy at the place where this team is at now.”
She went on: “We are going to be more bonded this year I believe than any team because of what we went through.”
That’s one more bond now severed in the wake of Mike White’s departure. Mack announced Wednesday she will sit out the 2019 season and play elsewhere in 2020, just as teammate Maggie Balint announced a day earlier.
By now, it’s painfully clear what’s happening here. Oregon’s players are delivering a resounding no-confidence vote in coach Melyssa Lombardi and athletic director Rob Mullens. They feel the AD wasn’t forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding White’s departure, and they’re not comfortable with the direction Lombardi is taking the program.
This is what it looks like when a team implodes. The Ducks have lost all three of their pitchers and eight of their top 11 hitters from last season. And — brace yourself — the departures may not be over.
I'm told there's a chance the Ducks could lose another starter before they open their season Feb. 8. There’s another potential starter injured, and another may have eligibility questions.
If the Ducks lose much more, it’s going to be hard for them to field a team. So now we’re back to where we started, wondering how Oregon allowed such a successful program to unravel in such spectacular fashion.
Turnover was inevitable after Oregon said goodbye to a coach as popular as White. We hear all the time that if a coach can leave for a better situation, players should be able to do the same. So by putting their names on the waiver wire, players are exercising a right granted by the NCAA and endorsed by most fans.
The alarming part is that the players leaving now have gone through an entire fall and a few spring practices with the new coach. It’s not as though they turned in their gear as soon as White left. Lombardi had a chance to win them over, and it didn’t happen.
Part of me feels sympathy for Lombardi, who walked into a firestorm that wasn’t of her own making. She might end up being a great coach, but she’s a total 180 from what Oregon had in White, and with players so loyal to their former coach, a personality clash was inevitable.
That fierce loyalty, and a willingness to fight for every inch, made the Ducks a dominant program in the Pac-12. Now it seems to be the force that’s pulling them apart.
It’s sad, because with every player who leaves, the program becomes even more unrecognizable. I just wonder if these departures are resonating with Oregon’s administration, if losing one-third of the roster in a non-revenue sport is enough to set off the alarm bells inside the Casanova Center.
If not, it should be. This transition was never going to be easy, but it’s hard to imagine a clumsier handoff than the one we’re seeing now.
The irony is that, barely a week a week ago, Mack was one of the players preaching patience. I think that was genuine, which tells you how gut-wrenching these decisions have been and how deep the issues go.
“It’s going to get better, we’re going to get through this and we’re going to be better because of it,” Mack said, relating Lombardi’s message to the team. “I truly believe that.”
She might be right. But first, I have a feeling it’s going to get worse.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.