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5 Arizona Wildcats storylines we’ll never know the ending to due to coronavirus

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

With the NCAA abruptly canceling college sports due to the coronavirus crisis, it stripped Arizona Wildcats student-athletes and fans from memories, milestones, and maybe even a national championship or two.

Here are five storylines that we’ll never know the ending to.

Would men’s basketball have caught fire in the postseason?

It is a fact that Arizona underperformed in 2019-20, finishing fifth in the Pac-12 despite being projected to place fourth. Armed with three future first-round picks, the Wildcats certainly had the talent to be better, but they were marred by poor defensive rebounding (for half the year anyway), cold shooting, and a maddening inability to win close games.

There wasn’t a ton to suggest they were on the verge of a magical postseason run, dropping three of their last four before entering the Pac-12 Tournament, but their opener in Las Vegas was promising.

Arizona turned in a complete game in Wednesday’s win over Washington, and showed a lot of fight while doing so, easily holding on to a second-half lead against the same team that had embarrassed them four days earlier on their homecourt.

Breaking in eight newcomers and leaning so heavily on freshmen, Arizona was never able to develop much consistency, but performances like that gave credibility to the idea that if they ever put things together, they would be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona was recently projected to be an 8- or 9-seed, meaning they would have needed to beat a No. 1 seed to advance past the second round.

Unlikely? Yes. But in a year in which there were no elite teams in college basketball, anything could have happened. And Arizona has a history of beating No. 1 seeds, right?

Would softball’s seniors have returned to the Women’s College World Series? Would Jessie Harper have broken the all-time home-run record?*

The Wildcats got a taste of the Women’s College World Series in 2019, and in 2020 they had all the ingredients to win their ninth national championship, starting with a special senior class.

A vacuum at third base and steadily improving hitter, Malia Martinez was batting .333, emerging as the team’s most clutch hitter.

Dropball extraordinaire Alyssa Denham had a solid 1.92 ERA, her velocity as high as it’s ever been.

Mariah Lopez, a hard-throwing righty, had a 1.38 ERA, looking every bit of the ace she was expected to be when she transferred in from Oklahoma.

A rock solid second baseman, Reyna Carranco was hitting .360, putting her in position to defend her Pac-12 batting title.

Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Arizona’s most complete hitter, had a career-high 1.223 OPS, ranking second on the team in homers (7) and RBI (26). Not to mention she overcame two ACL tears in her career, one of the feel-good stories in college softball.

Jessie Harper crushed 10 homers in just 25 games this season, giving her 76 for her career, 17 shy of breaking Arizona’s all-time record held by Katiyana Mauga. And with a few non-conference games, the entire Pac-12 slate, and the postseason still ahead, Harper had a realistic shot of taking the crown.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know if she could have pulled it off as she completes her career tied for fifth all-time with Jenny Dalton.

*Maybe. There has been a push to grant spring-sport athletes an additional year of eligibility, and it has gained some traction.

How would women’s basketball have capped a special season?

The women’s team had a historic regular season that featured loads of milestones and signature wins, new heights in the polls, and a jam-packed McKale Center that quickly became one of the best atmospheres in the sport.

And yet, the fun was just beginning.

The Wildcats were on track to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament—their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2005—and had just been projected to be a 3-seed by ESPN, meaning they could have avoided a No. 1 seed in the Sweet Sixteen should they have advanced that far.

Oregon, the best team in the country, was the only squad the Wildcats were unable to conquer during the season, so who is to say they couldn’t have beaten a 2-seed to make the Elite Eight or even a non-Oregon 1-seed to reach the Final Four?

Arizona should be great again next season—maybe even better because of the addition of Oklahoma transfer Shaina Pellington—but it is contingent on Aari McDonald spurning the WNBA Draft to return for her redshirt senior season.

And even if Arizona is better, it does not take the sting out of the way the 2019-20 season ended. Adia Barnes and company deserve so much credit for turning a bottom-feeding program into a powerhouse in four years, and for them to not get to enjoy the fruits of their labor is, as she put it, “devastating.”

Was baseball’s pitching going to match its hitting?

Arizona had one of the best offenses in college baseball in 2019 but poor pitching and defense caused them to miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year.

The Wildcats hired highly-regarded pitching coach Nate Yeskie from Oregon State to try to change their culture on the mound in 2020, and the results had been promising before the season was canceled. Arizona posted a 3.87 ERA in 15 games, a huge upgrade from the 6.23 mark it posted before Yeskie’s arrival.

The offense hadn’t quite been able to replicate its 2019 numbers, which is why Arizona had a pedestrian 10-5 record including some questionable losses, but with elite hitters like Austin Wells, Matt Dyer, and Ryan Holgate on the roster, it was only a matter of time before the bats got going again.

If the Wildcats had been able to pair their 2019 offensive prowess, or something close to it, with their new and improved pitching, they would have been primed to return to the postseason for the first time since being the national runner-up in 2016, Jay Johnson’s first season.

Was women’s golf’s revamped roster ready to make a run?

2020 showed that Arizona women’s golf doesn’t rebuild; it reloads.

Despite losing legends and former national champions Haley Moore and Bianca Pagdanganan to graduation, the Wildcats were No. 10 in the most recent WGCA poll and playing some extraordinary golf.

Just last weekend, the UA won the Arizona Wildcat Invitational handily, topping second-place Oregon, the No. 17 team in the country, by 22 (!) strokes. The top three golfers in the 11-team event—Kailie Vongsaga, Vivian Hou, and Gile Bite Starkute—were Wildcats.

Arizona won the national title in 2018 and reached the national semifinals in 2019, and this group looked like it could replicate that.

The good news is Coach Laura Ianellos team doesn’t have any seniors, so it should be a force next year as well. But as we learned this week, nothing is ever a given.