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UW Huskies open Women’s College World Series play hoping to take down another Pac-12 team

Washington’s Ali Aguilar and Sis Bates slap gloves as the Huskies take the field in the 2nd inning. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

For just the ninth time in Pac-12 history, a record-tying eight Pac-12 softball teams made the NCAA softball tournament this year.

The sixth-seeded UW Huskies (48-12) already dispatched with one conference opponent when they beat out Utah for a spot in the Women’s College World Series.

On Thursday (4 p.m. P.T., ESPN2), they’ll set their sights on vanquishing another Pac-12 foe: No. 3 seed Oregon (52-6), a team the Huskies beat twice in a three-game series in Eugene in April.

Having to eliminate a conference opponent to advance in the World Series is somewhat bittersweet, but ultimately, it speaks to the high level of softball competition within the conference, say the Huskies and Ducks.

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“I think it’s something that you’d like to avoid if you could,” Oregon softball coach Mike White said at a press conference in Oklahoma City on Wednesday afternoon. “But I know in September at the Pac-12 coaches meetings, we really, as a group, wanted to see more Pac-12 teams back at the Women’s College World Series.”

This year, for the first time since 2012, three Pac-12 softball teams have played themselves into the eight-team WCWS field.

UCLA, which opens WCWS play Thursday against LSU, was the Pac-12’s sole representative in the WCWS last season.

“It’s exciting for our conference to have more than one or two teams here for sure, and having be in three of the eight is great for our conference, and hopefully we can represent well,” White said.

Added UW softball coach Heather Tarr, “It’s awesome to see the greatness kind of rise to the top, and eventually you’re going to run into each other if you’re doing a good job.”

Playing a conference opponent makes the pre-game scout a little easier, and the teams go into the game knowing exactly what to expect.

“You should expect a good fight. This team is tough,” said UW third baseman Taylor Van Zee, who leads UW and ranks third nationally with 11 hits from six postseason games.

Unlike the Utah series, this game against Oregon is unlikely to be a high-scoring one. All three prior encounters between Oregon and UW this season were decided by three runs or less. The teams split the first two games, and the final game went to nine innings before the Huskies finally won 5-3 on a two-run double from Morganne Flores.

From that standpoint, having to grind out that 2-1 win against Utah last Sunday to clinch the Super Regional series could prove to be an important experience for the Huskies to lean on.

“It kind of re-centered ourselves to, fine, we can outscore someone, but at the end of the day, at the championship level, most likely it’s going to come down to who can pitch, play defense and score the couple runs that you need,” Tarr said.

Sophomore pitcher Taran Alvelo (2.05 ERA, 33-7) will start for UW, and she, like her team, is 2-1 against the Ducks this year.

Oregon uses a pitching rotation featuring freshmen Maggie Balint (1.23 ERA, 21-3) and Miranda Elish (1.62 ERA, 11-0). and sophomore Megan Kleist (1.21 ERA, 20-3). Kleist earned the win in Oregon’s only victory against UW this year, but was also charged with the loss in the third game of the series when she gave up six hits and four runs in the final three innings.

The Ducks have distributed the workload pretty evenly among all three pitchers this postseason, and each of the three has at least one win through the Regional and Super Regional rounds.

Of the three, Elish has given up the fewest hits (six) to UW this season. But Kleist managed to beat UW by holding the Huskies to one run despite allowing five hits in the second game of their regular season series, while Balint has struck out more Husky batters (seven) than the other two Oregon pitchers.

Aside from Oregon’s deeper pitching staff, the two teams are similarly built. Oregon averaged about 6.6 runs per game compared to UW’s 6.1 this season and the Ducks’ .327 season batting average is comparable to UW’s .324.

But Huskies’ offense has been more explosive in postseason play. UW has hit 12 doubles, two triples and eight home runs in the Regional and Super Regional rounds combined, and the Huskies have the highest team batting average (.391) and on-base percentage (.497) of all the teams that made the NCAA tournament.

The Ducks blew out Illinois-Chicago 13-0 in the opening game of the Eugene Regional, but needing some late-inning magic to mount comeback wins in their first regional game against Wisconsin, and then again in their Super Regional clincher against Kentucky.

“We had our backs to the wall at least twice going into the last innings or so, and for us to fight our way through and make it here, it definitely seems like the hardest part is getting here,” said White, who has now led Oregon to the WCWS in five of the last six years. “But we also know that once you’re here, it’s hard here as well. Great, competitive teams here.”

The Ducks have relied more on small ball offense all year and have yet to register a triple or home run in the postseason. Still, that hasn’t stopped them from scoring – Oregon leads the NCAA tournament field with 7.6 runs per game through the Super Regional round. UW is second, with a 7.33 average.

UW knows all these things, and is preparing to face all of Oregon’s three pitchers.

“I think it’s nice playing Oregon,” said Huskies left fielder Casey Stangel. “We’re familiar with them, we’ve played them before, we know they have good pitching, and they have good hitting just like every other team out there.

“We need to stick to our game plan and go through film to see what exactly our plan will be off each pitcher, and move forward from there.”