BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON

In the days leading up to Arkansas’ first spring  practice of year 2023 on Sunday, Razorback softball head coach Courtney Deifel was understandably excited.

Not only is her squad coming off the best season in program history, the back-to-back SEC Coach of the Year has reloaded with a team that arguably has a chance to be better.

That’s despite so many changes from a 48-11 team that won a single-season program-record amount of games, won the school’s first SEC regular season and tournament titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament Super Regionals for second straight season.

“It’s going to be an exciting brand, but it is going to different,” Deifel said. “We think it is more balanced. It’s not what people have got in the past of long ball or bust with us. But we are going to hit the long ball, we are going to steal more bases. We have a lot more speed. We have the best defense that we have had. 

“We have a pitching staff that is going too give us a chance to win every time out there, especially (redshirt senior pitching star) Chenise (Delce). As good as she has been, she is the best version of herself right now, which is crazy to think about. And we have more tools.

“It’s going to be different, but you are going to see the same personality, the same passion, you are going to see an intense team that fights together, represent the Razorback Nation and hopefully make everybody really proud.”

Arkansas, which will open its 55-game scheduled regular season with five games in  Las Vegas on Feb. 10-12, lost five key seniors, including three first-team All-Americans, off last year’s team, but also return a pair of All-Americans in Hannah Gammil and Delce.

Deifel, who added the nation’s No. 1 high school recruiting class and also several key transfers, got a look at the new roster during fall practice and a quartet of games before the team left for the semester break.

“I feel like that where we left it in December that we were in a great spot,” Deifel said. “We felt like this fall was very productive on the field and off the field and we are really looking forward to getting back and hopefully everyone picking up when they left off.

“This is a big stretch of time where they were away on their own and hopefully were doing everything they needed to be doing. We are excited to get them back and this month is critical for us on the field, but its is also a team building month.  We are really looking forward to having this time and getting ready to compete.”

Deifel is high on her team’s fielding.

“I think when you are just looking at the skill piece of it, this team can flat play defense,” Deifel said. “It doesn’t matter who we put out there. They can pick it, they can run it down, they are very, very skilled defensively and this team can run.  We have a lot of speed.  A lot more speed than we have had in the past.

“I think one of biggest differences that people are using against us – and I don’t think it is something that I would use against us – is that we are young. I think that is just as much a strength as it is could be a question mark to people outside of our bubble. I think our youth is going to play to our advantage.”

The Razorbacks open up with games against Weber State (4 p.m. CST) and UNLV ( 9 p.m.) on Friday Feb. 10 at UNLV’s Eller Media Stadium and then face Weber State (11 a.m.) and Southern Utah (1:30 p.m.) on Saturday before battling Baylor (11 a.m.) in a Sunday.  

That will be followed by five more games the following weekend in the TaxAct Clearwater (Fla.) Invitational Feb. 17-19 where Arkansas will face single games against Florida State, Duke, Indiana, Louisiana and Nebraska.   

Arkansas opens its home slate with the Razorback Invitational on Thursday,Feb. 23 with a pair of fames against Arizona at 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. and will tangle with Drake and Illinois State twice on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“That’s the nature of softball, you just play a lot of games, you travel a lot, ” Deifel said. “So the first two weekends are no different than what they would expect. The line up (of opponents) the first two weeks is to challenge us right out of the gates, to create a little bit of adversity, to see how we match up, to see what we need to work on, how we need to grow, how are going to respond, how resilient we are going to be.   All of those things. 

“So, I look at it now and even our home schedule and go ‘woo, we lined it up for them and we’ll see how they respond to that.”

Photo by John D. James