Ex-Ducks to host their old team as Texas earns a home regional in NCAA's softball showcase
Nearly two full years ago, Mary Iakopo found herself looking for a silver lining in Alabama.
Texas' softball season had just ended, an 8-5 loss to the Crimson Tide in the third game of a super regional that kept the Longhorns from advancing to their first Women's College World Series since 2013. Texas, though, had made significant strides under new coach Mike White and the bulk of its team was set to return.
“We can only go up from here,” Iakopo told those assembled inside of a cramped Rhoads Stadium press box in Tuscaloosa.
It took longer than expected, but Texas will finally get to test out Iakopo's theory. After the 2020 season was canceled by the pandemic, postseason NCAA softball is set to return this weekend.
On Sunday night, Texas learned that it's the No. 12 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. And the Longhorns (39-11) will host a regional that features both a nearby rival that they've already beaten twice as well as Oregon, White's and Iakopo's former team.
Texas opens its postseason run Friday afternoon against Northeast Conference champion Saint Francis (40-8). Oregon (37-15) and Texas State (38-12) play in the other first-round matchup.
"We're all just excited to get to play right now," UT pitcher Shea O'Leary said. "With the season getting canceled last year, I think at this point, we're all just wanting to play softball."
Texas and Saint Francis have never played before. The Longhorns, however, will be a lot more familiar with their other guests.
Texas and Texas State have played 24 times since 2010. This spring, UT recorded two one-run wins over the Bobcats.
Texas and Oregon have met 10 times before. Three of those occurred in a 2012 super regional, and White was leading the Ducks at that time. After Texas hired White following the 2018 season, four of his Oregon players followed him to Austin. Three of those transfers — Iakopo and utility players Shannon Rhodes and Lauren Burke — are still UT starters.
"The first thing I thought was I'm going to have to answer a lot of questions this week, people trying to prod and pry," White said. "We're just excited to be playing softball in the postseason right now."
Texas is coming off a disappointing showing at the Big 12 Tournament. The Longhorns went 1-2 and placed fourth in Oklahoma City.
In its opening game, Texas was beaten by Oklahoma State in extra innings on a walk-off error. The following day, Texas suffered what was only its second loss to Texas Tech since 2017.
The Texas Tech loss is an outlier for Texas since the Red Raiders went 21-26 and did not qualify for the NCAA ournament. The Longhorns' other 10 losses have come against teams currently ranked (top-seeded Oklahoma, fifth-seeded Oklahoma State and seventh-seeded LSU).
"There has been a bit of a worry if you look at it, we haven't played well against some of the bigger teams," White said. "What I did like is I thought we played really well Friday against Oklahoma State."
For the season, Texas is enjoying a .351 batting average that ranks among the nation's best. O'Leary was joined by Rhodes on the all-conference second team. Iakopo and infielder Janae Jefferson were first-team picks.
"This loss against Texas Tech, we're going to take it, we're gonna learn from it and we're just going to start on from there and just keep going one team at a time," O'Leary said.
Of the seven Longhorns who logged 100 at-bats for that 2019 super regional team, five are still at UT. O'Leary was the team's second-best pitcher that year behind Miranda Elish, who opted out of this season.
And even though Texas last reached the College World Series eight years ago, an understanding of what it takes to get to Oklahoma City still exists in the Texas dugout. Texas sophomore Colleen Sullivan started for UCLA's national championship team two years ago. And Iakopo, Rhodes and Burke previously played for White on Oregon teams that reached softball's grandest stage.