By Ryan Oppenheimer
CATHEDRAL CITY, Calif. — After a mixed showing in the Campbell/Cartier Classic, No. 25 Oregon Softball (6-5) travels to Cathedral City looking to recapture momentum entering the 2024 Mary Nutter Classic starting Thursday.
The five-game slate kicks off Thursday at 2:30 p.m. when the Ducks face UCF before taking on Baylor at 5 p.m. On Friday, Oregon sees another doubleheader, starting with a 3:30 p.m. date with Notre Dame followed by a 6 p.m. game against Long Beach State. It caps off the tournament Saturday at 10 a.m. against Nebraska.
Here is a breakdown of the Ducks and their five opponents:
Oregon Ducks (6-5)
The Ducks went 2-3 at the Campbell/Cartier Classic, with impressive shutout wins over San Diego State (5-5) and Loyola Marymount (2-8). However, they only managed one total run across two losses to current No. 17 Texas A&M (9-0) and another loss to Loyola.
It hasn’t been the start Melyssa Lombardi’s team was hoping for, and the losses can largely be attributed to inconsistency at the plate. KK Humphreys and Tehya Bird have more strikeouts than hits on the season, with Humphreys especially frigid at a .197 AVG. While Paige Sinicki and Hanna Delgado are hitting for .310 and .296 respectively, they only have two combined runs batted in. Ariel Carlson, perhaps the Ducks’ biggest home run threat, didn’t leave the yard once in San Diego, and Oregon has just five total homers in 11 games. Still, Kai Luschar has been as good a leadoff woman as any with a .500 OBP and nine stolen bases.
The pitching and defense, outside of a few costly miscues, have been stellar and should remain the backbone of the team. Stevie Hansen hasn’t been able to go deep into games, but her 14 strikeouts in 12.1 innings indicate she is going to be fine — not to mention, six of the 10 runs she’s allowed have been unearned. Morgan Scott has been a workhorse with two complete-game shutouts. Taylour Spencer has been a pleasant surprise out of the bullpen with a 1.12 ERA, and Elise Sokolsky has allowed zero runs in a small sample size of two starts.
UCF Knights (6-2)
The Knights’s offense rides high after last Friday’s 21-9 rout of Wisconsin (4-6) at the Clearwater Invitational, where they went 1-1 before the remainder of the tournament was cancelled due to rain. Their strongest win was over Howard (7-3) have a pair of one-run losses to North Carolina (6-1) and UConn (4-7).
The infield trio of SS Evans, 1B Shannon Doherty and 3B Jada Cody went deep against Wisconsin, and all three boast an OPS of .1000 or higher. CF Johneisha Rowe has been a one-true-outcome hitter, slapping 12 singles in 25 AB without a walk, extra-base hit or strikeout. Combined, the Knights offense ranks 12th nationally in scoring with 7.75 runs per game
Sarah Willis is the team’s best pitcher, with a 1.50 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 14 IP while tossing 19 K. Kaitlyn Felton is a solid sidekick with a 3-0 record and 2.44 ERA. The other starters haven’t fared too well; Grace Jewell has been crushed for a .520 AVG and six earned runs in 5.1 IP.
Baylor Bears (3-3)
With the No. 22 Bears, Oregon begins a three-game stretch of familiar foes from last year’s Mary Nutter Classic. Baylor is the one ranked team the Ducks will face, and they come off of a road series where they went 2-1 against Louisiana (6-5). Their ranking is generous given their record — mostly because their other two losses came on opening day in Waco against No. 5 Tennessee (4-2), but perhaps also because last year’s Bears were the only team to beat eventual national champion Oklahoma.
Shaylon Govan is tied for 28th in the country with a .550 AVG. Govan and Emily Hott, who hit the team’s lone home run, have been the biggest threats at the plate for an offense that has scored a subpar 2.67 runs per game.
RyLee Crandall keeps the Bears in games almost singlehandedly. She’s pitched to a 0.91 ERA and allowed a .189 BA in 15.1 IP. Aliyah Binford has been nearly as good, allowing a 1.20 WHIP while racking up 16 K. Both Crandall and Binford also have a save each.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (6-2)
The Irish suffered early losses to Utah (5-4) and South Alabama (8-2) in the NFCA Leadoff Classic but are currently on a five-game winning streak with a plus-21 run margin. Their 5-4 win over Iowa (4-3) is their highest quality victory.
2B Addison Amaral has been a freshman standout with a team-high 2 HR and 8 RBI, while a trio of LF Emily Tran, 3B Cassidy Grimm and 1B Karina Gaskins has 28 combined hits in 59 AB. The team has gone 11-for-11 on stolen base attempts, and C Carli Kloss leads the way with four.
Notre Dame has used just four pitchers used in eight games, but the small staff has gotten the job done. Alexis Laudenslager and Mikaela Castor have pitched 41 of the team’s 53 IP, and both have yielded similar results. Laudenslager is 3-1 in four starts with a 2.41 ERA, while Kastor is 3-0 in two starts and three relief stints with a 2.37 ERA.
Long Beach State Beach (0-9)
The Beach haven’t won a game yet, but in their defense, they haven’t had a single easy game on their schedule. They’ve played current No. 1 Oklahoma (9-0), No. 6 Duke (7-1), No. 23 Arizona (10-1) twice, and No. 14 Arkansas (8-2). They’re about to play another ranked team in Oregon and a nearly-ranked team in California (10-1).
The Beach have the country’s ninth-worst batting average at .183. LF Sara Olson leads the team in hits with 6, while 1B Sinclair Lawhorn has a team-high 4 RBI off of only two hits, which were both doubles.
Eryka Gonzales has been the most effective pitcher on the team with a team-leading 1.25 WHIP in a team-high 16 IP. Shannon Haddad is a wild card, as she gets the most strikeouts of any Beach pitcher with 12 but allows a 7.60 ERA and has also hit four batters in five appearances.
Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-3)
Like UCF and Notre Dame, the Huskers haven’t beaten any ranked competition. They were outscored 14-1 in their opening two games against Washington and Duke in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, but they’ve gone 6-1 since then and have won their last four.
Senior 3B Sydney Gray, who was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Week on Feb. 19, has a team-high 11 RBI, and three of her seven hits have gone over the fence. Meanwhile, SS Billie Andrews has two homers, two doubles and a triple in 19 at-bats, good for a ridiculous .842 SLG.
The Huskers lost star P Jordy Bahl, who won two straight national championships for Oklahoma before transferring to Nebraska last offseason, to an ACL tear in the season opener. Kaylin Kinney has stepped into the ace role, pitching to a 2.49 ERA and a 3-2 record in six appearances.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
The weekend provides a chance for Oregon to iron out the wrinkles against teams it has the talent to defeat. The Ducks are likely much better than its record might suggest, however, since they have failed to beat top teams to this point, they must win convincingly and consistently against unranked teams to keep their spot in the top 25. A ranked win against Baylor would be a confidence boost and would afford them some leeway in the other games. Assuming Oregon’s defense continues its fantastic play, the main key to a strong outing will be whether or not they can drive runners home.
Given that last season showed that a Super Regional berth was a feat Ducks are capable of, I expect them to return to form with a 4-1 weekend in Cathedral City. They might drop one early against UCF or Baylor as they continue to find their rhythm, but they should finish the weekend strong with three victories.
Tune in to Ducks softball on KWVA 88.1 all season long.