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Grading Arizona’s athletic programs in 2018-19

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arizona-wildcats-athletics-grades-basketball-football-softball-baseball-soccer-volleyball-gymnastics Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018-19 academic year is over, which means it’s time to hand out some grades to the Arizona Wildcats‘ athletic programs. Check out our report card below.

(Note: We are not experts on every UA program, and do not want to pretend to be, which is why some teams, like track and field and swimming and diving, were not graded.)

Men’s basketball: C-

Record: 17-15, 7-11 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: T-8th

In short: A C- might seem generous for a team that missed the NCAA Tournament for just the third time since 2010 and had its lowest win total since 2009-10, but expectations were low from the get-go after the once-prized 2018 recruiting class was torn apart by the federal investigation into college basketball, leaving the Wildcats with an empty cupboard. It didn’t help that Arizona’s two best players—Chase Jeter and Brandon Williams—were marred by injuries at the tail end of the season, when the Wildcats dropped three straight to kill any shot of reaching the postseason. Arizona’s image took a few more hits when assistant coach Mark Phelps was suspended after violating an undisclosed NCAA rule and ex-assistant Book Richardson was sentenced to three months in prison for accepting bribes to steer players toward particular agents.

The future: The Wildcats will be restocked with talent in 2019-20. They return Jeter and Williams, while adding UC Irvine graduate transfer Max Hazzard and the No. 3 recruiting class, which includes five-star prospects Nico Mannion and Josh Green. That said, NCAA sanctions could be handed down soon, possibly resulting in a postseason ban among other things. But if the Wildcats can avoid that and keep their roster intact, they have the pieces to reach the Final Four.

— Ryan Kelapire

Women’s basketball: A

Record: 24-13, 7-11 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: T-8th

In short: Coming off a 6-24 campaign, the Wildcats’ goal was to make the postseason for the first time since 2011. Not only did they do that, they made a late-season run and won the WNIT for the second time in program history, selling out McKale Center in the process. UA’s 24 wins were its most since 2003-04 and its seven Pac-12 wins were its most since 2010-11. Sophomore point guard and Washington transfer Aari McDonald was the catalyst, finishing third in the nation in scoring (24.3 PPG) and 15th in steals, somehow outperforming the lofty expectations that coach Adia Barnes set for her after her sit-out year. Purdue transfer Dominique McBryde was a steady post player and wiry sophomore forward Sam Thomas continued her do-everything ways.

Freshman Cate Reese, the program’s first-ever McDonald’s All-American, had her fair share of ups and downs, but played her best basketball at the end of the season, averaging 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game when all was said and done. The Wildcats beat two ranked teams and hung with three top-10 squads—Stanford, Oregon State, and Oregon—in the final weeks of the Pac-12 season, showing they are no longer the doormat they once were.

The future: The Wildcats are returning their entire starting five, adding five international recruits and two transfers, one of whom—Penn State guard Amari Carter—can play immediately. With all that talent in the fold, it is NCAA Tournament or bust next season. Perhaps its biggest obstacle will be integrating all those new faces along with two new assistant coaches in Tamisha Augustin and Jackie Nared, who replaced Morgan Valley and April Phillips. Shooting better from the perimeter will be imperative too. The Wildcats only connected on 32.5 percent of their triples in 2018-19, allowing teams to pack the paint on McDonald’s drives.

— Ryan Kelapire

Baseball: C

Record: 32-24, 15-14 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: 6th

In short: Arizona won two fewer games than a year ago, but its league record was slightly better. Didn’t matter, though, because its poor performance midway through the season doomed the chance to make the NCAA tournament. A 10-game win streak to wrap things up wasn’t enough to overcome a 3-16 record against top-50 teams, mostly due to a pitching staff that was 249th out of 299 Division I teams with a 6.21 ERA. It was a shame because the Wildcats could rake, averaging 9.8 runs per game to rank second nationally.

The future: Six players were drafted, with infielders Cameron Cannon and Nick Quintana each signing after going in the second round. Also signing after being drafted was outfielder Matt Fraizer, while pitchers Randy Labaut and Andrew Nardi could also choose to turn pro after getting picked. At least two incoming freshmen are also not going to show up because of the money offered to them via the draft, but Arizona is still well-stocked with hitters and young pitchers. The former includes first baseman/catcher Austin Wells, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, and the latter features righty Quinn Flanagan.

— Brian Pedersen

Softball: A

Record: 48-14, 19-5 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: 3rd

In short: The Wildcats made it back to the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010, so giving them anything other than an A would be an injustice. Led by senior ace Taylor McQuillin and a loaded junior class, Arizona finished seventh in the country in scoring, fifth in ERA, and ninth in fielding percentage. The Wildcats were the only team in the country to win a series against the national champion UCLA Bruins, and UA’s 19 Pac-12 wins were its most since 2003, though it was admittedly a down year for the conference. Junior shortstop Jessie Harper led the nation in homers (28) and was one of five UA players who were named NFCA All-Americans. The other four were McQuillin, junior center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, junior second baseman Reyna Carranco, and junior catcher Dejah Mulipola.

The future: The Wildcats have to replace McQuillin and possibly Mulipola if she makes the U.S. Olympic Team, as she is expected to do. Either way, Arizona should have no trouble putting runs on the board in 2020, so a return to the WCWS will likely hinge on how it fares in the circle. Alyssa Denham (11-6, 1.96 ERA) is in line to be the new No. 1, while three talented but untested underclassmen—Hanah Bowen, Marissa Schuld, and Vanessa Foreman—will round out the rotation, though don’t be surprised if the Wildcats add a transfer or two.

— Ryan Kelapire

Football: C-

Record: 5-7, 4-5 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: T-3rd in South Division

In short: The first year of the Kevin Sumlin era fell far short of the preseason hype, as did quarterback Khalil Tate’s Heisman Trophy campaign. It didn’t help that Tate suffered an ankle injury earlier in the second game that hampered him most of the season, but even before that it was evident new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was intent on making his QB more of a passer than a runner. This resulted in some strong overall numbers, both for him and RB J.J. Taylor, who earned All-America status as an all-purpose player, but all that production couldn’t offset a defense that just couldn’t get off the field. Third and long was the Wildcats’ nemesis, and the fourth-quarter collapse against ASU in the finale typified everything that was wrong with this team.

The future: The growing pains should be over, with Tate and Mazzone expected to be on the same page now, so there are no excuses there. There are concerns on offense, though, particularly how a revamped offensive line will hold up as well as who will step up at receiver after the top three targets graduated. Defensively, almost everyone of substance is back, so if fourth-year coordinator Marcel Yates can’t get a group led by stud linebackers Colin Schooler and Tony Fields II (and featuring a promising secondary) to make some stops, we could see a midseason assistant change.

— Brian Pedersen

Soccer: B+

Record: 13-6-2, 5-4-2 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: T-5th

In short: The Wildcats saw their season end in heartbreaking fashion, losing on a last-minute goal to No. 4 seed Tennessee in the Round of 32, but it shouldn’t overshadow what was another noteworthy year for the upstart program, which reached the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Arizona’s 13 wins were the third-most in school history. Tony Amato became the winningest coach in program history, seeing his career record improve to 67-40-15 over six seasons.

Known for their high press, the Wildcats played more possession-oriented soccer in 2018, outscoring their opponents 39-19. They admirably battled through a pair of ill-timed injuries, losing starting defender Sabrina Enciso for a couple weeks in conference play and star freshman Brooke Wilson, who is the favorite to be the team’s top scorer in 2019, for the second half of the season due to a broken leg.

The only reason the Wildcats did not receive an A is because their conference win total dropped from seven to five, and they suffered a puzzling home loss to Albany to open the season.

The future: The Wildcats return eight starters, but the three they are losing will be difficult to replace—all-conference goalkeeper and all-time shutouts leader Lainey Burdett (graduation), gritty midfielder Kennedy Kieneker (graduation), and playmaking midfielder Amanda Porter (transfer) who led the team in assists.

Even still, the Wildcats will have what could be their most talented roster ever, thanks to a strong group of returners, a top-25 recruiting class, and two mid-major transfers who made their conference’s All-Freshman team in 2018.

National powerhouses Stanford, USC, and UCLA will finish at the top of the Pac-12 like they always do, but the Wildcats are more than capable of finishing fourth and in the Top 32 nationally, which would yield them the right to host an NCAA Tournament game for the third straight season.

But nothing will come easy in the Pac-12, where matches are decided by the slimmest of margins. Four of Arizona’s five conference wins in 2018 were decided by one goal. So were two of its four losses.

— Ryan Kelapire

Volleyball: B-

Record: 22-11, 11-9 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: 5th

In short: The Wildcats ran out to an 11-2 record behind the dominant play of Kendra Dahlke, who would end the season ranked fifth in kills per set at 4.77. The problem was that it wasn’t against the strongest schedule.

Arizona still put together a successful season in one of the sport’s most difficult conferences, despite the fact that they dealt with five concussions over the course of the year. They returned to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence, but were dispatched by Missouri in the first round.

The future: When Dahlke went down with a leg injury during conference season, the Wildcats had to lean heavily on sophomore Paige Whipple for offense. She rose to the occasion and returns as one of the team’s six-rotation players, as does the heart of the team, senior setter Julia Patterson.

The Wildcats also get back junior hitter Liz Shelton, who missed all of the Pac-12 season after suffering a concussion, and senior middle blocker Devyn Cross, who was named AVCA All-American Honorable Mention last year. The team has a strong upperclass contingent, especially when compared to 2018 when the only seniors who saw playing time were Dahlke and Victoria Svorinic.

Arizona is currently touring Europe on an athletic and cultural tour. They were able to include all of their incoming freshmen except for Simone Overbeck, who is rehabbing an injury.

— Kim Doss

Gymnastics: C

Record: 5-10, 1-5 Pac-12

Pac-12 finish: 8th at Pac-12 Championships

In short: When the season started, the GymCats expected to be strong on uneven bars and balance beam, but weak on floor exercise and vault. As things turned out, floor exercise was a strong event for the team, as athletes who hadn’t competed it in years stepped up and others introduced new skills to increase their start values. The team was still known for their prowess on the bars, but they held their own in the leg events.

Most importantly, Arizona returned to the postseason as a team after only sending two individuals to the 2018 regionals. However, a bit of a slide down the rankings over the last few weeks of competition left them in the newly-introduced “play-in” round of NCAA tourney. The Wildcats were defeated by Iowa, but still sent five athletes into the second round as individual competitors.

The future: The GymCats return senior all-arounder Maddi Leydin and outstanding bars specialist Chrissy Berg. They also get back Haylie Hendrickson, who was recently awarded a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA.

The most important task will be improving the leg events, especially vault. While floor exercise saw a decided uptick in scores last season, vault still lagged behind. Ledyin introduced a new vault late in the year—the only one on the team valued at of a 10.0—but she will need to be more consistent on it. Head coach John Court said that the incoming freshman class is expected to help in the leg events. Relying on freshmen will come with growing pains, though.

The team also needs to clean up the balance beam, which was hit or miss last season. Assistant coach Taylor Spears, a former national champion on the event, will have that as her primary focus again in 2020.

— Kim Doss