Arkansas wins SEC tournament to sweep conference softball titles

The University of Arkansas is the SEC Softball Tournament champion for the first time in program history.

Arkansas’ No. 4 (44-9) traveled to Gainesville, Fla. for the 2022 SEC Tournament on a mission. After a three-day stint, that goal was achieved as the top-seeded Razorbacks shut out No. 24 Missouri 4-0 in the championship game, sustaining a regular-season crown with a tournament title.

“I’m just really, really proud,” Arkansas coach Courtney Deifel said. “I’m just grateful to all the players since we arrived from the first year. Everyone keeps reminding me that we weren’t that good the first year, but we needed it.

“Each step we have taken is an important part of our journey. I’m just really proud of our players, really proud of our staff and really grateful to everyone who gave us a chance and trusted us.

Arkansas controlled the game from start to finish behind a Chenise Delce shutout and 11 hits from their offense.

Delce, who was named SEC pitcher of the year on Friday, had a long day for Missouri. She closed the game striking out 13 in a row and allowed just two hits. Delce (17-2, 2.07 ERA) needed 68 pitches and recorded five strikeouts.

“She looked absolutely composed from the first run,” Deifel said. “Missouri is a very, very good offense and they really had no answer for Chenise today.”

The Razorbacks took the lead early. After early singles by KB Sides and Hannah McEwen, the Razorbacks scored once in the first inning on an RBI single by Danielle Gibson.

Missouri’s Megan Schumacher replaced starter Laurin Krings to start the second, but the Razorback bats didn’t skip a beat.

Rookie Kacie Hoffmann hit a first triple and Marlene Friedman, who had just 10 at-bats heading into the game, hit an RBI bloop single to put Arkansas ahead 2-0.

After Sides walked first to start the fifth inning, McEwen singled to right. The fast Sides took advantage of a throwing error by Tigers right fielder Alex Honnold, going from first to home.

With the bases loaded, a wild pitch allowed Gibson to slide home and give Arkansas a 4-0 lead.

Hoffmann paced the Razorback bats, going 2 for 3 with a single and a triple. McEwen, LaValley and Taylor Ellsworth also produced two hits each.

Delce went the distance to slam the door on Missouri and secure the victory.

“I don’t think I really feel like I have it until the game is over,” Delce said of his mindset to finish games. “I’ve watched too many games where people lose in the last set. Going out there and knowing that I have what it takes to win a game helps me, but knowing that we have an attack and a defense that can win games… I’m pretty confident in this team.

The Razorbacks have played with a chip on their shoulders this season.

After sharing the SEC championship last year with Florida, national pundits have discredited the title, saying it was the result of a weak league schedule. Disrespect did not sit with Deifel or any of the 16 returning players.

“I know we had a pretty p****d off group last year, feeling like everyone made excuses for why we were good,” Deifel said before the tournament. “When you accomplish something and you hear everyone making excuses for why you did it, it’s really frustrating. Because you don’t hear them doing that about your counterparts.

Even the others you relate to, they say, “Oh, they deserved it.” But we didn’t? I mean, it’s just ridiculous. We’ve competed, we’ve been consistent throughout this year too… and now people are saying we’re good? Well, we’ve been good.

“We played high level softball. I don’t know if the chip will ever go away.

The team made sure that no one could dispute the legitimacy of their achievements this year. Arkansas not only won its first-ever SEC regular season title, but backed it up by winning the conference tournament in convincing fashion.

The Razorbacks outscored opponents 11-1 during Gainesville’s three-game stint. Mary Haff and Delce each threw a shutout in the process.

“The game runs on the throw,” Deifel said. “So to see them do what they’ve done all the way through the SEC, lead the SEC in the ERA, and then get here and continue to up their game against some really, really talented offenses is huge. It gives so much confidence to the rest of our team.

After starting the year 6-3 with two blowout losses to Washington, the Razorbacks have won 38 of their last 44 games.

“We knew early on, before we even started clicking, that we had all the pieces we needed to do something really special this year,” Deifel said. “Anything that didn’t click, we needed because we had to work really hard to get to where we clicked. We’ve had teams in the past where we’ve pulled out of doors and clicked right away, and we haven’t really had the year we wanted.

“I can honestly say that I think we’re playing our best softball right now, just when we want to be. We needed all that adversity. We grew as a group and got stronger as a team. group thanks to that.”

The 2022 season has been a landmark season for Arkansas.

“It always feels good to prove someone wrong in anything you do,” Deifel said of his team that has taken the conference by storm this year. “I think competitive people always want to prove people wrong. I think there were even times this week where it was like, ‘Well, we’ll see if they can win the tournament.’ There just continue to be questions about us.

“I think at this point we’ve established ourselves as a national contender. I think our game is consistent enough and has proven that we belong in those conversations. We’ll keep moving forward with that chip on our shoulder, knowing that the only thing we really need is each other’s approval.

A major goal remains to be achieved: the first appearance of the program at the Women’s College World Series.

Arkansas is waiting to see if the route to Oklahoma City for the Women’s College World Series will pass through Fayetteville. In D1Softball.com’s latest projections, Arkansas is slated as the No. 4 seed. The top eight teams overall are guaranteed to host throughout the super-regional round. The Razorbacks are 24-4 at Bogle Park this season.

The NCAA softball tournament roster will be revealed during a selection show Sunday at 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

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