Loss to Kentucky was gut check for Ducks heading to WCWS

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) If there are constructive losses, perhaps Oregon’s came in the opener of its NCAA Super Regional series against Kentucky.

The top-seeded Ducks dropped Game 1 of the series against the No. 16 Wildcats but rebounded to win the next two to secure a trip to Oklahoma City for this week’s Women’s College World Series.

Oregon coach Mike White called the loss a ”gut check.” It certainly put the Ducks on notice.

White cited how other teams had endured in the face of elimination, including second-seeded Florida. The Gators (55-9) advanced when freshman Jordan Matthews hit a walk-off home run on Saturday against Texas A&M in Gainesville.

”It happens a lot, and you’ve got to persevere in those moments and come back and believe in what you are doing, or you go home,” White said. ”And so I think the finality of it all is that this team stepped up and that’s what you have to do.”

The Ducks (52-8) are headed to the WCWS for the fourth time in the past five years. They’ll open the eight-team event on Thursday against eighth-seeded Arizona State, which defeated South Carolina in the Tempe Super Regional. The Sun Devils (45-11) are returning to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2013.

Oregon won the Pac-12 conference regular-season title to earn its second top seed in the past five years. The team finished with the nation’s top RPI.

Much of the attention this season, and rightfully so, has been on Oregon’s pitching, a staff that’s been anchored by Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Megan Kleist (21-6) and sophomore Miranda Elish (24-1). Oregon opened the postseason with the best team ERA (1.12) in the country.

After Kleist took the loss in Game 1 against Kentucky, Elish pitched the next two, including the 11-1 run-rule victory in Game 3 that moved Oregon on.

Elish said afterward that the Ducks had confidence knowing that Kleist could take over at any time – something that will probably give opponents in Oklahoma City pause, too.

”The eight teams that are going to be in Oklahoma City are the best teams in the country,” she said. ”Coach White always says we need to just to pitch with intent and purpose. This team can do it. We can win a national championship. We have to go game by game but I know we can do it.”

But Oregon’s bats also gave Kentucky fits, especially transfer DJ Sanders, who hit a grand slam in the Super Regional finale. Sanders came to the Ducks for her senior year from Louisiana, set on the chance to play well into the postseason.

Sanders has 16 home runs this season, second on the team to Gwen Svekis, who has 17. Sophomore Haley Cruse leads the team with a .372 batting average.

”I guess that was my reason for making the move across the country,” Sanders said about heading to the WCWS. ”It was a big decision, and at the end of the day I wanted to get the chance to work OKC, so I think this just validated my decision to leave.”

Last year, Oregon fell to rival Washington in the opener in Oklahoma City, but rebounded with two wins, over Baylor and LSU, before losing to eventual champion Oklahoma.

Kentucky coach Rachel Lawson sees the Ducks as a threat this season.

”I think that they are very versatile. They can do a lot of different things,” Lawson said. ”I think that they are well-suited to make a run at the national championship.”

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