FAYETTEVILLE — Autumn flourishes this spring from Greenbrier to Fayetteville.
For Autumn Buczek, the third baseman from Greenbrier weathering her Razorbacks softball team’s 1-23 SEC softball season three years ago under former Arkansas coach Mike Larabee and another 1-23 SEC season in 2016 under coach Courtney Deifel, concludes her senior season with the Razorbacks repeating their 2017 NCAA Tournament appearance and eighth in school history.
But this time, for the first time, Arkansas, 39-15 overall, an incredible 24-2 at Bogle Park, and 12-12 in a SEC so strong the league advanced every team to regionals, is a regional host.
As the 13th national seed, the Razorbacks host the four-team, double-elimination Fayetteville Regional at Bogle Park meeting DePaul University at 4 p.m. Friday after Oklahoma State and Wichita State open the tournament at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Buczek likely will never forget Sunday night’s selection show when Arkansas was announced as a seeded host.
“Oh my gosh.” Buczek said. “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of. Seeing our name on that screen last night, just an incredible sense of pride in our team and our staff and what we’ve been able to accomplish. So excited that so many people have come out and supported us. Our support has been great throughout the year so I’m super excited to see what our support will be for our regional appearance.”
Is she expecting to see much of Greenbrier at Friday’s game?
“Well, I hope a lot of Greenbrier is in Fayetteville,” Buczek said. “My hometown has done a great job of showing up and supporting. It’s really humbling just to see how much they care and the pride they take in our program. But Greenbrier also is going to be competing in state in softball, so my best wishes go out to them for that. I’m sad they can’t be here but I’m so excited they made it back. Best of luck to them in that game.”
She’s just thrilled seeing the program vault from Arkansas worst to first to host.
“It’s awesome,” Buczek said. “It’s something I didn’t imagine after the first year I had here. It’s been kind of a rough journey. But with the new staff, even with that second year when we (again) just won conference game, we immediately had confidence what we were going to be able to do with the confidence change they brought to our team. We knew we could accomplish something great but I guess you never really believe it until it happens.”
Buczek said Deifel’s recruiting incredibly improved Arkansas’ overall talent (freshman pitcher Mary Haff and freshman right fielder Hannah McEwenn both were named All-SEC), but she never lost faith in those she inherited.
“The staff we had our freshman year, they were great people, but whatever reason it didn’t click,” Buczek said. “We completely lacked that confidence my freshman year. We didn’t know what we were capable of. But her (Deifel’s) belief in us completely turned that around. She told us from Day One: ‘You weren’t my recruits. You were here before I got here. But I choose you guys every day.’ She helped us believe in ourselves and that’s one of the biggest things to make us a different team.”
Buczek validated Deifel’s belief in her. Moved from the outfield back to third base like she played for Greenbrier, Buczek hit .281 starting every game as a sophomore and hit a team-leading .349 for last year’s 31-24, 7-17, NCAA qualifier.
As the leadoff hitter, Buczek hits .316, second on this team only to McEwen’s .345, and leads the team with eight stolen bases.
Defensively, Deifel calls Buczek “fearless.”
“I think you've got to have a fearless nature when you are at that hot corner,” Deifel said. “She just does an incredible job for us there. She has such great range. She's done such a great job offensively of being steady for us. That's the biggest thing I'll say for Autumn. She’s fearless and really, really steady.”
And a steadying influence, freshman Haff recalled from the Razorbacks opening the SEC season swept, 8-0, 1-0, 5-4 at Georgia.
“We had that sweep by Georgia, so we kind of had to regroup” Haff said. “Me being a freshman, I don’t really know what to expect and she’s definitely like ‘It’s OK.’ Her just having a little more experience than me really made me more comfortable pitching out there.”
Deifel credits the ones she inherited like Buczek clear through her All-SEC freshman for meshing as one.
“They wanted it,” Deifel said. “They were hungry and ready for that next step. They have absolutely lived it every single day.”