BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
After 10 games on the road, the Arkansas softball team is finally getting a chance to play before the home fans.
The No. 7 Razorbacks (8-2) will open their Bogle Park slate Thursday afternoon by hosting eight-time national champion No. 19 Arizona (7-3) in a doubleheader beginning with 3 p.m. contest with both games televised by SEC Network +
The twinbill is part of the Razorback Invitational, which also includes Drake (2-3) and has Arkansas playing each of the teams a trio of times from Thursday through Sunday.
“It is honestly nice to be preparing for two teams and not five,” noted Arkansas head coach Courtney Deifel, whose team played five different foes last weekend. “So we are just kind of diving into Arizona does and what Drake does and making sure we are equipped to handle that while also just making sure we are fine tuning what we do well…We are excited to trim down to two teams.”
Arkansas – the back-to-back SEC Championships – and Arizona will be meeting for the first time since the Wildcats beat Razorbacks twice in the 2021 Super Regionals in Fayetteville to advance to the Women’s College World Series.
The two will also meet Friday at 4 with Arkansas playing Drake Friday at 1:30 p.m, Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m.
“We handpick our opponents in our tournaments so just to have a good balance of really great matchups and really great value so this one is no different,” Deifel said. “The difference it we have two opponents, we typically have three and everyone once in awhile we will have four.
“…This one just having two and playing each one three times is gong to be a huge challenge. But on top of filling our tournaments with really great match ups and really great value, we also like to fill tournaments with really great people.”
Both teams participated in the TaxAct Clearwater Invitational in Clearwater, Fla., with the Razorbacks going 3-2 and Wildcats finishing 2-3.
Both teams lost to Florida State and beat Indiana in the 16-team event that was put on by ESPN and televised on its televised on its various platforms.
Arkansas lost its first two games in the event before rebounding to win its final three while Arizona won its first two and dropped its last trio of contests.
I come out of the weekend really optimistic about our team,” Deifel said. “I think we were really challenged on Friday and I think it was a good balance of being challenged, not firing on all cylinders, not playing exceptionally well, for us to see the adjustments we had to make a lot quicker than we made them on both sides in the circle and in our at bats.
“I saw a huge response from the team, which is critical for how long and how grueling our season is. The thing I am most impressed by is our response. I think we played very well Saturday and Sunday and I think we handled it well more than anything. Not only did we play better, but we handled it well. So I am really pleased and optimistic about the direction we are going.”
The two programs also went 5-0 on their opening weekends with Arkansas outscoring its foes 51-9 and Arizona plastering its to the tune of 63-6.
Arkansas has used five pitchers each of the past two weekends with All-American Chenise Delce (3-1, 2.07, 1 save) part of a staff that includes Robyn Herron (3-0, 0.86) Callie Turner (2-0, 4.11, 1 save), Nikki McGaffin (0-0, 3.82) and Hannah Camenzind (0-1, 3.32).
That quintet, who have combined for 2.48 ERA, 64 strikeouts and allowed just 22 earned runs, got a chance to see some of the nation’s top hitters last weekend.
“I think it is huge and one of the reasons we chose to go there, knowing that we had a young staff and wanting to see how they matched up and what we needed to do,” Deifel said. “I think one of the best ways to learn is by experience…I think they went through that this first 10 games and really especially in these last five.
“I see them already making those adjustments and so that’s when we want to, early, so we are stronger in the long run.”
Deifel became the school’s all-time wins leader last weekend with 245 and added in a Sunday victory as well.
“It’s been a pretty cool moment, a pretty cool few days,” Deifel said. ““I would be lying if I told you that it was on my mind going into Saturday. I knew it was something out ahead of us hopefully. I was hoping we would win, I think we needed seven wins and I was hoping we would get seven wins on the year.
“Just coming off Friday, it was more about playing better and finding a way to win the game. The ULL game was a grind so it literally didn’t cross my mind until after the game and Linnie gave me this big hug. I was like ‘what are you doing? We shake hands.’
“…It’s been fun to celebrate it and celebrate it with my staff, our current players and players that have played here who really got those wins. More importantly, I think we are just getting started and it is a really cool milestone and now we get to make history every time we win a game. It will be fun to see how far we can push that number.”
Redshirt junior Rylin Hedgecock (.480, 3 HRs, 13 RBIs) heads up a potent Arkansas offense that is hitting .293 as a team, has 16 home runs and averaging 8 hits and 8 runs per game.
“I think that none of us were surprised by it,” Deifel said of Hedgecock’s success. “I mean Rylin is a tremendous hitter…I hope I get the opportunity to gush about Rylin every time I get to do an interview because I am just really proud of her and impressed by the route that she has taken to get where she is. She has worked her tail off. This is who Rylin has been all along.
“I just think that she is really unique in college athletics. I am really, really happy she is a Razorback and what you are seeing now is what we have seen for a long time. I mean she is a tremendous hitter, she has worked her tail off for us and she has earned every second of the success she is having now.”
Photo by John D. James