Updated: May 6, 2013, 3:18 PM ET

Courtney Ceo realizes dream with Ducks

By Graham Hays | espnW

Courtney CeoGraham Hays/espnW Courtney Ceo and her Oregon teammates clinched the program's first conference title.

Growing up in California, Courtney Ceo dreamed of winning a Pac-12 championship. Helpfully, Oregon competes in the Pac-12. Ergo playing softball for the Ducks presented her with an opportunity to live out just such a scenario.

Why make the equation more complicated than that?

Never mind that Oregon went its first 26 seasons in the Pac-12 without winning a title. Never mind that Ceo and her teammates weren't alive the first and only time Oregon had posted a winning conference record. Never mind that she and the rest of the current Oregon juniors and seniors signed with a program that went 55-155 in conference play and finished in last place six times between 2000-09. Oregon could, in theory, win a Pac-12 championship.

Sunday, it did.

The Ducks clinched their first title with a week to spare in one of the sweeter ways possible, a three-game weekend sweep against in-state rival Oregon State. Like the rest of the Ducks, their junior shortstop is now part of the best team in a conference that has long dominated the sport and produced 23 NCAA championships.

"It's just a goal that I personally have had since I was a little girl," Ceo said. "I wanted to go play in the Pac-12 and then getting to do so. And the two years leading up to this, having great teams and this year having just an amazing team and having all your teammates striving for the same goal -- and then to finally get it a week earlier than we had planned -- just turned out too awesome. It's a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, but we're not done yet."

As might be expected of a team that is 45-7 overall and 18-3 in the league entering its final series this week at Arizona State, there is reason to think she's right about the last part. Now in its fourth season under coach Mike White, Oregon is working on a streak of three consecutive NCAA tournament super regionals, the first in program history. Last season, the Ducks did that one better and reached the Women's College World Series for the first time since 1989.

A conference championship seemed more suited to dreams when most of the upperclassmen signed, but it now fits in a progression that points toward competing for a national championship in a few weeks in Oklahoma City.

Where so many other national contenders seem to be fighting off potential pitching problems, trying to keep an ace healthy and rested enough to make it to June, Oregon is flush with arms. Senior ace Jessica Moore won a pair of starts against Oregon State, including the conference clincher, and allowed just four hits in 12 innings on the weekend. Freshman Cheridan Hawkins, who earned a win in the middle game of the Oregon State series with nine strikeouts in four innings, pitched a midweek no-hitter against Seattle University in which she struck out 17 batters in seven innings. The team's 1.58 ERA is more than half a run better than any other team in the Pac-12.

The balance extends to the plate, where there is Alexa Peterson, the junior catcher who leads the Pac-12 in on-base percentage and ranks second in slugging percentage. And junior outfielder Janie Takeda, who leads the conference in batting average and stolen bases. And the middle of the order trio of Kailee Cuico, Kaylan Howard and Samantha Pappas, who have 32 home runs and 29 doubles among them. And Ceo, whose presence near the top of the lineup in May marks one more difference from a season ago and whose story is a reminder of just how difficult it is to get all the puzzle pieces to come together as they have for Oregon this season.

The Ducks made it to the WCWS a season ago without Ceo, who was hitting .378 with a .431 on-base percentage when she sustained a season-ending injury midway through the Pac-12 schedule. Without her, and with Moore tiring at the end of season in which she threw more than 300 innings, Oregon lasted three games in Oklahoma City but was gone before the semifinals.

"It was a little bittersweet at the end, being in postseason," Ceo said of watching it unfold while injured. "That's somewhere I always wanted to be and play in front of all those fans. That's something you dream of. ... I still was supporting my team, their biggest cheerleader on the bench. It was just a little bittersweet. But I wouldn't change it for the world, watching my teammates play and fight for the dream we all have."

Ceo originally committed to Oregon under the previous coaching regime. Her first conversation with White came on her way to the hospital after she tore her ACL in a summer travel ball tournament. She knew he had been watching as he evaluated the recruits he was to inherit, and she worried what the injury might mean for her future with the program.

"I felt sick to my stomach," White said. "Not just because of losing a player, but just because of how much agony she was in. And it's not so much because of pain; it's thinking that she may lose her scholarship or maybe that her career was over. We had a really, pretty touching moment after the game because we still met, and I told her, 'You're going to come back as strong as ever. You're not going to let this beat you. And we're definitely going to honor your scholarship because I believe in you.' And she did; she came back strong as ever."

After last season, she came back again. Ceo ranks third in the Pac-12 in batting average and second in stolen bases. Despite a few miscues against the Beavers, she is one of the best defensive assets for a team that can fairly be labeled above average in the field, a significant improvement on what had been the program's Achilles' heel.

So, rapid as the program's ascent has been, nothing about a first Pac-12 championship happened overnight.

And as Ceo noted, the Pac-12 champions aren't done yet.

"Definitely, we have something to prove to every team that we play," Ceo said. "That's our goal this year, is to prove to them that we do belong up at the top and that we are a great team."

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

espnW Players of the Year

The list of finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year gets trimmed to 10 this week. So in lieu of players of the week, here is one ballot for the top 10 players of the season:

Keilani Ricketts, Oklahoma: The Sooners are the prohibitive favorite to win the national championship, but an even safer bet is Ricketts repeating as player of the year. Fresh off a 17-strikeout performance against Kansas, she is 25-1 with a 1.14 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 172 innings as a pitcher. Oh, and she's hitting .389 with a 1.289 OPS, 11 home runs and 38 RBIs.

Lauren Chamberlain, Oklahoma: She's cooled off ever so slightly since midseason, when it appeared her hitting alone might give Ricketts a run for her money. Of course, the phrase "cooled off" is relative (and laughable) when you consider the sophomore is hitting .423 with a 1.601 OPS, 22 home runs and 11 doubles, not to mention a team-best 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts.

Lauren Gibson, Tennessee: The second baseman for Tennessee and Team USA leads the SEC in slugging percentage and is second in on-base percentage and fourth in batting average -- the last one behind three hitters who spend a lot of time slapping. She is also three stolen bases away from matching a career high and remains one of the best infield gloves in the game.

Blaire Luna, Texas: The senior ace leads the nation in strikeouts per seven innings, and it's not even close. The gap between her and second place is wider than the gap between second and 10th. The watered-down Big 12 is a consideration, but she's 25-5 with a 1.24 ERA and 336 strikeouts for a team that sits solidly in the RPI top three. That's exceptional.

Jolene Henderson, California: It's unfortunate, but much like the Indianapolis Colts in the season Peyton Manning was injured, nothing highlights Henderson's value quite like Cal's fortunes without her. But when you consider Henderson was already 29-8 with a 1.21 ERA and 236 strikeouts in 249 2/3 innings before her knee injury, it's impossible to leave her off this list.

Raven Chavanne, Tennessee: The SEC's leading hitter with a .473 batting average is working on a career-best slugging percentage and has already surpassed her home run total from her first three seasons. And even when the speedster does slap her way on for a single, it's as good as a double; she's a perfect 37-for-37 on stolen base attempts.

Haylie McCleney, Alabama: The freshman of the year debate has to include Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins, Texas A&M's Cali Lanphear and Georgia's Geri Ann Glasco, but it may come down to Michigan's Sierra Romero and McCleney. The Alabama freshman owns a 1.214 OPS and is perfect on 27 stolen base attempts. Yet you could argue that defense in center is her best pure skill.

Taylor Hoagland, Texas: The Big 12 leader in on-base percentage isn't Ricketts or Chamberlain. It's Hoagland (.618 OBP), and it isn't like the senior third baseman is doing her work one base at a time. With 26 extra-base hits and 40 RBIs, the only question may be why opposing teams have walked her only 62 times in 51 games.

Sierra Romero, Michigan: Her defense has, at times, been a work in progress at shortstop, but the last freshman to make an impact like this at the plate was Oklahoma's Chamberlain last season. That's nice company to keep. Romero is hitting .397 with a 1.431 OPS, 22 home runs and 66 RBIs in 53 games. The home runs are a single-season program record.

Amber Freeman, Arizona State: The numbers game leaves the list without Oklahoma's Shelby Pendley and Missouri ace Chelsea Thomas, who has been brilliant but doesn't have the innings of some peers, but how do you leave off Freeman? The junior catcher is hitting .415 with eight home runs in conference play, and she's one of only three Sun Devils to start all 52 games.


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