Nearly a year after the fuse was lit on the Oregon softball program demolition, athletic director Rob Mullens is confident coach Melyssa Lombardi will rebuild from the rubble of a last-place finish in the Pac-12.
With a patchwork lineup and an overworked Jordan Dail in the circle, the Ducks finished 22-30 overall and 5-19 in conference play during the coach’s first season in Eugene.
“I don’t know that I would put a timeline on it,” Mullens said of Lombardi getting Oregon, the 2018 Pac-12 champion, back on top. “I think this group this year overachieved from where they started. No doubt.
“I’m excited that the young corps is going to grow into a group of fantastic leaders.”
Perhaps the Women’s College World Series championship series provided Ducks fans with another glimmer of hope.
Two months after Lombardi’s struggling squad stunned top-ranked UCLA to open a series in Los Angeles, the Bruins clinched their 12th NCAA championship with a dramatic 5-4 walk-off win over top-seeded Oklahoma on Tuesday night in Oklahoma City.
Lombardi, who helped turn the Sooners into a powerhouse as Patty Gasso’s longtime assistant, kept Oregon competitive despite losing nine players recruited by Mike White during the transition.
Four of those familiar faces — ace Miranda Elish, center fielder Shannon Rhodes, catcher Mary Iakopo and former Marist High star Lauren Burke — led the Texas Longhorns to an NCAA Super Regional in White’s successful debut campaign in Austin.
Megan Kleist, the 2018 Pac-12 pitcher of the year, left the team in December and plans to finish her career at Louisiana-Lafayette with first baseman Mia Camuso. Pitcher Maggie Balint transferred to San Diego State.
“I’m really, really proud of this group and what they did this season,” Mullens said this week during a visit to The Register-Guard. “I’m excited to see what happens. Obviously, we had a great recruiting class. I would expect that there’s a lot of transfers reaching out interested in coming to Oregon.”
Dail was the only scholarship pitcher remaining when Texas A&M transfer Maddie MacGrandle quit midseason.
Outfielder Haley Cruse, the only starter from the 2018 WCWS team that chose to play for Lombardi, led the Ducks with a .348 batting average and was second in runs (31) and hits (49).
Second baseman Allee Bunker, shortstop Jasmine Sievers and third baseman Rachel Cid emerged as foundational pieces as true freshmen.
“Our program went through a lot this year,” said Shaye Bowden, who was solid as the starting catcher after Iakopo’s departure and transfer Terra McGowan’s appeal to play immediately was denied by Arizona State. “To only have one pitcher throughout almost the entire season, that’s not expected. …
“We didn’t ever give up on a game. We always fought and it didn’t always land in our favor.”
Oregon was in position to make the NCAA postseason field until Dail and the inexperienced supporting cast hit the wall down the stretch.
Despite losing eight of the final nine games, Lombardi remained upbeat after a crowd of 2,368 showed up to watch the season finale against Arizona State at Jane Sanders Stadium.
“You can look at the win-losses and go, ‘You’re record is this.’ But it’s so much more than what our record is,” Lombardi said. “It’s watching this team come together, watching their culture created, watching them really fight for each other and fight for the program and never say die.
“There have been so many times this year when they could have easily gone, ‘I can’t, it’s just too much.’ And they don’t. They get up, they dust themselves off and they go to work.”
Oregon has signed one of the nation’s top recruiting classes with Marist infielder/pitcher Ariel Carlson, pitcher Makenna Kliethermes and utility players Vallery Wong and Deijah Pangilinan set to join the program.
Lombardi and her boss also anticipate using the NCAA transfer portal, which was filled with star players leaving Oregon last year, to restock the the depleted roster.
“I think the foundation is there,” Mullens said. “We just need to add a few pieces, a couple pitchers. Really excited about the recruiting class. I think it will get going and be back quickly.”