After leading Arkansas to its most successful softball season ever in 2022, Razorback head coach Courtney Deifel is charged with the task of pushing the program to even greater heights.
That’s what happens when you go 48-11, win both the SEC regular season and tournament titles and come just a win away from making it to the Women’s College World Series in Oklahoma City for the first time.
Deifel will try to do so with a bunch of new faces, ones that she has been eager to watch over the last month during fall workouts and who will play five fall games against Louisiana Tech, Missouri Southern State and Seminole State at Bogle Park in the next five days.
Deifel is looking to see what identity this team will take on as it faces Louisiana Tech Saturday at 1 and 3:30 p.m., Tech again on Sunday at 11 a.m., Missouri Southern State Sunday at 2 p.m and then Seminole State Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.
“I am not sure yet,” Deifel said. “Just this weekend while playing four games, your are going to see a lot of different combinations. I don’t know where everyone is going to fall. I don’t know the exact way to the put the puzzle together just yet. I just know we have really good pieces.”
Fall practice is a time to help develop that identity according to Deifel, who was rewarded with a contract extension this off-season.
“I think that is what fall is built for – to find the identity of this team,” Deifel said. “This team is very different. We have talked about that a lot in the last couple of weeks. We haven’t proven anything yet, we haven’t done anything so we have to show up and work our tails off every time we have the opportunity to. We are going to have more speed than we have had. We are going to be better defensively than we have been and we have been a solid defensive team. This group can pick it.”
The Razorbacks have five pitchers they expected to take the mound this season with ace Chenise Delce, redshirt junior Cally Turner and a trio of freshmen in Robyn Herron Hannah Camenzind and Nikki McGaffin.
Delce was named the SEC’s Pitcher of the after winning nine games, saving a league-best three outings, having an ERA of 1.82 and being third in strikeouts.
“We have five pitchers on staff and we are going to use all five,” Diefel said. “Chenise is going to the anchor. That’s not’s going to be a surprise to anyone on this call or anyone around the country.
“…The thing that I really love about the staff is that they are al very different. What they do and what their bread and butter is, they do really well. We have seen them be very effective against our offense.
“We have three lefties, which is not typical…I just think this staff is going to force us to do stuff that we haven’t done in the past…It is going to force us out of that comfort zone or whatever of the philosophy that we have taken in the past.”
Hopefully that pitching and defense will make up for lost offense.
“ I think the big question we face is how are we going to replace that offense,” Deifel said. “We answered that same question a year before. What we do is advance our offense and we are going to develop our offense. So that is not going to be any different. It is just going to have a lot more layers.”
One of the biggest changes fans might notice this weekend is veteran third baseman Hannah Gammill behind the plate.
Gammill hit .374 with 18 homers and 51 RBIs as a sophomore last season. She started all 59 games last season at third base while being named a first-team All-SEC pick and also grabbing an all-defensive team honor.
“Very likely,” Deifel said. “She is exceptional back there. We have all really enjoyed watching her at third the last couple of years. So I think when people hear us talk about putting her behind the plate, I think they think we are crazy.
“But she is an exceptional catcher so right now, I don’t see how we don’t do that. So she will most likely start back there for us.”
Deifel is excited about playing Louisiana Tech three times.
“The nice thing is that we are playing La Tech three times,” Deifel said. “Some coaches might not like that, but I love it. We actually get to see what all of our players look like against the same team so it is kind of an even measure.
“I want to see how our players work together. I want to see our competitive energy that we have been pushing them to find on a daily basis. It is harder to find in a practice setting than it is against an opponent.”
Arkansas players have faced each in practices and scrimmages and are ready to see some new faces.
“I think our pitchers are tired of facing our hitters so it is really nice to have a couple of opponents coming in,” Deifel said.
Deifel highlighted the play of transfers Cylie Halverson (South Dakota) and Kristian Foreman (Duke) in practice so far.
Halverson bombed 19 home runs last season while Foreman hit .398 with 15 round trippers and a Duke school record of 56 RBIs.
“The two newcomers who have made the biggest impact so far are Kristina Foreman and Cylie Halverson, our transfers from Duke and South Dakota State,” Deifel said. “We are expecting them to step right on the field and they have elevated our program. So I would say those two first and foremost.”
Arkansans brought in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according two Extra Innings Softball with eight of the nine signees ranked in the top 30 in Extra Innings Softball’s Elite 100.
“Our freshman class is very talented,” Deifel said. “They are young, but they are talented. I would say especially with our young pitching. We have three freshmen pitchers. I think that was kind of the question mark going into the fall for me – what are they going to look like?’ And they have been very impressive this fall so far.”
Deifel hopes that pitching and defense might take the pressure off an offense that will look different.
“I want to see how our offense lines up,” Deifel said. “Our offense is going to look different this year. I don’t know that we are going to drive the ball at the rate that we have in the past. Our offense is going to have a lot of different layers to it so it is just going to play differently. So it is just going to be interesting to see this weekend and next Wednesday against Seminole.”
Deifel is excited about her new-look squad.
“This team is very different from the team we had last year and the teams we have had in the past,” Deifel said. “We have a lot of talent, they are highly competitive and so right now it is getting them focused on the little things every day that add up to big things. That’s the biggest lesson that you always have to learn and is what we have to go thorough with a young team.
“We have more depth than we have ever had, we have more in the conversations to start than we ever have. I just want to see how they all just play together.”
The program’s popularity has grown over the years and crowds have flocked to Bogle Park.
“I hope it gets more full as we go along,” Deifel said. “Our fans are the best in the country. I would put them up against any fans in the country. It creates an atmosphere where we have really excelled in SEC series and postseason.
“You see them (fans) creeping in earlier each year even where at our intersquad games we have 100s of fans and that wasn’t the case in the early years. We were trying to get that in the regular season. Now they are finding us earlier already in the fall and right out of the gates in Feb.
“These players have won over the fans and they are just really, really excited about Arkansas softball.”
Photo by John D. James