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Ducks' following continues to grow

EUGENE — The weekend didn’t start the way Becky Clark had hoped.

The 78-year-old Springfield resident, like quite a few people around Lane County these days, has a growing case of softball fever, and Clark was dismayed by the University of Oregon's 10-2 loss to rival Washington on Saturday.

Sunday offered a shot at redemption.

As the spotlight around UO’s softball team has grown — the Ducks (30-4) are ranked No. 2 in the nation after winning the Pac-12 Conference title and a berth in the Women’s College World Series last year — fans have come out to UO’s historic Howe Field in bigger numbers and with more enthusiasm than ever before.

Waiting for Howe Field’s gates to open Sunday, nearly two hours before the first pitch in the rubber match of a three-game series against Washington, Clark and other Duck fans made a point to show up early for seats near home plate.

“We won the first game and they managed to take one, so this is payback,” said Clark, who attended Friday’s victory but missed Saturday’s loss. “I hope we score 20 runs.”

She had to settle for 15, as the Ducks pummeled the Huskies with a record eight home runs in front of a capacity crowd of 1,400 fans.

A big reason for the Ducks’ success is pitching star Cheridan Hawkins, a junior who has mowed down just about every hitter she’s faced this season, including in Friday’s and Sunday’s wins. She pitched a perfect game Friday and was named the Pac-12 pitcher of the week on Monday.

But many fans have grown into diehards, increasingly able to recite biographical information about the players up and down the roster.

“Pride of Ohio!” a man in the left-field bleachers shouted when freshman Jenna Lilley — from North Canton, Ohio — blasted a home run for Oregon in the first inning.

Howe Field’s bleachers were packed Sunday with families, young children, senior citizens and, notably, young girls in softball gear from schools and club teams across Lane County and the southern Willamette Valley.

“All of us hope to play for the Ducks one day,” said Tatum Hughes, an eighth-grade softball player from Coburg who came out Sunday with Monroe High School freshman Madison Meza and a few other friends.

“We all play softball,” Madison said, shortly before the game started.

Coach Shawna Busby brought three players from her Thurston area middle school club team, the Fillies, hoping they could pick up some of the Ducks players’ skills and get the feel of a big-time softball atmosphere.

“These guys are seventh- and eighth-graders,” Busby said, gesturing at her players, Alli Gresser, Leticia Dunsmore and Skyler Stout. “I’m showing them what it’s like to play on a college stage.”

Skyler said she was excited to watch Hawkins pitch. “But we’re here for team bonding,” she added.

At the front of the line for seats Sunday was Russ Rivera, who had a good reason not to mind waiting. The Redding, Calif., resident is Hawkins’ grandfather, and he has gotten used to road trips up and down Interstate 5 to watch her pitch.

“We’re pretty proud. We come to almost every game,” said Rivera, who was with several family members. Then he added thoughtfully, “There’s lots of things I should be doing around the house.”

Oregon fans had plenty to cheer, chant and stomp about Sunday. Most of the fun came in the third inning, when the Ducks belted five home runs, including two by junior Hailey Decker.

“Look at that one go!” UO sophomore Brendan McCaffrey yelled at no one in particular as Decker’s second home run sailed over the center-field fence.

The Ducks won 15-6 in just five innings — the game ended with the eight-run mercy rule — and took the series two games to one.

Leaving Howe Field, McCaffrey said he is confident that this softball team is even better than the one that qualified for the World Series a year ago.

“They’re definitely one of the most talented teams in the country,” he said. “It’s cool to see students, and even more just regular people from the community, coming out to the games.”

Junior pitcher Cheridan Hawkins is a big reason for the success of the Oregon's second-ranked softball team. PHOTO BY ERIC EVANS/OREGON ATHLETICS