Oregon softball hasn’t enjoyed as many big moments this season as in recent years when the program was collecting Pac-12 championship banners.
One of the few holdovers from the glory days, April Utecht, has provided some flashbacks, highlighted by her memorable two-out, two-run home run during the Ducks’ upset of then-No. 1 UCLA on April 12.
The senior slugger has also hit home runs to give her team leads against No. 8 LSU, No. 3 Florida and No. 7 Washington.
Utecht’s prodigious deep fly against Oregon State on Saturday cleared the scoreboard at Jane Sanders Stadium and was the highlight of the weekend for Oregon, which was swept by the rival Beavers for the first time in 13 years.
“I wasn’t trying to hit home runs during those games, it kind of just happens,” Utecht said. “It’s special the opponents I’ve hit them against, but each at-bat I’m just thinking a base hit every time.”
Over her first three seasons with the Ducks, Utecht started only 10 games and had 85 at-bats. She had a total of 28 hits, including eight home runs, and scored 14 runs entering her senior campaign.
After 10 key players left the program during the coaching transition, Utecht was suddenly in the spotlight as one of the few familiar faces remaining from last year’s team, which was the No. 1 seed in the Women’s College World Series.
Utecht has started all 46 games this season for first-year coach Melyssa Lombardi. The first baseman and part-time catcher is hitting .276 over 116 at-bats with a team-high nine home runs and 16 runs scored.
“April has been great on and off the field,” Lombardi said. “She’s really turned into a great leader for this team, (someone) for our younger athletes to go to if they need help with things that aren’t even concerned with softball. She’s stepped up as a hitter, as a first baseman, as a catcher. Just really anything we’ve asked her to do she’s gone above and beyond.
“She puts in a lot of time, she cares about this team, she cares about this program. Her heart and soul is in it, and I really can’t thank her enough for what she’s done this year.”
Left fielder Cherish Burks is the only other senior in the starting lineup. The other two seniors on the roster are Darya Kaboli-Nejad, who suffered a torn ACL during practice before the season began, and Bayley Bruner, an Oregon soccer player who walked on to give Lombardi some speed off the bench.
“April and Cherish have been amazing,” freshman second baseman Allee Bunker said. “They have taught us what it’s like to be a Duck and they’ve kept kind of the before the World Series mentality. They’ve brought it to practice, to the weight room, and told us what it takes for us to get to the highest level and highest stage.
“I think them having World Series experience and bringing it to this younger team has been tremendous for us.”
Despite experiencing an extreme exodus through the NCAA transfer portal and typically starting five freshmen in Pac-12 play, the Ducks (21-25, 4-14) can still make the NCAA Tournament with five wins in their last six games.
Utecht will try to come through in the clutch down the stretch as Oregon opens a three-game series at Utah on Friday before hosting Arizona State in the final home series May 9-11.
“I want to go to postseason,” Utecht said. “We’ve been to postseason each year, so going to postseason this year is going to be something I’m going to treasure.”