The OSU softball team has been hitting at a record-setting pace this season

Josh Worden Senior Beat Reporter

McKenna Arriola stepped into the batter’s box in Oregon State softball team’s season opener last year against Ole Miss.

It was the first at bat in Arriola’s career and the first of OSU’s season, but she wasn’t worried. The freshman laced a 2-2 pitch over the right field wall for a home run, providing the difference in OSU’s 2-1 win.

“I didn’t try to (hit a home run),” she said this week, remembering her first career hit. “That was the cool part. I was like, ‘This is my first at bat, just get the bat on the ball. Just make contact.’”

Arriola, now in her second year as the Beavers’ starting shortstop, has been a microcosm of OSU’s hitting success. This season, she leads the team with a scorching .467 batting average and OSU (16-4-1) is hitting a record-paced .359 as a team. The program record was set last year at .298, and if OSU can stay above that mark the rest of this season it would be the fourth consecutive year the Beavers set a new batting average record — every year, incidentally, that Laura Berg has been the head coach.

The difference, Berg says, is confidence.

“They walk up into the batter’s box like they’re six feet tall and knowing they can hit any pitch that’s thrown at them,” Berg said.

To help that growth, Berg implemented some trendy drills in this offseason like using wooden baseball bats in practice. Using a heaver bat forces the hitter to focus on bat speed and, as Berg says, “if they don’t get the barrel where it’s supposed to be, it’s going to sting.” Also, players went through vision training twice a week in the Samaritan Athletic Medicine complex on campus, going through drills to enhance peripheral vision and perception skills. One of the exercises including a pair of glasses that “blinks” for the wearer, blocking their vision momentarily. Berg brought those glasses to practice — even trying them on herself to get a feel for them — and had players practice bunting with them on.

Over time, Berg has clearly seen the training translate into on-field success.

“(We’re) not swinging at as many balls as we have in the past,” Berg said. “We’re going deeper in counts, so that means that’s keeping the pitcher out on the field for as long as possible. I’ve definitely seen a difference.”

Of all the record-beating years since Berg arrived, this one has been the most significant. OSU has experienced a top-to-bottom upgrade in hitting prowess, highlighted by Arriola’s 35 hits in 21 games, junior first baseman Natalie Hampton’s NCAA-fifth-best 32 runs batted in and sophomore outfielder Lovie Lopez’s eight doubles and 20 runs scored.

Last year, the .360 average from now-graduated Dani Gilmore led the team; this year, four players are batting above that mark: Arriola, Hampton, Lopez and freshman catcher Kayleen Shafer. There have been improvements on individual levels, like Arriola’s jump from hitting .262 last season to .467 this year, and on the team level, including a slugging percentage increase from .462 to .539.

“This year, I’m just more relaxed,” Lopez said. “Last year, I was a little, nervous freshman out there. Now, I have more confidence at the plate.”

OSU’s pitching staff has returned the favor, holding opposing hitters to a .195 batting average. Combined, OSU’s position players and pitchers have propelled the Beavers to a 16-4-1 record, easily on pace to send the Beavers to their first NCAA Tournament since 2013.

“Last year, we had a chance to do it but we weren’t performing at our best,” Lopez said. “This year, we have a great group of girls and we have a strong team. We won’t go down without a fight, and we play like that every game.”

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