FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas softball team was elated when it was selected to play in the NCAA Tournament last season.
It didn’t matter that the Razorbacks’ road through the tournament would have to go through California, the No. 1 overall seed.
“We were grateful to go anywhere,” Arkansas second baseman Sierra Bronkey said.
A similar scenario played out for Arkansas when it watched the NCAA’s selection show earlier this month. But their elation was replaced by another feeling when the Razorbacks found out they were matched up with No. 1 overall seed Oklahoma.
“Everybody was like, ‘What? Are you kidding?’” first baseman Devon Wallace said.
The 24th-ranked Razorbacks (34-18) face another daunting task in NCAA Tournament play, traveling to the Norman (Okla.) Regional. Arkansas, the No. 2 seed, opens regional play against No. 3 seed Fordham (35-21) at 5 p.m. tonight. Top-seed Oklahoma (47-4) and No. 4 seed Marist round out the four-team field.
Being matched in the same regional with another No. 1 overall seed wasn’t what the Razorbacks were counting on after enjoying a successful regular season. But Arkansas said it didn’t take long to get over the shock of the difficult draw. Their goal now is to stun the country with a regional win at Oklahoma.
“It had to sink in a little bit, but definitely our minds are right,” said Arkansas second baseman Sierra Bronkey, who is an Edmond, Okla., native. “We’re over it. We don’t fear anyone. We’re excited to go and just upset them.”
Arkansas carries plenty of confidence into the Norman Regional largely because of its success in the NCAA Tournament last year.
The Razorbacks won their opener against Boston, then followed it by upsetting No. 1 seed California. The Golden Bears bounced back, eliminating the Razorbacks with two straight wins. But coach Mike Larabee said it was an important week.
“I think that really catapulted our program,” Larabee said. “About 75 percent of our team came back in the summer and they were super-excited. Once you get to postseason, you’ve got that taste in your mouth that, I’ve got to get back there. I think it was huge last year that we went out there and took down the No. 1 seed, at least for one game and got to that regional final for the first time in school history.”
Larabee said Arkansas is much better in every phase as it takes aim at a No. 1 seed again. The Razorbacks have won eight of their past 10 games. Five of those wins came against ranked opponents, leading to Arkansas’ first appearance in the polls.
The success didn’t continue at the SEC Tournament. Arkansas, which was still in contention to host a regional, was bounced in its first game after an 8-0 loss to Missouri. Wallace called it a much-needed wake up call for the Razorbacks.
“I think we were getting kind of complacent with where we were,” Wallace said. “So I think going out there and pretty much getting our butts kicked was kind of … it motivated us to work harder this week and we definitely have been.”
Larabee said his team is well aware of the fact it has to get past Fordham, which won the Atlantic-10 Tournament, to even get a shot at the Sooners. It will be the first time Arkansas and Fordham have met since the Razorbacks’ 7-3 win in 2009.
Larabee and the Arkansas staff spent portions of the week pulling up YouTube clips of Fordham softball, trying to get a feel for their opening game.
They know what they’ll face if they advance to play Oklahoma. The Sooners have three players among the top 10 on the USA Softball ballot for player of the year.
Advancing will be a challenge. But Arkansas believes it is capable of moving on.
“We did it last year. We can do it again,” Arkansas pitcher Kimmy Beasley said. “Our expectations are to go there and beat Fordham first, then go after OU.”