How Arkansas Can Get To The Women's College World Series
Courtney Deifel took over as the head softball coach at Arkansas after just one season as a head coach—a 27-27 year with Maryland—in hopes of changing the culture of the Razorbacks. Arkansas was coming off a tough year that featured just one win in the SEC, which was rock bottom for a program that had managed to earn two straight berths to the NCAA Tournament.
Arkansas wanted to turn to someone who was a proven winner, and Deifel—who either coached or played in 11 NCAA Tournaments at the time of her hiring—was the right person for the Razorbacks. Not only had she made postseason appearances as a graduate assistant for Oklahoma and as an assistant for both Louisville and Maryland, but Deifel also went to four straight Women’s College World Series as a catcher for Cal, culminating in a 2002 national championship.
If anyone could turn around a lost program searching for a winning culture, it was Deifel.
“We would always put an emphasis on…whatever role you're playing, do the best at it,” junior Hannah Gammill said of Arkansas. “Whatever your situation or your role is, you just embrace it.”
In Deifel’s first season, she had a lineup that featured nine freshmen and six seniors, a lineup that won 17 games and, for the second year in a row, just one SEC game. But in 2017, the beginnings of a massive turnaround for the Razorbacks began. Though they finished 12th place in the conference, they won seven SEC games and finished with a winning record for the first time in four years, earning an at-large bid to the NCAA Regionals. Then, Arkansas went .500 in SEC play, took down DePaul and Wichita State and advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals for the first time in program history.
Each year Deifel has been at the helm of Arkansas' program, Gammill said, the teams have “built upon each other.” The Razorbacks were off to a stellar 19-6 start in 2020 before the pandemic canceled the rest of the season. Gammill said that Deifel treats each one of her players like her own kid, supporting them in career readiness as well as in their roles on the softball team. “She's also just the most genuine human being that I've ever met,” Gammil said.
Deifel’s treatment of her players and team-building efforts aided in her successes as a head coach, as she now has 265 total wins, two SEC regular-season championships and two Coach of the Year awards. A team that once clawed for a sole conference win and lost twice as many games as it won now enters the 2023 season off two straight SEC regular-season championships, an SEC Tournament championship and two consecutive NCAA Super Regional appearances.
“Everyone expects to go to Oklahoma City,” Gammill said. “That's what I expect every year. It's just right at our fingertips, and we just have to grab it.”
Last year, the Razorbacks swept through the SEC Tournament, earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Regionals, where they run-ruled Princeton before sweeping Oregon. It set up a Super Regional matchup with Texas, a powerhouse that Arkansas thrashed around in the first of three matchups, defeating the Longhorns 7-1. Up 1-0, the Razorbacks were one win away from reaching their first WCWS. Then, Gammill believes, the team let the moment get too big. The Razorbacks scored just one run in the next two games and were eliminated by Texas.
“It’ll never be the same,” Deifel said after the loss as she bid farewell to a group of five seniors that galvanized the Razorbacks and molded them into a powerhouse SEC team.
Now, the team is much different, with incoming freshmen and transfers comprising nearly half of the 2023 roster. Gammill said it’s an interesting mix of incoming players who don’t have the sting of two Super Regional losses entering a locker room that now boasts a winning culture. The emphasis this offseason has been on staying in the moment with each pitch and swing, which is a measure Deifel hopes will lead Arkansas to the Women’s College World Series this June.
“We just have a passion for the game, and we have a passion for each other,” Gammill said. “It's just really important to remember that no matter what age we are, it's important to trust the process.”