The defending Pac-12 champions are picked to finish last in the conference after losing nine players during coaching transition
Melyssa Lombardi’s peers predict Oregon softball will go from first to worst in her debut season as the program’s head coach.
After a chaotic transition since Mike White left for Texas, the defending Pac-12 champion Ducks were voted last in the conference’s preseason coaches poll.
Oregon, which is ranked No. 25 in the NFCA/USA Today coaches poll despite the departure of nine key players, opens the season against Kansas on Friday at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz. (10:30 a.m., Pac-12 Networks).
“There’s no pressure on this team,” Lombardi said before Wednesday’s practice at Jane Sanders Stadium. “To me, if they can settle in, these guys are very athletic. They’re going to do great things on the offensive side. I know we’re going to have tough, tough defense as well.”
Four ex-Ducks — pitcher Miranda Elish, utility player Lauren Burke, starting center fielder Shannon Rhodes and starting catcher Mary Iakopo —transferred to Texas.
Pac-12 pitcher of the year Megan Kleist is still taking classes at Oregon with plans to play at Louisiana at Lafayette in 2020. Freshman Alyssa Pinto transferred to Mississippi.
Lombardi thought the mass exodus had stopped when practices began on Jan. 15, but then projected ace Maggie Balint, starting outfielder Alexis Mack and starting first baseman Mia Camuso abruptly left the team and put their names in the NCAA transfer portal.
“It’s a little disappointing,” said junior outfielder Haley Cruse, who is now the only returning starter from the lineup White started at the Women’s College World Series in June. “At the same time, I think that it really just gives us the opportunity to see what we’re made of and see how well we can compete and matchup against our tough opponents in the Pac-12.”
In addition to the gutting attrition, senior outfielder Darya Kaboli-Nejad has suffered a season-ending knee injury and projected starting catcher Terra McGowan, an Arizona State transfer, has had her initial appeal to play for Oregon in 2019 denied.
That leaves Lombardi with only 11 healthy scholarship players and six walk-ons to navigate the schedule with.
“There’s definitely been things that, coming into it, I didn’t think I would have to deal with. But that’s life,” Lombardi said of the rocky start to her tenure. “We’re going to all be dealt adversity, and I think it’s just about how we go about it, how we handle it.
“I am very proud of the staff, I’m proud of our athletes. I think they’ve handled it extremely well.”
Oregon’s updated roster includes 10 freshmen, three sophomores, two juniors and four seniors.
“I don’t think there are a lot of expectations for our team at this point, which I think can definitely play to our advantage,” Cruse said. “Because we really have nothing to lose at this point and we’re really able to play free. I think that’s really going to help our young squad this year.”
Lombardi will lean on two left-handed sophomore pitchers, transfers Jordan Dail (Virginia Tech) and Maddie MacGrandle (Texas A&M), in the circle. Freshman righty Kailey Krueger of Wilsonville was one of five walk-ons added to the team earlier this week.
Senior April Utecht will fill in at catcher. Sophomore Shaye Bowden and walk-on Annalisa Williamson will add some depth behind the plate.
“This is her moment and she has completely embraced it,” Lombardi said of Utecht, who will likely hit in the clean-up spot. “She has power and she’s going to be in the lineup every single day.”
Cruse will take over in center field with senior Cherish Burks and freshman Lexi Wagner expected to join her in the outfield.
Oregon, which lost standout infielders Jenna Lilley, DJ Sanders and Lauren Lindvall to graduation, will likely have freshmen starting at third base (Rachel Cid), shortstop (Jasmine Sievers) and second base (Hannah Galen or Allee Bunker)
Utecht and Bowden can rotate with one playing catcher and the other first base.
“Even though our numbers are small, this group is pretty versatile,” Lombardi said. “I have some different options. We don’t have to do something just one way.”
Reigning national champion Florida State, which eliminated the Ducks from the WCWS in what turned out to be White’s final game at Oregon, is No. 1 in the coaches poll.
Pac-12 favorite UCLA is No. 2. The conference’s other ranked teams are No. 3 Washington, No. 7 Arizona and No. 12 Arizona State.
The highest debut for a team not ranked in last year’s final poll is Texas at No. 16.
“I think if all of them would have stayed they were going to be preseason No. 1,” Maren Angus, the editor of Softball America, said of Oregon. “I don’t think there was any argument to that.”
Now projected to finish in the Pac-12 basement, the remaining Ducks plan to speak softly and carry a big bat this season.
“I don’t think we’re going to be playing angry this year, but I think we are going to be playing with something to prove,” Cruse said. “I think that we do have a lot of fun on the field, despite everything that’s happened, and our team chemistry is at an all-time high right now.
“We can play free and have fun, but also play with a little chip on our shoulder.”