After a rough early road, Melyssa Lombardi's team finishes with 11 of final 14 games at home
The road to the Women’s College World Series won’t run through Eugene this season for the rebuilding Ducks.
But the Oregon softball program, despite all of the offseason turmoil and a 2-10 Pac-12 record, can still play its way into the NCAA Tournament field with a strong finish in the friendly confines of Jane Sanders Stadium.
After playing 32 of their first 38 games on the road, the Ducks (17-21 overall) finish the regular season with 11 of 14 games at home.
Oregon plays California at 5 p.m. Thursday to begin an eight-game home stand at Jane Sanders Stadium.
“We are excited to be home. I told them on the way home the other night to put their suitcases away. Just put them away,” said first-year coach Melyssa Lombardi, who is still looking for her first home win. “We know playing at the Jane is the best. There’s nothing better than to play here at the Jane.”
Entering the weekend, Oregon is No. 1 in strength of schedule after facing 18 ranked teams, including getting swept by then-No. 19 Oklahoma State and then-No. 7 Washington in the only home series to date.
Lombardi’s young team notched a quality win over then-No. 8 LSU on Feb. 15 and stunned No. 1 UCLA 4-3 last Friday in Los Angeles.
If the Ducks can finish at .500 or better, there is a good chance they will be included in the postseason.
“It’s definitely in the picture,” freshman Allee Bunker said. “We just have to do really well these next few weeks, and I believe that we can. If we proved ourselves against UCLA and all these big teams this year, I definitely think we have a chance of making it.”
Oregon was picked to finish last in the Pac-12 preseason coaches poll after the roster was decimated during a rough transition from the Mike White era, but the Bears (23-20, 2-12) are at the bottom of the standings.
Lombardi started four freshmen in the infield at UCLA — Lexi Wagner at first base, Bunker at second base, Jasmine Sievers at shortstop and Rachel Cid at third base.
“The experience that this young group is getting is humongous,” Lombardi said. “It’s not only helping us right now, but future-wise, any time you can say we have a young, experienced team, that says a lot. That really allows you to do some good things.
“I think we’re seeing that now and will continue to see it throughout their careers.”
Bunker is batting .484 over the last 10 games and was 5-for-10 against UCLA, which won the series 2-1. Sievers had three doubles, three RBIs and made some spectacular defensive plays during a competitive series with the Bruins.
“A lot of people doubted us and thought, ‘Oh, UCLA is just going to sweep them,’” Sievers said. "And we came in knowing we had a chip on our shoulder and that’s what helped us, especially the first game. This series was one of the best that we’ve played.
“We’re playing our best ball right now.”
Oregon will continue to lean on sophomore lefty Jordan Dail (14-10, 3.76 ERA) down the stretch. The Virginia Tech transfer has been called on a lot for Lombardi in the circle, with 180 strikeouts over 167 2/3 innings.
Junior center fielder Haley Cruse is batting .438 over the last 10 games since being moved back into the leadoff position, and senior catcher/first baseman April Utecht belted a two-run home run with two outs during the signature conference win over UCLA.
“We’ve faced every top pitcher out there, we’ve faced every top hitter out there, so I think our strength of schedule really did a great job of preparing us for the Pac-12 and then obviously going to UCLA,” Lombardi said. “My expectation has not changed — absolutely, postseason, yes, that’s where we want to be.”