FAYETTEVILLE – In a span of just two years, Courtney Deifel has revived Arkansas’ softball program.
Coming off back-to-back seasons with one SEC win, the Razorbacks found out Sunday they were headed to Norman, Okla., to play in the NCAA regionals.
It is their first postseason appearance since 2013 and just the seventh in school history.
“When we set out, this was always a goal that we shot for, but didn’t really speak about,” the second-year coach said. “It was more about getting these (players) to buy in and just get better every day.
“When you do that and you absolutely sellout to being better Razorbacks every day, then things like NCAA berths happen.”
Arkansas ended the season with a 31-22 overall record and went 7-17 in SEC play, nearly matching its win total from the previous two seasons combined (33) and more than tripling its SEC win total over that same time period (2).
Despite the poor conference record, the Razorbacks were No. 33 in the RPI and confident they would be chosen during the NCAA Tournament selection show, which they watched on the Bogle Park video board Sunday night.
When “Arkansas” finally flashed up on the screen, junior shortstop A.J. Belans described the feeling as a “weight lifted off our shoulders” and the team celebrated.
The mood was nothing like 2013, when the Razorbacks were paired with No. 1 overall seed and eventual national champion Oklahoma.
Fifth-year seniors Stephanie Canfield and Nicole Schroeder were true freshmen contributors on that team.
“(Sunday) was a big deal for our team and everyone was really excited because we knew what was about to happen,” Schroeder said. “It was a lot different than my freshman year because we were good that year and Oklahoma was like No. 1 and we were like, ‘Oh, we’re going there? Okay.’”
For the sixth time in seven postseason trips, Norman is once again Arkansas’ regional destination in 2017. Although Canfield and Schroeder are the only Razorbacks who have played postseason games there, it is a familiar site for the entire team.
Arkansas played a non-conference game against the Sooners at Marita Hynes Field, losing 4-2, on April 5. Last year, the schools played a fall scrimmage in Norman.
Before they can worry about Oklahoma, the No. 10 overall seed, the Razorbacks have to get by another common opponent: Tulsa.
The Razorbacks and Golden Hurricane split a home-and-home series during the regular season and have played at least one game in 18 of the last 21 seasons. In addition to Oklahoma, the other team in the regional is North Dakota State, which Arkansas played twice in 2016.
“I think it gives us a sense of comfortability because we’re familiar with our opponents,” Belans said. “That doesn’t mean to count them out at all. They’re both great teams. It just gives us a sense of familiarity in this situation.”
Friday’s opening game against Tulsa begins at 11:30 a.m. and will be televised on the SEC Network.
The Golden Hurricane are led by their ace pitcher, junior Emily Watson. She is 28-4 with the NCAA’s fifth best ERA (0.96) this season. Opponents hit just .167 against her and her 329 strikeouts rank third nationally.
In two appearances against the Razorbacks, Watson allowed only two hits and struck out 11 batters in seven innings.
The right side of Tulsa’s infield is comprised of Arkansas natives, with Tori Stafford (Van Buren) at first base and Morgan Neal (Springdale Har-Ber) at second base.
“I just remember them being a pretty strong team all around,” Belans said. “They’re someone that we have to be on our A-game at all times. We can’t take them for granted.”
Much like their baseball counterparts at Baum Stadium, Arkansas has thrived on its power this season. The Razorbacks’ 57 home runs lead the SEC and are tied for 14th in the country.
They are led by Schroeder, who broke the UA single-season record with her 16th homer at the SEC Tournament last week, but the entire lineup has the ability to hit it out of the park.
Deifel acknowledges the team can’t completely rely on the home run, especially against pitchers like Watson and those that Oklahoma has, but it could provide Arkansas with a spark in critical situations.
“When we’re going into a regional that has the pitching that it has, it’s just more keeping level-headed and keeping the mentality that we’re never out of this game,” Deifel said. “It might be until the ninth or the 10th inning and maybe that’s when we get the big hit.”
Although this is her first postseason appearance as a head coach and Arkansas’ first in four years, it likely won’t be their last based on their improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 under Deifel.
“I’m excited for the team to experience it,” Deifel said. “I’m excited for this to be the new standard of what we shoot for each year.”