Deifel quickly setting records at Arkansas
Courtney Deifel has always been a coach.
Thirteen years before accepting the challenge of revitalizing an Arkansas softball program on the heels of a one-win season in conference play, Deifel was suited up in a gold body guard behind the plate as star catcher for the California Golden Bears.
Deifel, who then was known by her maiden name Scott, was a coach on the field for Diane Ninemire’s Bears.
If she wasn’t recognizing what pitches her teammates in the circle needed to toss, she was holding down the Bears’ defense. Her 575 putouts in 2002 remains a the single season record in Cal’s storied program history.
Ninemire, who retired in 2020 and is the sixth-winningest softball coach in Division I history, knew she had a special talent on her hands.
“She just had that skill of knowing what pitches to pitch,” Ninemire said. “She was great with the pitchers and working with them and getting them back on track. She was a force to be reckoned with behind the plate.”
The catcher was a steal for Ninemire, whose lone national championship victory came in 2002 with Deifel behind the dish. If it wasn’t for a phone call, she would have missed out on the talented in-state player.
“I remember the day I kind of was recruiting her,” Ninemire said. “Her father called me, actually, because she was all set to go to Stanford and they denied her admission. So, he was looking for a place for her to go to school. And then I got her call. I guess it was my lucky day that I got such a wonderful player.”
Not only was she a mainstay during her playing career on NFCA All-American teams, but shone in the classroom as well. In 2002, she was selected to the Pac-10 all- conference academic team.
“For her to come to Cal, I had known about her, but we just didn’t have much money left over for scholarship at the time,” Ninemire said. “You know, her father said she’d love to come to Cal because she was such a good academic student as well. It was our fortune that it didn’t work out for her at Stanford and that she actually ended up at Cal.”
Softball has always been in Deifel’s blood. She comes from a family entrenched
in the sport. Something Ninemire noticed about Deifel from the get-go was her ability to put her team at ease. It’s a trait she now displays while pacing Bogle Park.
“She has a very calm demeanor,” Ninemire said. “I think she’s just so intellectual, that’s why she went to Cal. She got one of the best degrees in the country. She really knows the game. I think having a sister also being a pitcher and a father that was a (baseball) coach, she’s just a coach’s daughter. She’s always been a student of the game. I think she understands the dynamics of the team and how important that is to being a team that can win a championship, it can’t just rely on one or two people, and I think Courtney’s really good about bringing people together. She’s provided a team atmosphere that leads to championships.”
Following Deifel’s decorated career at Cal, she embarked on a two-year professional career. After two years away from playing or coaching the sport, Deifel
was given a graduate assistant role at Oklahoma. She spent two seasons under the leadership of legendary Sooners coach Patty Gasso, who is one spot ahead of Ninemire as the fifth-winningest coach ever.
“After she graduated, she went over to Oklahoma and she worked with one of the best in Patty,” Ninemire said. “And her sister went into coaching as well, her father was a coach, so I wasn’t surprised that coaching became something that she really wanted to do.”
After helping lead Oklahoma to an NCAA super regional appearance in 2008, then a regional finish in 2009, Deifel was given her first assistant coaching position. She spent two seasons at Maryland, then another five at Louisville before returning to Maryland in 2015 to become the head coach.
Following a 27-27 season with the Terrapins, former Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long saw something in the
young Deifel. After helping Maryland improve by 16 wins in her lone season, Long offered her the vacant position with the Razorbacks.
Deifel accepted the offer, embracing the challenge of building up a program from the ashes.
Long struck gold and found a rising star. The Razorbacks only won once in the SEC in her first season, but Deifel was establishing a culture of competitiveness. She knew results would not come overnight.
Results did come a year later in 2017, though. With one of the most impressive turnarounds in the nation, Arkansas’ pitching staff cut its combined ERA down from 6.98 to 2.82, while also seeing a 24-point boost in batting average. The improvements culminated in a 31-24 record, along with the Razorbacks’ first regional appearance in four years.
Arkansas has not missed the postseason since. With five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Deifel has nearly doubled the postseason berths (6) since the university first fielded a softball team in 1997.
In her third season at the helm, in 2018, Deifel led the Razorbacks to a 42-17 record, along with the program’s first trip to the super regionals. While her Razorbacks were swept in two games by Gasso and the Sooners, it became clear that Arkansas was headed in an unprecedented direction of success.
Following a 2019 season which ended in the NCAA regional round and the canceled 2020 season due to the pandemic, Diefel and her team regrouped and won back-to-back SEC championships – the first in program history.
Though the 2021 season ended with a two-game sweep in a home super regional at the hands of Arizona and coach Mike Candrea, who holds college softball’s second-most wins and coached against Deifel while she was at Cal, the program’s rise became a talking point across the softball landscape.
“She changed the mindset, and that’s what I told her,” Arkansas baseball coach Dave Van Horn said of Deifel. “I said, ‘You changed the mindset. You went and got some pitching. You taught them how to be tough.’ And then they started believing. The girls really like playing for her. So, we pull for each other. I text her all the time and during the season, just say ‘Congrats’ or ‘ That wasn’t very nice what you did to them.’ You know, just trying to be funny, loosen her up a little bit. And I’ve got to know her dad a lot as well. He was a junior college coach in California forever, and I think he just retired. (He holds) a lot of records (and is a) hall of famer over there. So she’s got a good bloodline.”
Deifel was awarded SEC coach of the year honors following the 2021 and 2022 seasons, the latter of which was another spectacular year for the Razorbacks.
Deifel led Arkansas to its first-ever outright conference regular season and SEC Tournament titles in 2022. Behind a veteran class, which saw five players become NFCA All-Americans – a program best – the team posted school records in wins (48), win percentage (.814), batting average (.331), hits (506), slugging percentage (.602), home runs (109), runs scored (422), total bases (921) and on-base percentage (.429).
Arkansas appeared to be on the doorstep of its first-ever Women’s College
Her sister went into coaching as well, her father was a coach, so I wasn’t surprised that coaching became something that she really wanted to do.