Best in History

DEIFEL’S RAZORBACKS WRAP UP PROGRAM’S MOST SUCCESSFUL SEASON

By Ethan Westerman

2022-07-05T07:00:00.0000000Z

2022-07-05T07:00:00.0000000Z

WEHCO Media

https://hawgsillustrated.pressreader.com/article/281487870050527

SOFTBALL

If the 2021 Arkansas softball season was about arriving on the national scene, the encore performance in 2022 was about the program proving it is there to stay. The Razorbacks had the best season in program history, finishing with a 48-11 record that included a dominant 19-5 mark in league play. Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel’s squad won SEC regular-season and conference tournament titles, garnered the highest NCAA seed in program history (4), set a single-season home run record (109), swept league awards and packed Bogle Park numerous times. If the 2021 Arkansas softball season was about arriving on the national scene, the encore performance in 2022 was about the program proving it is there to stay. The Razorbacks had the best season in program history, finishing with a 48-11 record that included a dominant 19-5 mark in league play. Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel’s squad won SEC regular-season and conference tournament titles, garnered the highest NCAA seed in program history (4), set a single-season home run record (109), swept league awards and packed Bogle Park numerous times. “In reality, we finished a top-10 program, probably, and had a ton of accomplishments this year,” Deifel said. “It was the best season in program history, and we have to celebrate this group for doing that.” Success came, in part, due to the team playing with a chip on its shoulder. After sharing the 2021 SEC regular-season title with Florida, skeptics arose, challenging the legitimacy of the team’s crown. Commentators on the national level discredited the championship, saying it was the result of a weak league schedule. The disrespect didn’t sit well with Deifel or any of the 16 returning players. “I know that we had a pretty pissed-off group coming off last year, feeling like everyone made excuses for why we were good,” Deifel said prior to the 2022 SEC Tournament. “When you accomplish something and then you hear everyone making excuses for why you did it, it’s really frustrating. Because you don’t hear them do that about your counterparts. “We competed, we were consistent through the year, too … and now people are saying that we’re good? Well, we’ve been good. We’ve been playing high-level softball. I don’t know that the chip’s ever going to leave.” The team made certain no one could dispute the legitimacy of its achievements this year. Arkansas not only won its first outright SEC title, but did so convincingly. Behind a group of determined seniors, high-impact transfers and talented underclassmen, the Razorbacks finished three games ahead of second-place Alabama to stand alone as conference champions. Arkansas clinched the title in a special way, doing so on Senior Day. “They believed in the ability to do this before there was even a glimmer of the ability to do it,” Deifel said of the senior class. “In my head I always think they believed in this before it was cool to believe in this.” The Razorbacks stormed into Florida for the conference tournament and swept the competition, outscoring opponents by a combined 11-1 en route to a program-first tournament championship. Arkansas defeated Missouri 4-0 in the title game behind a dominant seven-inning shutout tossed by redshirt junior Chenise Delce, the SEC pitcher of the year in her first season after transferring from Tulsa. “It always feels good to prove anyone wrong in anything you do,” Deifel said after the team won. “I think competitive people just always want to prove people wrong.” Delce seemingly overnight added a drop ball to her pitching arsenal. She finished the season with a 19-3 record while boasting a 2.12 ERA. The 1-2 punch of Delce and senior Mary Haff — the 2021 SEC co-pitcher of the year — in the circle was crucial to the team’s accomplishments. “I would describe the relationship they had as incredibly supportive,” Deifel said. “I feel like we reached a point where we truly had two No. 1s. They just did a really good job of having each other’s backs throughout the year. When one wasn’t sharp, the other was.” KB Sides, a senior transfer from Alabama, was named the SEC player of the year for another program first. In league competition, Sides sat atop the conference in hits and runs scored while batting .453 with an OPS of 1.396. “It was a very special moment for me,” Sides said of being player of the year. “I think the more I’ve thought about it, it’s a little crazy to think about, just knowing like how much I developed from last year to this year. Arkansas has been a huge part of that. I would have never gotten it anywhere else without the girls here. They made me better every single day, especially the coaches. They’ve all made me better and it’s just a direct example of them.” Hannah Gammill, Danielle Gibson, Mary Haff and Linnie Malkin joined Delce and Sides on the All-SEC first team. Hannah McEwen was named to the All-SEC second team, and Gammill and Gibson were places on the league’s all-defensive team. Deifel was awarded SEC coach of the year for the second consecutive season. In seven years at the helm, she has turned around a program that won just one conference game in her first season. Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek said he and Deifel have met about her contract since the season ended. “I think we’re in a really good spot right now to locking her up for the foreseeable future,” Yurachek said in early June. Arkansas hosted the NCAA Fayetteville Regional and showed out against the threeteam field of Princeton, Wichita State and Oregon. The Razorbacks won three games by a combined 26-5 score, including a 9-3 victory over Oregon in the regional final. Bogle Park, which completed its 15th season of hosting games, was filled to the brim for each of the Razorbacks’ postseason games. Nine of the venue’s 10 highest-attended games came in 2022, including all six NCAA Tournament games, which each drew over 3,000 fans. Against Texas in the NCAA Fayetteville Super Regional, fans set a program-best series attendance mark with a total 9,385 spectators over three days. “It’s incredible,” Deifel said of the fan support. “When we got here, we set out to win over our fan base because we knew we had one of the best fan bases in the country. We knew we just had to give them a product that they would back and be proud of. I think we’ve done that.” The longball was a theme for the 2022 team. Five different “Bogle Bombers” hit 13 or more home runs (Sides, Taylor Ellsworth, Gibson, Gammill and Malkin) as the team broke the single-season program record with 109. “We are just trying to hit the ball hard,” Gibson said. “We have a lot of power up and down the lineup and so much power and depth. It’s really fun when you hit a home run or when your teammate hits a home run because its just a big celebration.” Malkin broke the program record with 50 career home runs. Haff set the school record for career wins (96), saves (14) and shutouts (27), and was the first individual to throw a perfect game at Arkansas. Gibson owns the career RBI record with 180, and McEwen the most career runs scored with 202. While the Hogs’ dream of a program-first trip to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series fell short at the hands of eventual runner-up Texas, the 2022 season was another step forward toward meeting that goal. Yurachek applauded Deifel and her team for the best season in team history. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “When you talk about how we’re now back-to-back super regional hosts and SEC champions, and from where she started seven years ago to where this program is now, I don’t think anyone could’ve fathomed it.” Following the loss to Texas in the super regionals, an emotional Deifel credited the group of seniors for turning around a program that had only one conference win in her first season at the helm. “They took a chance on us, and they’ve built this,” she said. “And I think that when you’re out there and you see 3,000-plus doing the Hog Call, they did that. I know that I just felt really, really lucky that I got to coach them. I’m really fortunate that they chose us and they’ve left us in a really good spot.” Following the season, five Razorbacks were designated All-Americans by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. Gibson, Sides, Malkin and Gammill were named to the first team, while Delce captured second-team honors. It was the most All-Americans selected in program history. Deifel and her staff hauled in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to Extra Inning Softball, and have key pieces with significant playing time including Delce, Gammill, Kacie Hoffmann, Marlene Friedman and Audrie LaValley returning. An aspect of the team culture that drew players such as Sides, Ellsworth and Delce to play under is the affection they felt from the first-time meeting the coaching staff. “We aren’t like rainbows and sunshine every day,” Deifel said. “But we genuinely care for each other, and we love each other.”

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