OSU Softball team off to one of the best starts in program history

Two teams in Oregon State softball history have won 14 of the season’s first 16 games.

One is the 2006 squad, which finished 43-16 and made the Women’s College World Series.

The other is this year’s team.

At 14-2 so far, OSU earned a No. 22 ranking this week to enter the top-25 polls for the first time since 2013. That was also the last year OSU made the NCAA Tournament.

There’s plenty of tough competition coming up, including three games against ranked opponents this weekend and a volatile Pac-12 schedule starting March 19. But so far, this season of OSU softball — highlighted by performances like Natalie Hampton’s 29 runs batted in, Meehra Nelson’s 1.50 earned run average and Kayleen Shafer’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Week award on Tuesday — has been markedly different than the last two postseason-less years.

“We’re going to kinda shove it into people’s faces, but at the same time we’re going to keep working hard because we have so much more to prove,” Hampton said. “We’ve worked hard and we’re going to wear that and own that.”

Hampton’s 29 RBIs ranks second in the nation and puts her on pace to shatter her own single-season OSU record of 50 RBIs. Nelson is 9-1 in the pitching circle this year with a .164 batting average allowed and she was named Pac-12 Player of the Week on Tuesday, just seven days after being named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week. Not to be outdone, Shafer earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors Tuesday while batting .447 this season with two home runs. They’re not alone in their on-field production: sophomore shortstop McKenna Arriola, for example, leads the team with a .517 batting average.

All together, they lead a team batting .397 this year, nearly a full .100 better than the program record set last year at .298. And if hitting the seams of the ball wasn’t enough: OSU’s pitching has returned the favor with a 1.77 ERA compared to 7.74 from opponents.

So what is different this year?

“I would have to say team chemistry,” Hampton said. “The bond that we have, I’ve never felt anything like it since I’ve been here. Even freshman year.”

There was a shift in that team chemistry, says head coach Laura Berg, in the team retreat in September. The entire squad went to Cape Meares, located on the Oregon coast north of Pacific City, where the team-building workouts created a cohesion that has translated into actual game play. The team went through conditioning drills in the sand, sit-up workouts in the water and a blindfolding activity where players had to follow the direction of teammates’ voices to avoid obstacles.

“We pushed them to the limit and beyond, and they realized they can go beyond the limit,” Berg said. “They realized how talented and how much heart they have.”

Maybe it wouldn’t seem as significant if OSU wasn’t winning games now, but the Beavers are on a hunt for the top of the Pac-12 standings. A big part of that has been plenty of huge individual performances — including junior third baseman Madison Anthony’s walk-off three-run home run to beat No. 11 Oklahoma this weekend — all contributing to the team goals.

“It seems like every game, no matter what, someone steps up and gets a big hit or gets a big play,” Shafer said. “If someone isn’t performing that game, we know there’s always someone behind them who will pick them up.”

Shafer has a point: across the board, OSU has gotten consistent performances so far this season. Eight of the nine players with the most at bats are hitting .347 or better, and five players have an on-base percentage at .500 or above. Whether it was preseason practices or the team retreat that served as a clue for oncoming success, the success has not come as a surprise for the team.

“I knew that they were all going to kill it from the start,” Nelson said of her teammates’ contributions. 

OSU has already played up to competition this season, going 2-0 against top-25 teams with an 8-0 win over No. 16 Kentucky and the 6-4 victory over Oklahoma. This weekend in the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif., will be one more test, with three top-25 matchups including a game against No. 3 Michigan.

“Let’s do it. Let’s bring it on,” Hampton said. “So far we’ve done great. I don’t want to sound cocky but I think we’re definitely confident, we work hard and we’re ready. We’re ready to take on anybody in the nation because we know that we can do it individually and as a team.”

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