In the high-profile coaching changes that happened at the University during the 2008-09 school year, one kind of went under the radar this spring. Former athletic director Pat Kilkenny announced on May 20 that softball coach Kathy Arendsen’s contract would not be renewed at the end of June.
That led to the hiring of Mike White, an Oregon assistant from 2003-04. White had been helping coach at Marist High School in Eugene, where the softball powerhouse had identical 29-1 records in two season and back-to-back state championships.
White is also an accomplished softball player. He’s a native of New Zealand who became a U.S. citizen in 1994 and has helped the United States to numerous top-three finishes in tournaments. In 2000 he helped the USA National team to a bronze medal finish in the World Championships.
“From a national search came a local opportunity that rarely comes along,” Kilkenny said in a press release. “Mike is a tremendous teacher, especially with pitchers, and a believer in the fundamentals of the game. His ties to the local and regional softball community, as well as his knowledge of the Pac-10, make him a natural for this position, and we are thrilled to have him back at Oregon. We believe we found the best coach possible and one that will create an outstanding experience for our student-athletes.”
Players are excited, too. Sophomore Samantha Skillingstad, who has already played with White from a few camps and clinics, said she loves the way he works.
“I think he’s wonderful,” Skillingstad said. “He’s going to be great. Mike is going to have really high expectations, but that’s what we need. Last season was a big let-down. We all had really high expectations and for us to end on that note was really disappointing.”
And for White, it was a logical move to take the head coaching job.
“I’ve always loved softball. There’s no doubt about that, but with being local and the job opening up it just felt like the natural progression,” White said. “It’s my passion. It was a perfect fit. I didn’t have to move my family.”
But along with the nicety of being close to home, White has inherited a team that just went 16-34. In 2008 the team was 35-29.
“The season was tough in the sense that we worked really, really hard every single day and didn’t have anything to show for it,” senior Carlyn Re said. “It’s tough when you work that hard and it doesn’t show … The girls stuck together to the end though and that was good at the very least.”
Now it’s White’s job to get the Ducks back to their former glory as a perennial top-25 team.
“There are two separate goals for the upcoming year,” White said. “As a coaching staff we are evaluated on how many wins we have. But as a team I think we have to get better. If each player can get better individually, then as a team we will get better and ultimately the wins will come.”
For the wins to come, the team would love to work with its new coach this summer. However, because of NCAA restrictions on practice times and regulations, the players are limited to sit-down meetings with White and they have to work out on their own.
“You get a new coach and you want to start working with him right away,” Re said. “It’s kind of hard because it’s a tease, but the girls are all working together helping each other out.”
But White has faith in his new team. Skillingstad has been throwing four or five days a week, and most of the team has been turning out for the summer conditioning workouts with head strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe.
“It is a little difficult. But they are self-motivated,” Radcliffe said. “I haven’t had to tell them much. They’re hitting and throwing and doing their summer conditioning programs. That’s a good sign.”
And because of that, the team is confident it can prove 2009 was a fluke.
“Not to finish in the bottom of the Pac and getting a regional bid would be a big goal just to redeem ourselves from last year,” Skillingstad said.
White took it one step further: He offered a win count he said should be a realistic mark.
“I think if we can finish in the top half of the Pac-10 it would be a success,” he said. “We lost a lot of games by one or two runs and if we can lower our ERA we’ll be right in there. I’d like to see us get eight wins in conference.”
“We can do better than we have the last two seasons,” Re said. “We’re going to come in with high expectations. We’re going to come out working out from day one and it will be better.”