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Courtney Deifel spent her first five seasons at Arkansas trying to get her roster down to a manageable size.
The coronavirus pandemic sparked inflation, with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility.
Although 25 players is less than many other programs, it’s still more than Deifel anticipated.
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But she’s not complaining, especially with an ace like Autumn Storms returning for another season.
“I finally got it down last year, and now it’s up again,” Deifel said with a laugh. “But that’s OK because it’s for a good reason. We get another year with our seniors.”
Arkansas completed its four fall intrasquad scrimmages using the Athletes Unlimited draft process. The Razorbacks tweaked the scoring format a bit to fit their needs.
Redshirt junior Braxton Burnside finished first in the standings, true freshmen Allie Light and Lauren Howell were second and third, respectively, and redshirt junior Mary Haff was fourth.
“It worked really well for us. I don’t know if it’s the combination of being away from softball for eight months and not playing and having our whole team back minus one senior, but the competition level has been very high,” Deifel said. “They are very comfortable with each other and very competitive with each other.”
Outside of not being able to play other teams and having to adhere to certain safety protocols, practices felt relatively normal this fall to Deifel.
“The most different thing about it is the stuff we do off the field. We do a lot of team stuff off the field to get our team connected in the fall,” Deifel said. “We spend a good amount of time at my house or (assistant coach Matt Meuchel’s) house to really help get a feel for the players as people so they really get to know each other. That is really the only thing that feels different, but it’s a huge difference.”
That, and learning to decipher non-verbal cues on the field that can be seen while wearing a mask.
“You are taking away the most expressive part of some people,” Deifel said. “When I am talking to people, I am like you need to nod or give me a thumb’s up or something. I feel like they could be staring right through me.”
The freshmen class consists of seven players that are a good mix of all positions and needs, including one pure pitcher, four pitcher/utility players, one infielder and one catcher/utility.
“They have done a really good job. It’s hard to be a freshman in college right now with everything going on,” Deifel said. “They are trying to find their way and I think they are doing great.”
Howell, right-handed pitcher out of Missouri, finished her high school career 47-11 with a 1.40 ERA and 646 strikeouts.
“She is doing what we thought she could in our scrimmages,” Deifel said. “We are seeing it when she’s facing live at-bats and live competition in practice.”
Storms and Haff lead a strong pitching staff that has added more depth this season.
The right-handed Storms finished 11-3 with a 1.16 ERA, 61 strikeouts and 12 walks in 72.2 inning pitched in 2020. The NFCA second-team All-American didn’t give up more than three runs in an appearance all season.
“It’s always nice to start with a cornerstone coming back,” Deifel said. “Getting another year from Autumn is obviously a huge boost for our team.”
The right-handed Haff was 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA, 40 strikeouts and 11 walks in 37.0 IP in 2020.
“Mary looks great,” Deifel said. “She looks stronger than ever and has looked like she’s had time to fully get back from her injury.”
Arkansas has youth supporting the duo.
Redshirt freshman right-hander Jenna Bloom was 4-2 with a 3.21 ERA, 68 strikeouts and 21 walks in 43.2 IP in her debut in 2020, while Howell and Light threw quality innings during the fall.
“It’s more depth than we’ve ever had there, and we still have our horses so we feel really good about it,” Deifel said. “That position has been thinner with some of our best arms, and now the depth is a major strength.”
The Razorbacks return their entire starting lineup outside of Sydney Parr in centerfield.
Redshirt junior outfielder Hannah McEwen batted a team-leading .418 with six doubles, 12 RBIs and 27 runs scored in 2020. Burnside hit .392 with five home runs and 20 RBIs.
Redshirt junior catcher Kayla Green hit .375 with 13 RBIs. Redshirt senior outfielder Ryan Jackson batted .323 with five home runs and 15 RBIs
Redshirt junior outfielder Linnie Malkin drove in a team-high 24 runs, and Danielle Gibson drove in 14.
Redshirt junior infielder/catcher Nicole Duncan is back healthy and looked good during fall.
True freshman Hannah Gammill “is a strong, physical kid that flat out competes in the box.”
“There is a really good level of internal competition on the team and everyone is kind of elevating themselves and the ones around them,” Deifel said. “It’s going to be exciting to have a good chunk of the lineup back with a few opportunities. It will be exciting to see the competition for those.”
Braxton, McEwen and Gibson have been vocal leaders for Arkansas. Storms sets the tone in the circle with her level of competition.
The Razorbacks showcased their leadership the most during the start of the pandemic when teams weren’t allowed to get together in person.
“They took the initiative to start their own accountability groups. They figured out what everybody needed motivation-wise and what everyone had access to and then created an accountability group based on similar situations,” Deifel said. “They kind of took it upon themselves to get the freshmen in early and start the conversation. This is what we do here and there are no excuses. If we want to get where we want to be, it starts now and making the most of what you have. That was really huge for us.”