By John Evans
FAYETTEVILLE, AR – This Friday, #19 Oregon will head down south to Fayetteville, Arkansas for the regional round of the 2023 Women’s College World Series. This is the Ducks’ 23rd appearance in the Women’s College World Series and the second straight year they will head to a regional hosted by the Arkansas Razorbacks, the top seed in the region and the #13 team in the country. Also in the Ducks’ group are the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Harvard Crimson. Oregon’s first game will take place at 2 p.m. on Friday, where they face off against Notre Dame, the #3 seed in the region. Then, depending on the results of Friday’s games, they will either play Arkansas or Harvard on Saturday. You can tune in to every game on KWVA, 88.1 FM, where Knight Jarecki will be on the call live from Fayetteville, or catch the Ducks on ESPN 2 for Friday’s game against Notre Dame.
The Ducks are currently on a four-game losing skid that included a sweep at home in the final regular season series of the season to Utah and a narrow loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 Tournament. Before the sweep against Utah, Oregon had been absolutely rolling, with a 13-game win streak that featured series wins over Pac-12 opponents Arizona State, Arizona, and Cal. With a 14-10 record in Pac-12 play, the Ducks finished fifth in the conference, behind UCLA, Washington, Utah, and Stanford.
Offensively, Oregon is led by the dynamic duo of fifth-year seniors, second baseman, Allee Bunker, and catcher, Terra McGowan. Bunker has developed into one of the best players in program history during her time in Eugene, with a .367/.406/.573 career slash line while ranking in the top five in hits, doubles, runs, and RBIs in the history of Oregon softball. This season, she leads the Ducks in all three slash line categories, good for a team-high 1.101 OPS, while also leading the team in total hits, doubles, RBIs, and total bases. Bunker has thoroughly established herself as one of the best players in the Pac-12, with her .396 batting average ranking fifth in the conference this season. As a reward for her efforts, she was selected to the All-Pac-12 First Team and All-Defensive Team, her fourth All-Pac-12 Team selection and third All-Defensive Team selection. McGowan was also selected to the All-Pac-12 First Team and All-Defensive Team, and her presence behind the dish this season has been massive for the Ducks. She ranks second in the Pac-12 with 11 runners caught stealing this season, and her career-high 12 home runs rank seventh in the Pac-12 while leading all Oregon hitters.
On the other side of the ball, the Ducks are led by the three-headed pitching monster of Stevie Hansen, Morgan Scott, and Raegan Breedlove. Their ERAs of 2.39, 2.56, and 2.65 rank ninth, 11th, and 12th, in the Pac-12, respectively, and have helped the Ducks to the Pac-12’s third-best ERA of 2.58 on the season. While Scott was selected to the All-Pac-12 Second Team for her incredible season, Hansen has been the true star for this Oregon pitching staff. This season, her 18 wins ranked second-best in the Pac-12, and her 132 innings pitched and 106 strikeouts were both team highs. Going into the season, it was widely thought that this Oregon team would likely only go as far as Hansen’s pitching would take them, but the emergence of Scott and Breedlove has helped to take that pressure off of her, and has made Oregon one of the nation’s deepest pitching teams.
Oregon’s first matchup comes against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, the number two seed in the region. On the season, the Irish finished with a 29-17-1 record overall, which included an 11-12-1 record against ACC opponents, which placed them seventh in the conference. They currently come in at #45 on NCAA.com’s softball ratings power index (RPI) rankings and are on a four-game losing streak after being swept by #3 Florida State and being upset in the first round of the ACC Tournament by Georgia Tech. The Irish have a high-contact approach on offense, with their .318 batting average ranking third in the ACC, which is boosted by the six qualified players they have hitting over .300. The power in their lineup comes almost entirely from three sources, third baseman, Joley Mitchell; shortstop, Lexi Orozco; and first baseman, Karina Gaskins. They have combined for 38 home runs on the season, which is over two-thirds of the Irish’s total home runs this year. Notre Dame’s pitching has been solid this season, but not spectacular by any means. Their 3.34 team ERA places them squarely in the middle of the ACC, but their 236 strikeouts rank second to last.
The top seed in the region and host for the weekend are the Arkansas Razorbacks. They currently rank as the #13 team in the country, sporting a record of 38-17 overall and a 14-10 record against SEC opponents. The Razorbacks finished in fourth place in the SEC but lost to Alabama in the first round of the SEC tournament. Last year, when they beat the Ducks twice in the regional, ending their season, before losing two out of three games to Texas in the super-regional. The Razorbacks are led by star slugger Rylin Hedgecock, who, with a .325/.451/.773 slash line, is by far the most dangerous hitter in their lineup and was selected to the All-SEC Second Team. Her 20 home runs this season only trail Tennesee’s Kiki Milloy in the SEC and are the sixth most of any player in the country. The best aspect of Arkansas’ game is their pitching staff, whose 2.18 team ERA ranks 26th in the country. Their pitching is led by fifth-year senior Chenise Delce, an All-SEC First Team selection who leads the team in wins, ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts. On the season she recorded 20 wins and posted a 1.86 ERA with 183 strikeouts in 166 innings pitched, ranking third, 12th, fourth, and third in the SEC for those stats. The Razorbacks will likely be Oregon’s second opponent of the weekend, going head-to-head on Saturday assuming that both teams win their first matchup.
The Harvard Crimson are back in the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2019 after beating Princeton to win the first-ever Ivy League Softball Tournament. The Crimson currently sit with a record of 29-15-1 on the season, and their 16-5 record in Ivy League play tied them with Princeton for first place. Harvard has a contact-oriented approach at the plate, which is highlighted by their .313 team batting average, which led the Ivy League this season. First baseman, Madi Mays, led the way with a .353 average that ranked third-best in the conference while being named to the All-Ivy League First Team. Mays was joined on the First Team by shortstop, Trina Hoang, and outfielder, Megan Walsh. Additionally, pitcher, Riley Flynn, was earned All-Ivy League Second Team honors en route to taking home the Ivy League Rookie of the Year award. Flynn went 8-1 on the season with a 2.66 ERA and 89 strikeouts across 94.2 innings. It’s unlikely that Oregon would end up facing off against Harvard, as it would either require Notre Dame to beat Oregon in the first game or Harvard to somehow beat Arkansas or Notre Dame, which would set up a matchup between the Ducks and the Crimson on Saturday.
In the end, I think that this weekend ends up going pretty similar to last year’s regional, with Oregon winning their first game before losing to Arkansas twice. The Ducks match up well against Notre Dame, and I think they will beat them in the first game and if they play them in the elimination bracket, but Arkansas is the #13 team in the country for a reason and it will be very difficult to beat them twice. In order to stay competitive in this regional, Oregon will need big pitching performances from Stevie Hansen and Morgan Scott and will need to see the bats finally wake up after being shut down by Utah and Stanford. My prediction is that Oregon and Arkansas will both win their first games, setting up the Ducks to play Arkansas and Notre Dame to play Harvard in the elimination bracket. Arkansas will then beat Oregon and Notre Dame will beat Harvard to set up a rematch between the Ducks and the Irish. If the Ducks can beat the Irish a second time, they would once again play Arkansas, where they would have to beat them twice to advance to the super-regional, something that I, unfortunately, don’t see happening, bringing this Oregon softball season to an end.