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Going long, again and again: Longhorns' Rhodes, Iakopo challenging Hoagland's home run record

Texas' Mary Iakopo, left, is greeted at home plate by teammates after hitting a home run in the 2019 Austin Regional. In the center of the cheering Longhorns is Shannon Rhodes. Iakopo and Rhodes are battling for UT's single-season home run record.

Over the next few weeks, Texas might rewrite some of its softball history.

Senior Kaitlyn Washington is two doubles shy of breaking Jodi Reeves' long-standing UT record of 48 career doubles. Junior Janae Jefferson needs just 20 hits to dethrone Brejae Washington as the school's all-time hit queen.

Then there's the single-season home run record, which two Longhorns are chasing.

Nine years ago, Taylor Hoagland went deep 18 times. Through 31 games this season, Shannon Rhodes has homered 13 times. Mary Iakopo has 10.

"It's almost like watching the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run race," Texas coach Mike White said. "Just seeing them one-up each other, it's really fun, and it's exciting for our fans."

Texas catcher Mary Iakopo, center, shares a light moment with third baseman Shannon Rhodes, left, and first baseman Lauren Burke before a 2019 game. Rhodes (13) and Iakopo (10) are chasing the school record for home runs in a season (18).

For those who remember the summer of ’98 — and it's OK if you don't; Rhodes was just a baby and Iakopo had not been born — welcome to the spring of ’21.

At multiple points this season, Iakopo and Rhodes have exchanged the lead in the home run race. Rhodes most recently took over the pole position when she hammered three homers at McCombs Field during a run-rule rout of UTSA on March 27. Her 13th homer came Wednesday night at UT-Arlington.

"We have very similar power swings," Iakopo said. "It means more when someone who swings like you is in a race with you."

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Rhodes and Iakopo, both of whom transferred from Oregon before the 2019 season, had already booked some memorable trips around the bases before this season. Five of the 28 homers Rhodes hit from 2017 to 2020 came in the NCAA Tournament. Iakopo led Texas in homers in 2019, and her go-ahead blast last year led UT past No. 1 UCLA on the road

Texas' Shannon Rhodes is in her fifth season after the NCAA restored a year of eligibility due to the pandemic. "It just comes with being a little bit more grateful for the opportunity to be here and switching my focus into this is the last one for sure," said Rhodes, who leads the Longhorns with 13 homers.

White, who coached both Rhodes and Iakopo at Oregon, has constantly told Rhodes that she's capable of becoming an All-American, but "she has gotten in her own way sometimes." Iakopo has always had power, though White said consistency has been an issue.

So what changed this season? The Longhorns are in their second year with hitting instructor Steve Singleton, an ex-minor league baseball player and coach. The team also has switched to Mizuno bats.

Ask Iakopo and Rhodes, though, and they'll say they've simply cleared a mental hurdle. Neither has forgotten that the 2020 season was cut short by the pandemic.

"It's no secret we all got our season taken by COVID last year," said Rhodes, a fifth-year outfielder who accepted the free year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. "It just comes with being a little bit more grateful for the opportunity to be here and switching my focus into this is the last one for sure."

Added Iakopo: "You don't know when it's going to be taken away again, so (we're) definitely taking advantage of having our season back."

Taylor Hoagland's 18 home runs are the single-season record that current Longhorns Mary Iakopo and Shannon Rhodes are chasing, but the former All-American also owns the program's longest hitting streak and career home run record.

Iakopo and Rhodes aren't the only ones who have been swinging for the fences. Thirteen Longhorns have homered this season. UT went deep four times in Wednesday's 12-0 win over UT-Arlington. It was the 14 multihomer game for Texas (28-3).

Even the 10-foot walls at cavernous McCombs Field haven't been an impediment. Thirty-five of Texas' 49 homers have been hit at home.

"Hitting home runs is really fun," Rhodes said. "I personally like running bases more, but I guess that's just how the cookie crumbles for me when I'm hitting it well."

When it comes to home runs hit per game, Texas was last a top-50 team in the country in 2015. Ahead of a three-game series at Iowa State this weekend, the Longhorns rank 12th with an average of 1.58.

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Individually, Rhodes is averaging 0.43 home runs per game, Iakopo 0.33. That would put them both on a pace to challenge Hoagland, assuming that seventh-ranked Texas plays a few postseason games in May.

Rhodes and Iakopo are longtime teammates and roommates, so the home run chase has been friendly. But that doesn't mean there aren't stakes at play. Rhodes recently revealed that their fathers made a cash bet over which daughter would hit that 19th homer first.

"I think they're rooting for either one, for our name to be in the record books," Iakopo said. "If it's both of us, I think that's even better."