April 06, 2017

Oregon softball coach Mike White laughs when asked about the Ducks' secret to success.

''That's a good question. I wish I knew what it was because then I'd keep repeating it,'' he said.

Or perhaps he's just not telling.

At 35-0, the Ducks have matched the NCAA record for the best start to a season and are the last undefeated team left in the country. They've blasted well past last season's school record-setting streak of 18 wins.

White is as surprised as anyone.

''Pleasantly surprised,'' he said. ''It's something you always hope that's going to happen but you never know for sure until you get out there. We've been playing the game one game at a time, and it's kind of evolved into a streak.''

Oregon's .356 collective batting average is ranked third among Division I teams, while the team's 1.4 ERA is ranked fourth nationally. The team is anchored by a trio of young pitchers, right-handed sophomore Megan Kleist and right-handed freshmen Miranda Elish and Maggie Balint.

Oregon is coming off a sweep of Arizona State last weekend before a pair of wins in a Tuesday double-header against Portland State. This weekend, the Ducks head to Los Angeles for a three-game series against UCLA, which set the record with 35 straight wins to open the season in 1999.

The Ducks lost eight players - five starters - from last year's team that won a fourth-straight Pac-12 title and advanced to the NCAA Super Regional before falling to the Bruins in three games. UCLA went on to play in the College World Series.

White was named last season's Pac-12 Coach of the Year while senior LHP Cheridan Hawkins was named the league's Pitcher of the Year.

White said he wasn't quite sure what he'd have this season, but one of the most inspirational surprises has been right fielder Danica Mercado, a fifth-year senior outfielder who is batting .435 this season at the top of the lineup.

''This year I think she's a lot more comfortable, because she's earned that starting spot. Now she's just focused on doing her job for the team,'' the coach said. ''But she's always been a leader, too. She's very vocal, she's 100 percent whether it's on the field, in the classroom or in the weight room. That's how she leads.''

Mercado's journey to this point has been rocky.

Going into her sophomore season, she broke her leg while sliding during practice. The injury required a pair of surgeries and metal screws in her ankle, which was dislocated. Then before her junior season she broke her thumb, which also required surgery and set her back.

She agrees with White that now that she's locked into a starting role in right field, it's made her more consistent.

''I've been given more opportunities this year than I've ever had on this team. And I think that when you're able to get comfortable, you're able to really play to your full potential,'' she said. ''Me playing right field and getting comfortable out there, and then getting a lot of at-bats, not just pinch hit role, but getting consistent at-bats, I feel comfortable and I would expect to have success.''

The Ducks are currently ranked No. 2 in the latest NFCA coaches' poll.

South Carolina set the overall NCAA record with 38-straight wins during the 1997 season. Arizona won 47 straight games over the 1996 and '97 seasons.

Mercado said the Ducks aren't paying attention to the outside noise like the ranking, the streak, or the hype.

''Years in the past, I feel like we maybe have gotten wrapped up in the rankings and all that,'' she said. ''That's really not what it's about. It's just about that one day - play your best that one day, that one pitch, that one game. The next thing you know you're undefeated without even trying to be.''

White expects the streak to end. They always do, after all.

''We certainly have an extremely tough schedule the rest of the way with Arizona, UCLA, Washington, Florida State, just to name a few. That's a real gauntlet,'' the coach said. ''But I kind of like it, too, because it's progressively harder as we go along. ... As long as we don't get beat up or wore down from it mentally, we should be in good position for the postseason.''

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