Jessica Moore keeps Oregon level

May, 22, 2011

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The end of the world didn't arrive Saturday. And positive though that development was on most fronts, particularly for those with softball games to play Sunday or a refrigerator full of food, the continuation of human civilization for at least another day was a shame in one respect.

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Jessica Moore
Geoff Thurner Jessica Moore's maturity is evident in the circle.

It would have been an interesting experiment to see if even the End Times could fluster Jessica Moore in the circle. Nothing else seems to get to a small-town kid who yet again has Oregon on a big postseason stage.

For the second time in as many years after two decades of postseason frustration, Oregon still has reason to wash its uniforms after an NCAA tournament regional. The Ducks captured their latest title with wins against Albany, Fordham and regional host Penn State and will travel to Gainesville to play in a best-of-three super regional against No. 4 Florida. As job reviews go, second-year coach Mike White isn't going to have to sweat things out any time soon.

"When I took over the job two years ago, it was a matter of trying to change the outlook and the perception of what we need to do," White said. "Just trying to make it to the postseason was our first step."

Doing something once there has had a lot to do with the person in the circle. Moore earned all three wins for the Ducks on the weekend, allowing just two runs in 21 innings and the sophomore is now 5-2 with a 1.45 ERA in eight career NCAA tournament starts. And for all the strings White has pulled on the field in two seasons, winning 78 games (and counting) and recording the program's first winning record in Pac-10 play since 1989, his best call might have been one of the first he made after taking the job, when he reached out to Moore in an effort to ensure the then-high schooler who committed to the previous coaching regime wasn't scared off by the change -- or his New Zealand accent.

Granted, persuading Moore wasn't the toughest sell. For one thing, White was one of the best men's fastpitch pitchers in the world for more than a decade and maintains a reputation as an outstanding teacher, something the Oregon signee well knew from pitching camps she had attended before college in which White participated. For another, while Moore drew interest from other Pac-10 schools coming out of high school in tiny Sutter, Calif., a town about an hour north of Sacramento (her graduating class included just 155 students by her recollection), Eugene, Ore., was a far more ideal destination than some of the big-city campuses known to rule the conference in softball.

"Our family is really outdoorsy; I love to hunt and fish," said Moore, giant swaths of eye black still on her face like softball camouflage in the aftermath of her regional wins. "So going [to the Pac-10's southern outposts] is not something I would enjoy at all. Going up to Eugene was nice because we're still in the mountains. I'll go for a drive and go look for deer -- stuff like that to kind of take my mind off things."

Much to Oregon's benefit, she's also getting pretty good at seeking out tranquility on the field.

Oregon didn't set the world on fire in State College. The defense was at times sensational, including a spin-and-throw from almost behind the second base bag by shortstop Kelsey Chambers in Sunday's game, but it was more often shaky in totaling four errors, including three from Chambers. The only constant through all three games was Moore either striking batters out of getting them to futilely beat the ball into the ground.

The Ducks ranked last among the eight Pac-10 teams in defense in the regular season, trailing the next-worst team in fielding percentage by almost as wide a margin as that separating seventh from first. They have committed 78 errors in 57 games, leading to 44 unearned runs. But time and again over the weekend, whether after a defensive miscue behind her or another offensive rally stalled before it began, Moore showed no emotion, visor and eye black framing eyes that seemed to take in everything and express nothing.

It's that reaction, or lack thereof, that is proving the final piece of the puzzle in Moore emerging as a legitimate big-game ace as measured by the exacting standards of the final two weeks of the NCAA tournament. She set the school strikeout record and posted a 1.87 ERA as a freshman, but she also recorded 21 wild pitches, sometimes a telltale sign of a frustrated freshman trying to beat batters all by herself, lest her teammates let her down. That number dropped significantly this season, as perhaps did her blood pressure.

"I think Jess is just more focused now," senior first baseman Monique Fuiava said. "Earlier [in the weekend[ in the game when that ball got by me, she just looked at me and she said, 'You have to get down on that ball.' Beforehand, Jess would have just looked at me, shook her head off and just try and go and do it all by herself."

With the Ducks in possession of a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday, Moore finally ran into something resembling trouble when back-to-back singles put runners on first and second with one out. Hoping for a different look, White changed pitchers for the first time all weekend, replacing Moore with Brittany Rumfelt. But after a wild patch and a walk loaded the bases, White went right back to Moore, standing at the dugout rail rather than sulking somewhere after being replaced minutes earlier. Two ground outs later, including the final out on an agile play from Moore fielding a ball and throwing as momentum carried her across the first-base line, and Penn State's best and last scoring opportunity was over.

There are guards outside Buckingham Palace who show more emotion than Moore did at any point in that tumultuous inning.

"Being a pitcher, it's very stressful," Moore said. "You can either go out there and get mad at your teammates for making a routine error or going out there and popping up on somebody who we should be crushing the ball of -- you can either go out there and get mad, or you can go out there and buck up and be the person to keep us in the game, rather than being the one out there throwing a fit on the mound because your team's not playing well behind you.

"A little bit last year, that's kind of the attitude I had, just being young. I feel I've matured a lot and kind of settled down and decided to be a leader on the team rather than just one person out in the circle."

The Ducks are a young team, routinely starting six freshmen and sophomores, including Moore in the circle. At times in State College, discussing that youth and the talent he has coming in next season, White seemed to manage expectations a little bit, suggesting, it seemed, without saying it in so many words that this team might still be a year away from its best. But whatever happens in Gainesville, the Ducks would do well to follow their ace's lead in good times and bad times.

"When crunch time comes down, I'm going to put our No. 1 team out there," White said. "And Jess is our No. 1 pitcher right now so she gets the ball. … I keep telling them it's like a roller-coaster. It's not always going to be a straight line, you aren't always going to be at the top. You're going to have to go into peaks and valleys. Just don't get too high or too low. I know it's a cliche, but it's very true. This game is very humbling."

Moore can deal with the peaks and valleys as well as anyone. After all, the mountains were a big part of why she went to Oregon in the first place.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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