As I was working a Razorback softball game last year, I heard the color commentator for the SEC Network+ broadcast say that Razorback coach Courtney Deifel thought the UofA softball program was a “land mine.” The commentator quickly recanted her statement and said the coach meant to say “gold mine”. What was a funny moment in the broadcast got me thinking: Can the Razorback softball program become a “gold mine” and compete in one of the best conferences for college softball?
From Hutchinson, Kansas, to Panama City Beach, Florida, I have seen my fair share of softball games. My older sister played competitive softball, and wherever the Thunder, Nitro or Angels headed, that was my home for the weekend. I have seen a slap bunt work to perfection, a rise ball inch over a swinging bat and heard more cheers about “pitchers going bowling” than I am comfortable admitting.
The SEC is the most competitive league in softball, bar none. Thirteen teams compete (Vanderbilt is the only school without a softball team) and all 13 made the NCAA tournament last year. The conference looks to be tough again this year with every team receiving at least one vote in the preseason National Fastpitch Coaches Association poll, and nine teams ranked in the Top 25.
The Razorbacks have to compete with each team in the SEC and the neighboring University of Oklahoma, the preseason favorite to win the national championship this year, for recruits. Deifel has done a tremendous job of recruiting the area as well as possible, but what she has excelled at is bringing in talent from California.
Deifel knows the softball landscape in California because that is where she’s from. She was a catcher for the University of California. While she was at Cal, the Golden Bears went to four straight NCAA Women’s College World Series, and her team won the national championship in 2002.
After a stint in the National Professional Fastpitch league, where she won a league title in 2004, and an overseas gig in Japan, Deifel decided to start coaching. After a few successful stops, she was named coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks on June 11, 2015.
Deifel knows what winning softball looks like. Success has followed her like newborn ducklings. She also understands that the Razorback softball program is at a disadvantage. The Razorbacks’ neighbors to the north, south and east all compete in the SEC, which makes it difficult for the Razorbacks to pull SEC-caliber talent out of those states. Only three players on the current roster come from those states.
With the University of Oklahoma to the west, that leaves Texas as the only neighboring state left for the Razorbacks to recruit. Deifel has done that well with four players from the state of Texas, but what she has relied on is her recruiting ties to California.
Five players on the current roster are from California, tied for the most from one state with Arkansas. Deifel can draw recruits in by enticing them to play in one of the most competitive conferences in the nation. Combine that with playing at beautiful Bogle Park, and Deifel can bring the Razorbacks to the top tier of the SEC.
Deifel had her work cut out for her when she took over as head Hog in 2015. What she has brought with her to Arkansas is an uncommon recruiting mix that has seen early success.