EUGENE — Oregon coach Mike White awoke before dawn Friday morning, after a fitful night of sleep.
His UO softball team, the No. 1 overall seed in the country, playing in arguably the best home atmosphere in the nation, had dropped its NCAA Super Regional opener to No. 16 Kentucky. The Ducks hadn’t allowed a single run during the regional round, but were pounded by the Wildcats on Thursday.
Even the most effective sleeping pill wasn’t going to be able to muffle the thoughts bouncing around White’s head that night.
“You ask a lot of questions of yourself, and how your team’s doing,” White said. “And you always point the finger at yourself first. And then, you have to make the adjustments and trust your team — trust the work you put in.
“Obviously we didn’t get where we’re at unless we’re a good team. We just had to play like we could.”
Consider that done. After bouncing back behind a marvelous Miranda Elish start Friday night to even the series, the Ducks emphatically won the best-of-three series Saturday, 11-1 in five innings at Jane Sanders Stadium. Elish was again dominant in the circle, seniors drove in eight of the 11 runs, and the UO softball team earned the right to play in the Women’s College Series for the fourth time in the last five years, and the fifth time in White’s nine seasons as head coach.
The Ducks (52-8) will open WCWS play in the very first game of this year’s championship, against Arizona State on Thursday (9 a.m. PT, ESPN).
“They’ve done a great job,” Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson said. “I know they’re ready for Oklahoma City.”
If the Ducks (52-8) play like they did Saturday, it will be an extended stay in the Midwest, a year after they were one of the last four teams standing. Elish allowed only a solo home run in her five innings of four-hit work, and that came with Oregon already up 10-0, on the way to a school record for runs in a Super Regional game.
Sophomore Shannon Rhodes led off the second inning with a solo home run, and she capped what ended up being a seven-run explosion with an RBI single later in the same inning. In between, senior third baseman Jenna Lilley had an RBI single, and senior shortstop DJ Sanders blasted her third grand slam of the season.
The Ducks added three more runs in the third, when senior catcher Gwen Svekis tripled home two runs, then scored on a double by Haley Cruse.
“Somebody pinch me; I couldn’t believe this in my wildest dreams, that we would come out and score that many runs,” said White, whose team scored 12 total runs over three games in the regional round. “Just a tremendous achievement.”
The offensive explosion allowed the Ducks to reach OKC after losing their Super Regional opener for the first time since 2012. That year, Oregon lost its first game at Texas, before rallying to win twice.
But it was a different piece of history that cast a bigger shadow over Saturday’s game. It was what spurred White’s decision to pitch Elish in back-to-back games, and not go back to junior Megan Kleist, Oregon’s season-long ace before giving up six runs in Thursday’s loss.
Back in 2013, Oregon’s ace was Jessica Moore, and she was the losing pitcher as the Ducks dropped a Super Regional opener to Nebraska. Moore started the second game, but future ace Cheridan Hawkins finished the game in dominant form as the Ducks won to even the series. In game three, White went back to Moore, and the Huskers won the game to clinch the series.
“No disrespect to Jess Moore, but I think I may have made a mistake several years ago,” White said. “I should have gone with the hot hand. It still was a tough decision; don’t get me wrong. We had one of the best pitchers in the country (Kleist) sitting on the bench. But sometimes you’ve got to go with what’s hot. And Miranda didn’t let us down.”
Fittingly, Hawkins was in attendance Saturday to watch the Ducks advance, five years after she played a part in the series that influenced White’s pitching decision. Hawkins also was the winning pitcher for Oregon on May 25, 2014, the last time the Ducks run-ruled an opponent in the Super Regional round.
A day after working often at a blazing 70 mph, and even touching 71, Elish sat closer to 67 or 68 mph for most of Saturday’s game — after her first pitch of the game came in at 69. She wasn’t as consistently dominant as the day before, but again was big in big moments, striking out the cleanup hitter with two on and two out in the third, and striking out the side after allowing the leadoff homer in the fourth.
“It was the same as yesterday — take it pitch by pitch, out by out, and throw quality pitches,” Elish said.
The run-rule win, over one of the NCAA’s hottest hitting teams this postseason, provided a rousing home finale for Oregon’s four seniors. Svekis’ two-run triple made it 9-0, giving the Ducks a big enough cushion for a run-rule win in her last career at-bat at The Jane.
Lilley singled in the Ducks’ final run of the game in her last at-bat, in the fourth, Sanders bashed her third grand slam of the season but her first at home, and second baseman Lauren Lindvall contributed a sacrifice hit early in the big second inning.
All of that was to the delight of the sixth-straight sellout crowd of this postseason at The Jane. Another 2,522 fans crowded into the 3-year-old park, and dozens more lined the fences outside, peeking through wrought iron to get a glimpse of the action. For the postseason, 15,132 total fans attended the six postseason home games.
“For somebody who’s been doing this a long time, to see this kind of fan base at a college is awesome,” said the Kentucky coach, Lawson. “It wasn’t too long ago we were begging for this many people to come to the World Series. To see this on a college campus, here in Oregon, is really cool.”
It’s too bad, Lawson went on to say, that Oregon can’t take its home crowd to OKC, given the homefield advantage The Jane provides. And no doubt, the Ducks would love to have their fans in Oklahoma City, en masse.
But whatever support the team has in the stands at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium come Thursday, it’s a confident group heading to the Midwest.
“This team can do it,” Elish said. “We can win a national championship. We’ve got to take it game by game, but I know we can do it.”
UCLA 4, OSU 1: At Corvallis, Michael Gretler and Cadyn Grenier each tallied two hits but No. 2 Oregon State dropped the series finle to No. 18 UCLA.
The Bruins jumped on the board with two in the first and one in the second, and the Beavers were unable to overcome the deficit. Zak Taylor, who ended the day 1-for-4, scored the team’s lone run on a wild pitch in the fifth.
Ryan Garcia held the Beavers to seven hits and a run in 6?2/3 innings. He struck out four, walked one and improved to 7-1 on the year.
Nathan Burns started for the Beavers and gave up two hits and two runs in two-thirds of an inning. He dropped to 1-1 this season.
Oregon State finished the regular season with a 44-10-1 record and 20-9-1 record in Pac-12 Conference play. The Bruins finished at 36-19 and 19-11 in league action.
ARIZONA 11, OREGON 4: At Eugene, Oregon built an early lead but Arizona rallied with 10 runs between the fifth and eighth innings at PK Park.
Arizona (34-22, 14-16 Pac-12) scored a run in the first but Oregon (26-29, 12-18 Pac-12) countered with a run in both the second and the third innings to build a 2-1 edge.
Kenyon Yovan went 2-for-4 with an RBI for Oregon, and Jakob Goldfarb finished 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs. Spencer Steer and Jonny DeLuca both went 2-for-5.
Matt Mercer (5-7) took the loss allowing four runs on six hits in 4?1/3 innings with five walks and three strikeouts.
NCAA MEN: At Stillwater, Okla., Medford’s Dylan Wu, a senior at Northwestern, shot a 78 in the second round at Karsten Creek Country Club and fell to a tie for 86th place.
Wu shot even par the first day.
Northwestern is in 19th place in the team race.
Oregon’s Norman Xiong is tied for 19th following a 74, and Ducks are in 28th place after shooting a 300 to leave them at 20 over par.