From 1-23 to hosting in 2 years, UA softball rebuild blows by schedule

Posted: May 18, 2018 at 2:16 a.m.

Arkansas third baseman Autumn Buczek fields a ball hit to the infield against Mississippi State Friday, March 30, 2018, at Bogle Park in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Autumn Buczek has experienced the worst and best of times with the Arkansas Razorbacks' softball team.

As a freshman and sophomore, Buczek played for University of Arkansas, Fayetteville teams that combined for a 2-46 SEC record during the 2015 and 2016 seasons.

NCAA softball

Fayetteville Regional

WHO Arkansas, Oklahoma State, Wichita State and DePaul

WHEN Today through Sunday

WHERE Bogle Park, Fayetteville

TICKETS All-session general admission $25 adult and $15 youth. Single-day admission $10 adult, $6 youth, $5 students.

FRIDAY’S GAMES Oklahoma State-Wichita State 1:30 p.m.; Arkansas-DePaul 4 p.m.

TV The Arkansas-DePaul game will be on the SEC Network; the Oklahoma State-Wichita State game will be on ESPNU.

BRACKET

Winner Game 1 vs. winner Game 2 at 1:30 Saturday

Loser Game 1 vs. loser Game 2 at 4 p.m. Saturday

Winner Game 4 vs. loser Game 3 at 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Winner Game 3 vs winner Game 5 at 1:30 p.m. Sunday

Winner game 6 vs loser Game 6 (if necessary) at 4 p.m. Sunday

As a senior, Buczek is playing at home in the NCAA Tournament as the Razorbacks (39-15) host a regional for the first time and play Big East champion DePaul (35-15) at 4 p.m. today at Bogle Park.

"It absolutely blows my mind -- especially looking back at it," said Buczek, a third baseman from Greenbrier who is batting .316. "It's something I didn't imagine after the first year I had here.

"It's been kind of a rough journey."

The Razorbacks went 16-37 overall and 1-23 in the SEC in 2015 in Mike Larabee's final season as coach.

Courtney Deifel left Maryland after one season to replace Larabee as Arkansas' coach in 2016, and the Razorbacks went 17-39 and 1-23.

Buczek said although the records mirrored each other, the players could sense improvement.

"The staff we had our freshman year, they were great people," Buczek said. "They just didn't have it click with the team for whatever reason.

"I think a lot of people were ready to move on, but when Coach Deifel's staff came in with the belief they had in us and seeing their resumes ... it gave us confidence that the program would turn around."

Things started turning around last season when the Razorbacks went 31-24, including 7-17 in the SEC, and played in an NCAA regional at Oklahoma.

Arkansas is 14-13 against SEC teams this season with a 12-12 regular-season record and 2-1 mark in the SEC Tournament.

"When I took this job, I knew that we had our work cut out for us," Deifel said. "When asked, 'What's the timeline? When do you think you can get there?' I was like, 'I think we can be in the postseason by Year 3.'

"This group had a different plan. They had us in the postseason in Year 2. They just continue to elevate our program and they continue to commit to the process. Would I have imagined that we were hosting in Year 3? No. But I'm excited, and this is exactly what this group has earned."

Eugene Lenti, in his 37th season as DePaul's coach, said he's known Deifel since she was an All-American catcher at California.

"Courtney's done a phenomenal job with the program here," Lenti said. "She's really turned things around quicker than I think anybody thought she'd be able to do.

"I think it's always pitching. If you have pitching, that's the key. That's what this game revolves around."

Deifel recruited two top pitchers in freshman right-hander Mary Haff and sophomore right-hander Autumn Storms. Haff is 26-6 with a 1.48 ERA and Storms is 12-9 with a 2.37 ERA.

Freshman right fielder Hannah McEwen is batting a team-high .345 with 11 home runs and 53 RBI. Deifel also added freshman catcher Kayla Green to sprinkle in with some talented experienced players like Buczek.

"I knew the potential was here and I knew that with some of our recruits, they were going to make a difference," Deifel said. "But when you look at this team, it's a lot of the same faces, and it's just them making that commitment and putting the work in and wanting to move this program forward."

Buczek said Deifel convinced the Razorbacks they could win.

"We completely lacked confidence my freshman year," Buczek said. "We didn't know what we were capable of, but her belief in us completely turned that around and helped us believe in ourselves."

Wichita State Coach Kristi Bredbenner said Deifel has taken advantage of what Arkansas offers.

"The bottom line is when you look at the facilities here and the money that the SEC is willing to spend on softball, it's everything you need in order to be a successful program," Bredbenner said. "I think for Arkansas, it was a matter of getting the right type of coach who was going to get the right type of kids.

"Courtney was a catcher, and I think she's got a great mind for the game and she's done a great job getting some really good young talent and developing the kids who were here."

Deifel said she's especially happy seniors such as Buczek who endured back-to-back 1-23 SEC records are getting to play a regional at home.

"I have chills thinking about it, because that's what it's all about," Deifel said. "That's what we came here to do.

"I give this senior class so much credit because they trusted us from Day One. They embraced everything we threw at them."

Sports on 05/18/2018