For the first time since left fielder Alexis Mack, first baseman Mia Camuso and pitcher Maggie Balint made their decisions to transfer, head coach Melyssa Lombardi and outfielder Haley Cruse addressed the media.
Lombardi’s first official game at the helm of Oregon softball will be Friday, Feb. 8, and she will be using a lineup astonishingly different than the projected lineup at the conclusion of the 2018 season.
“There’s definitely been things that coming into it that I didn’t think I would have to deal with, but that’s life,” Lombardi said. “We’re all going to be dealt with adversity and I think it’s just how we go about it and how we handle it. I am very proud of the staff, proud of our athletes. I think they’ve handled it really well."
Camuso, Balint and Mack announced their decisions to sit out the 2019 season in order to transfer just over a week ago, meaning freshmen and walk-ons will be expected to take on even bigger roles. The inexperience has been felt in Eugene and around the Pac-12 as the reigning Pac-12 champions were picked to finish last this season in the Pac-12 Coaches Poll.
“I don’t think there are a lot of expectations for our team at this point, which I think can definitely play to our advantage because we really have nothing to lose at this point,” Cruse said. “... It really gives us the opportunity to see what we’re made of.”
Cruse, the lone returning starter from last season’s Women’s College World Series team, has been thrust into a leadership role, something she did not expect when last season ended with her head coach and the majority of her team expected to return.
“I think it’s definitely a change in mindset and I had to step into a leadership role this year, which coming from a team of All-Americans, I was not expecting this year,” Cruse said, “I was just gonna keep my head down and keep playing, but being thrown into this leadership role has just been a life changing experience and I am really thankful for it.”
Lombardi has tried to bring in as many reinforcements as possible, recruiting transfers pitchers Jordan Dail and Maddie MacGrandle and catcher Terra McGowan.
Although Dail and MacGrandle will be leaned upon heavily in the circle, McGowan, the expected starting catcher will remain ineligible. McGowan, who transferred from Arizona State, was denied by the Sun Devils to be eligible, leaving Oregon to petition and try to change minds.
“They’re still working through some things but right now she is not eligible,” Lombardi said. “... She will not play with us this first weekend.”
April Utecht, seven starts at catcher, and utility player Shaye Bowden are expected to carry the load behind the plate, with late addition Annalisa Williamson as the lone true catcher on the roster. Utecht figures to be a staple in the lineup, most likely playing first base when not behind the plate.
“This is her [Utecht’s] moment,” Lombardi said. “She has completely embraced it. … I’m excited to see her lead us on the field. She has also done a great job of leading us off the field as well.”
Following that third wave of transfers, Lombardi was left with a big need of depth. The team announced on Sunday the addition of five players, right hander Kailey Krueger, infielder Katelyn Howard, outfielder Anna Mills and utility players Bayley Bruner and Bailey Cook.
“The new athletes that we just added, each one of them were added because we felt like they could help this team out,” Lombardi said. “I’m looking forward to what they can do as well this weekend.”
Oregon will kick off its season is in the Kajikawa Classic against Kansas.
“I would just say we have been dealing with adversity all fall and had to deal with some again before the season,” Lombardi said. “I think the team and our staff has done a great job of handling it. For us, we cannot wait to get on a plane tomorrow and start our first weekend off in Arizona.”
Follow Maverick Pallack on Twitter @mavpallack