BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
As one might expect with someone who has added 8 new players, the unexpected return of an All-American, two new assistant coaches and a pitching consultant over the summer, Arkansas softball head coach Courtney Deifel is excited to get fall practice underway on Monday.
Deifel adds in four Top 60 nationally ranked freshman and four additions from the transfer portal to the roster and gets to add back All-American Rylin Hedgeock as well as new assistant coaches DJ Gasso and former Razorback star Danielle Gibson Whorton.
“We have four huge freshman, got four out of the transfer portal and we add Rylin back so it was a huge summer for us with those nine and adding DJ and Gib,” Deifel said. “And we bring back a lot of punch offensively, a very solid pitching staff.
“We really feel like we have all the pieces and the depth and every thing that we need. So I think we have four offensive players returning that have hit 18 or more home runs in a season and that’s the most in the country.
“So when they’ve had years like that, you have that power piece and then you have Regan Johnson, who as a top 10 finalist for (national) Freshman of the Year, you add (Iowa transfer) Nia Carter, who led the Big 10 in hits by 30.
“So we just feel on top of all the returnees we have, we feel everything that we need. Absolutely excited.”
To top that off, Deifel announced during her Friday afternoon press conference that former long-time Tulsa head coach John Bargfeldt will be a pitching consultant for her this season.
The Arkansas pitching staff returns Hannah Camenzind, Nikki McGaffin, Robyn Herron and Callie Turner and adds in transfers Morgan Leinstock (Southern Miss) and Reis Beuerlein (Mississippi State) and Bentonville freshman Kasey Wood.
“John Bargfeldt is going to be consulting with us,” Deifel said of the recently retired Hurricane head coach of 14 years. “I’m really, really excited to get his expertise and perspective. He’s a wizard.”
Hedgecock had 21 home runs last season, graduated and was set to move in to business world, but decided late this summer to use her super senior year instead.
“She ended up calling me before the tournament was done and we kind of talked about what it might look like and all those things and she said ‘okay, when I get back home and talk to my family, I’ll decide for sure.’ But she said that if she had to put a percentage on it, it would be like 85 percent yes. So I felt pretty confident in that. And she got home and called me immediately after talking to her family.
“I am just so thrilled and thrilled obviously when you get to add a first-team All-American back on your team, it is pretty amazing. But who she is to our program and who she’ll be to this team in that locker room is far beyond just the impact she will make on the field.”
Deifel said the fall will contain a lot of competition.
“I think it is a new training style so I think it is getting adjusted to ourselves and training and philosophies,” Deifel said. “We have two-and-a half or three weeks of individual workouts before we get into a team setting practice.
“We have five outside competitions games scheduled right now and four Razorback Unlimited doubleheaders of intersquad where we take on somewhat loosely the structure and the point system of Athletes Unlimited although we add some more defense and pitching and all that.
“It’s a good amount of competition, just training and learning each other and hopefully it is really productive.”
Arkansas finished 40-19 last season overall, tied for third in the SEC and hosted an NCAA Regional, but was eliminated after going 2-2 with a pair of losses to Oregon.
“I think the big thing is that it is a crazy sport because only one team ends how they want,” Deifel said, “When you get away from it, your season ending, and you look back, we did a lot of great things as a very young team. So just that experience that we gained and how we competed and how we finished and how we started six freshmen and sophomores, just to be able to put together a season like we did, I am just really proud of them.
“So when you take that moving forward, you have that experience, but also a chip of it just not ending the way we wanted, that’s when our biggest growth has come, when we have had an ending like that. It has kind of fueled them to work harder and want more and dig in and compete and all those things.
“I know the vibe of this team already from a couple of meetings we have had. They we excited and when we got put of a meeting, a good chunk of them walked into the indoor (workout complex) to work. This team is going to work.”
Gibson was as assistant at Georgia last season after an All-American career as a Razorback.
“I am thrilled, first of all to have here back,” Deifel said. “She is not only one of the most decorated players to play here, but just one of most brilliant young minds in our game. I think that as really apparent when she was here. Just observing and having a lot of conversations with her while she was at Georgia and just seeing her continued to grow.
“She has always been a student of the game, but she always and just thought of the game differently and has a mature mind for the game. So when we knew we were going to get this additional coach, she was on our minds as who we would want to reach out to and who we thought would round out our staff really well.
“And add not just having the experience of being here doing it at the highest level and just being really proud to be a Razorback, but just having another really strong mind in our coaches room and having an impact on our players. It was a no-brainer.
“…I just can’t wait for her to get here. She is currently killing it at (professional league) Athletes Unlimited so we will get her here full-time on Monday afternoon I believe.”
Adding former Utah assistant Gasso, the son of Oklahoma coaching legend Patty Gasso, was also a big get for Arkansas.
“Obviously he comes from a great (coaching) tree and a great family, but he has quickly made a name for himself and you can see the impact he had at Utah,” Deifel said. “I have talked to colleagues he had at Utah, you could talk to people he coached against and with and he is everything he appears to be.
“In a short amount of time, if you know him, you immediately feel his energy and how great it is. Our players have really taken to him and he has absolutely dove in as we expected him, too.”
Photo by John D. James