FAYETTEVILLE – Mike Larabee enters his fifth season as the head coach of the University of Arkansas softball team. In the past two seasons, he has guided the Razorbacks to back-to-back appearances in NCAA Regional finals. In the first four years at Arkansas, Larabee has seen the Razorbacks garner nine All-SEC honors spread among five student-athletes including 2012 SEC Freshman of the Year Devon Wallace and 2013 All-SEC Second Team performer Kimmy Beasley.
Last season, Arkansas posted a 36-20 overall record to go along with a 12-10 mark in SEC play. Both win totals are highs for the program under Larabee. The team’s success translated to a No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament-the program’s highest conference seeding since 2002-and a No. 2 seed in the Norman Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The Razorbacks will play an eight-game fall schedule which kicks off Oct. 2 at Bogle Park.
Q: What are the things a coach will look for during the fall season?
A: We’ll basically start from scratch and tell our team that there is no entitlement with this program because if we’re doing our job as a coaching staff, we’re bringing in the type of player that will really push you. For the returners, they’re like the incumbent. It’s your spot to lose. And I tell the freshmen it’s their job to come in and take someone’s position. It’s important to set up that competitive caldron. That’s one thing I promise everyone. We’ll let them compete for spots in the fall and then when we come back from Christmas break, hopefully we’ve got things pretty well in place going into February. Individually, the fall season is a great showcase opportunity for them. This is going to be the most competitive team since I’ve been here, and it’s not even close with the talent and the depth we’re bringing in. During the fall, we’ll be playing Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. That will be another opportunity to see who will step up against great competition. Those are the types of teams you have to beat in the postseason.
Q: What is the biggest step forward you’ve seen over the past four years at Arkansas?
A: The talent keeps getting better. We’ve been able to bring in a lot more talent which creates a lot of depth for us. With 26 players on our current roster, I will go in and split it up to make two teams of 13. For the first time since I’ve been here, we have real good depth everywhere. This year, we’ll have more depth than we’ve ever had. All championship-caliber teams have that depth.
Q: So now, what’s the next step for the program?
A: I thought we pitched really well and swung the bats well at times. Looking back, the biggest thing we need to improve on is getting better defensively. That would go a long way in us controlling our own destiny and being able to host an NCAA region, instead of being shipped out to the No. 1 national seeds the past two years. That will be an area that we’ll really make a priority in the fall. In the past, we’ve probably had the attitude of ‘if you hit, we can find a spot for you’ but to get to Oklahoma City and compete for national championships, you have to be able to play both sides of the ball.
It’s going to come down to us being really solid in the circle and we have six pitchers that are going to be battling it out for 3-4 spots. We look at things and consider that nowadays you have to have a pitching staff. We also have to focus on timely hitting with runners on. It’s important to be excellent in those situations. Defensively, it all boils down to making the routine plays.
Q: How does the team carry that momentum over into the 2013-14 season?
A: We’ve got a highlight video that we’ll show during our team meeting and we’ll talk about some of the good things we were able to do. We had a good year, but not a great year. Now it’s time for us to step up and get out of a Regional and into a Super Regional. Two years ago, we were three wins from the World Series if we beat Cal one more time and get hot that next weekend. It’s not that far away. From our coaching staff to Todd Barbour, our strength and conditioning coach, we’re going to have a work ethic that builds a great team atmosphere. We just have to keep grinding.
Q: How much confidence did the team gain from series wins against four ranked SEC teams?
A: We ended up finishing sixth out of 13 teams (in the SEC). I’ve always felt like even if you’re in the middle of the pack in the SEC, you’re going to be a top-25 team which we were toward the end of last season. The big thing now is that our players believe. Where there may have been the attitude of ‘I hope we can win’ when I first got here, I think they are starting to get the feeling where they’re expecting to beat those teams.
Q: We’ve talked about being competitive for spots on the field, how important is that for the continued growth of the program?
A: For example, we’ve got six pitchers that can really get it done and we have three players that can play shortstop at an SEC level. By having those types of athletes pushing each other every day, we’re going to keep getting better. If you’re not a competitor, you won’t last very long in this program. That’s a great problem to have.
Q: An SEC team has advanced to the NCAA title series in four of the last five years, how tough is the week-after-week grind of playing the best teams in the country?
A: At one point last year, we played seven consecutive weekends against ranked teams. I absolutely love it. When you can make it out of the SEC and into an (NCAA) regional, you’re already so battle tested. It really prepares you for the postseason because it just feels like another SEC weekend.
Q: What can fans look forward to as the strengths of this year’s team?
A: Our fans can expect to see a team that plays the game the right way. We’re going to have strong fundamentals and know what to do with the ball defensively. At the plate, we’ll have a good combination of speed with slappers and being able to bunt mixed in with those that can hit the long ball. They’ll also see a team as athletic as we’ve had since I’ve been here.
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