Cheridan Hawkins leads a veteran Ducks team looking to take the next step

Oregon starting pitcher Cheridan Hawkins (11) prepares to pitch during the third inning. The Oregon Ducks play the BYU Cougars during NCAA softball regionals at Howe Field in Eugene, Oregon on May 14, 2015. (Ryan Kang/Emerald)

2016 will be one last ride for Cheridan Hawkins.

The left-handed senior pitcher may go down as the most successful pitcher in Oregon history, but for now she has her sights set on another appearance in the Women’s College World Series — a place No. 6 Oregon is familiar with, but has yet to find any success at.

Hawkins led the Ducks to the WCWS last year with a 30-5 record, nine saves and a 1.63 earned-run average, which qualified her for the USA Softball Player of the Year award.

Hawkins is only a piece of the puzzle for Oregon, though. Seven other seniors will join her, looking to become the winningest senior class in Oregon history by breaking the 2015 senior class’ record of 202 total wins.

While Hawkins is expected to control the pitcher’s circle, fellow seniors Koral Costa, Janelle Lindvall, Geri Ann Glasco and Hailey Decker are expected to lead an extremely powerful and potent offense. Costa, Lindvall, Glasco and Decker were the top four home run hitters on last year’s team and combined to hit 42 of the team’s 76 returning blasts.

Not only do the Ducks return the powerful offense, the entire starting infield – which combined to post a .949 fielding percentage – will be back. Decker will start at first base while juniors Danica Mercado (second base) and Nikki Udria (shortstop) will hold down the middle. Sophomore Jenna Lilley anchors down third base. Udria is widely considered one of the best defensive shortstops in the nation, with a career fielding percentage of .933.

The best player on the team, other than Hawkins, Lilley. In 2015, Lilley seamlessly replaced former four-year starter and All-American Courtney Ceo, hitting a team-high .427. Lilley also led the Ducks in on-base percentage (.539), runs (60), doubles (12), walks (39) and stolen bases (16), en route to being named one of three finalists for the NFCA Freshman of the Year award.

With the departure of Janie Takeda, the only starter not returning to the team, sophomore Lauren Lindvall is one of the early candidates to replace her in left field. Last year, Lindvall hit .354 with six homers and four doubles, while splitting time with senior Alyssa Gillespie, who is expected to take over fulltime in right field.

Second baseman Sammie Puentes, a junior with the potential to drop down a drag bunt or blast the ball over the fence, bolsters the Ducks’ depth along with the powerful Gwen Svekis, who had 16 extra base hits last season.

Typically the Ducks get a boost from a freshman athlete, as was the case with Hawkins three years ago, Udria a year after that and Lilley last year. This year, right-handed pitcher Megan Kleist has a chance to emerge as a potential No. 2 starter behind Hawkins. April Utecht and Marisa Given have the potential to make a difference at the plate.

If the Ducks are going to repeat last year’s Pac-12 championship — their third in a row — and a berth in the WCWS, it won’t be because of an easy schedule. Oregon is scheduled to face teams currently ranked or receiving votes in the national poll in 25 of its scheduled 54 games.

Oregon can expect an early-season test; its first 29 games of the year will come on the road. The Ducks will play in five different states over five weeks, culminating in a three-game series against No. 11 Louisiana-Lafayette on Feb. 19-20, and a three-game series in Seattle against No. 20 Washington.

Follow Ryan Kostecka on Twitter @Ryan_Kostecka

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