Skip to main content

Game Week Dawns For UO Softball

Feb 6, 2021

The Oregon softball team was off to a 22-2 start and was poised to enter Pac-12 play when the 2020 season was shut down.

The Ducks will always wonder what might have been last spring, after seeming poised for a triumphant bounce-back from the struggles of 2019. But members of the UO softball program will never again wonder just what the game means to them, after being deprived of the chance to play for much of the last year.

"You just expect that softball's gonna always be there," UO coach Melyssa Lombardi said. "You expect we're gonna play our nonconference and we're gonna travel and we're gonna do all these normal things we've done forever. When that got taken away from us, it was tough. …

"I think it allowed us to go back to when we were little, and why we started playing softball in the first place — because we loved what we were doing. We played for the love of the game."

The Ducks will finally return to the diamond next week. Oregon opens the season at the GCU Kickoff Classic in Phoenix, Ariz., playing five games in three days including matchups with Weber State and Montana on opening day, Feb. 12.

Oregon returned to practice following the university's holiday break, and Lombardi said the Ducks have been "extremely locked in" ever since. There's a sense that the team still has "unfinished business" after appearing to be on track last year to exorcise the demons of 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pause.

And there's a renewed love for the game. When practice gets tough, when drills become frustrating, the Ducks find themselves digging just a little deeper.

"I've pushed for the game way more," senior pitcher Samaria Diaz said. "I love the game 10 times more than I did before. This break made me realize how much I love this sport, and how much I'm going to put into this season as well."

Diaz is a "super senior" who thought she was playing her final season in college last spring, but took advantage of the chance to return this year thanks to relaxed eligibility rules due to the pandemic. In that same boat is outfielder Haley Cruse, who hit .457 with an 1.135 OPS in 24 games last spring.

The extra year for the seniors, along with a class of five first-year freshmen, means an expanded roster for the Ducks this spring. All that depth provides Lombardi with roster flexibility she covets, but has added importance with softball season beginning while the pandemic still plays havoc with collegiate athletics.

"It's gonna take all 24 of us," Lombardi said. "Having a small lineup would be tough in a year like this. For what we're trying to do and the schedule we're going to play, we need to have a deep, experienced, veteran team."

The transition to college is always a challenge for freshmen, but this year's newcomers have had the added hurdle of doing so amid pandemic conditions. Cruse said the veterans have taken steps to ease the transition for Gabby Herrera, Raegan Breedlove, Hanna Delgado, Alyssa Brito and Tehya Bird.

"We've tried to welcome them with open arms, and find new, creative ways to bring them into our program," Cruse said. "We try to find everyday things we can do to get to know them on a personal level, whether it's playing catch with different people each day — just trying to make them feel at home. Because I can't imagine what they must be going through as a freshman in this process, and throughout this time."

Beginning next weekend, the veterans and newcomers alike will get to experience some normalcy, as the season dawns.

There are questions to answer, like how Lombardi will juggle a staff of five pitchers, and who will replace shortstop Jasmine Sievers after she opted out of this season. But the Ducks will be back on the field together. And after missing that for a year, they'll cherish it in a new way.

"The thing I'm most excited about is us together as a team, getting to play," Lombardi said. "I just want to see us get back on the field and play, and go from there."