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Arizona softball notebook: Katiyana Mauga named Pac-12 Player of the Week, freshmen shining early, and more

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Photo via @AZAthletics on Twitter

It did not take long for Katiyana Mauga to receive what is likely to be the first of many awards this season.

On Monday, the Arizona Wildcats’ third baseman was named the Pac-12 Player of the Week after a stellar performance in the Hillenbrand Invitational last weekend.

As Arizona won all five games of the tournament to open its season, Mauga hit four homers and led the team in RBIs (8) and slugging percentage (1.357).

Those four homers put the senior at 71 for her career, placing her 16 homers shy of tying the UA’s all-time home run record (owned by Stacie Chambers) and 24 shy of the NCAA all-time record (held by former Oklahoma Sooner Lauren Chamberlain).

None of it is surprising to Arizona head coach Mike Candrea.

“I recruited her because she had the knack of being a very good power hitter,” he said of Mauga. “But not just a power hitter, a power hitter that puts up good numbers. She’s not the .250 hitter that hits a lot of home runs, she’s a .300 hitter that can hit a lot of home runs, drive in some runs.”

Mauga is a career .345 hitter.

“Chambers used to hit some bombs, but I always felt that she had a little bit of a hole in her swing,” Candrea said. “Kati will hit the ball to all fields, and she will hit the ball to all fields with power. That’s the difference. … It’s hard to pitch to someone like that unless you just walk them.

“She’s going to have patience at the plate. She’s going to swing at good pitches. She’s not going to chase things. That’s what Lauren [Chamberlain] was. People were trying to throw around her a lot too, and that’s the same thing with Kati.”

Mauga said being near the record serves as motivation, but it is also a “small distraction”.

“It’s there. I can’t hide it,” she said. “I can’t put it away.”

Candrea said he wants Mauga to take things one at-bat at a time and not think about the record, but admitted that is easier said than done.

“I thought about giving her the book ‘61’ about Roger Maris,” Candrea joked. “I told her, as long as I don’t see you losing your hair then I’ll be all right. The big thing with her, and I’ve talked to her about it, is that it’s not about her physical ability, it’s just about keeping the six inches between your ears clear.

“It’s tough to do, but I was impressed this weekend because I thought earlier in the weekend she was pressing a little bit. She was trying to make things happen where she finally started settling down.”

Mauga hit at least 20 homers in each of her first three seasons in Tucson, and is on pace to do so again this season, meaning there is a good chance she will be Arizona’s new home run leader when all is said and done.

“It’s fun to watch someone that has that type of skill and to be able to do what she does the way she does it,” Candrea said. “You don’t see too many of those.”

Lengthy lineup

It is probably not a coincidence that Mauga has gotten off to a fast start, given the strength of Arizona’s lineup, especially in the heart of the order.

“[Pitchers] were going at me and not going around me,” Mauga said. “I think that was the change from last year till now.”

Hitting one spot ahead of Mauga is redshirt freshman Alyssa Palomino, who had seven RBIs in the Hillenbrand Invitational.

Palomino is not your typical freshman, though. She was once the No. 9 recruit in the country, plus she is more experienced than most freshmen, seeing that this is her second year on campus.

Palomino sat out last season with a knee injury.

“She’s a freshman, but I’ve seen her forever,” Candrea said. “She’s not a freshman in my eyes.”

So much so that Candrea gave Palomino the green light with a 3-0 count in the team’s season opener against Fordham.

It turned out to be a wise move as it led to an RBI single.

“Having Alyssa [batting third] is definitely helping me out,” said Mauga. “I think she’s doing very well at that spot.”

Hitting behind Mauga is shortshop Mo Mercado, who Candrea said is swinging the bat “as well as anyone.”

Mercado hit .467 in the first five games, including a three-run homer in the win over Northwestern.

Behind her is Tamara Statman, who hit .400 and drove in five runs in 10 at-bats in the Hillenbrand Invitational.

“I love the middle of our lineup right now because it’s almost like you have to pick your poison,” Candrea said.

Candrea feels confident with spots one through seven in Arizona’s lineup, while spots eight and nine are still up for grabs.

“The bottom of the order — eight and nine — is going to be a little bit of who’s hot and who’s not type thing, but that’s a good problem to have,” he said. “At least it’s not five through nine that we’re thinking that way.”

Still, Candrea says lineups likely won’t be solidified until midway through March. Therefore, there is still plenty of time for players to play themselves into — or out of — Arizona’s lineup.

“The funnest part for me is the fall when everyone plays and everyone is happy,” Candrea said.

“The tough part is when you have to put a lineup together and go out and compete, but that’s what we’re here for. They can’t lose track of the fact that the bottom line is we are performance-based and that’s the way athletics are at this level. When your goal is to win a national championship ... my decisions are based on who can help me win a game on that particular day.”

Number one spot

Arizona’s offense scored 39 runs in the first five games, and while the middle of the order had a lot to do with it, it would be remiss to overlook the player that is the catalyst for it all.

Left fielder Mandie Perez, the team’s leadoff hitter, is making Arizona’s offense “go.”

“Mandie had a huge weekend and she hits the ball all over the ballpark,” Candrea said. “She has a small zone, she’s got great strike zone management, she doesn’t swing at a lot of bad pitches.”

The senior was 7-for-14 in the Hillenbrand Invitational plus drew three walks.

And when she gets on the bases, which has been more often than not, she wrecks havoc on opposing defenses.

Perez has a team-high two stolen bases.

“She’s always looking for the crack in the dam,” Candrea said of Perez’s opportunistic baserunning.

“Mandie is one of those kids, she’s like a little wildcat out there, just waiting for someone to make a mistake and she’s there.”

The redshirt senior was an All-Pac-12 player last season, slashing .338/.416/.588 as she started in all 61 games for Arizona.

“She’s probably one of the best catchers I’ve ever had”

It has not taken long for freshman catcher Dejah Mulipola to make her impact felt. Hitting second in Arizona’s lineup, Mulipola leads Arizona in batting average (.538) and is tied for the team-lead in hits (7).

“Right now, Dejah is definitely our number one catcher,” Candrea said.

Arizona ace Danielle O’Toole had high praise for her battery mate.

“Dejah is incredible,” she said. “She’s ridiculous. She’s probably one of the best catchers I’ve ever had. I’ve thrown for a long time and that’s something to say.

“As she gets older, she’s going to gain a little bit more and, I think as of right now, her talent is ridiculous.”

What makes her so ridiculous? Her bat along with a knack for pitch-framing, plus Candrea says she is faster than usual for someone her size.

“Dejah is solid. She is really athletic. She’s strong,” Candrea said. “She can stick a pitch and give the umpires a good look.”

Featured freshmen

Palomino and Mulipola are Arizona’s most notable freshmen, but Jessie Harper can be added to the mix as well.

The first baseman hit .343 through the first five games, including a two-run homer in UA’s 6-0 win against Cal State Northridge.

“I think Jess Harper is going to be a good player,” Candrea said. “I think she’s gonna swing the bat well for us and is going to have to be somewhere in the lineup.”

And the power Harper displayed? It is not a fluke.

“She’s done it all of her life,” Candrea said. “This past summer she led the PGF Nationals in home runs. ... It’s there and I see it everyday, so it’s just a matter of gaining some game experience and gaining some confidence at this level and she’ll get there.”

Candrea says he loves watching Harper play because of the smile she brings to the ballpark everyday.

“She loves to play the game and I love watching her play and watching her prepare,” he said. “She is always asking questions. She’s a kid that knows absolutely one thing and that’s [to give] 110 percent everyday.

“She’s a great teammate, a great player and I know she’s a great hitter. It’s going to take some time, but she’s very capable of driving in some runs.”

Harper is part of what already appears to be an impressive freshman class.

“We came in and we’ve really clicked together with all the older girls and I think we came in and we wanted to help with the team any way we can,” Harper said. “We all have the proper mindset and our older girls have definitely helped us a lot. I think the older girls have helped us in every way possible, just trying to make sure that we’re comfortable out there.”

Palomino, Mulipola, Harper, and fellow freshman Reyna Carranco accounted for 14 of Arizona’s 32 RBIs in the first five games.

“Hey, you’re going to see them,” Candrea said. “They’re a talented group. They deserve to play and they’re going to be playing.”

Power pitching

Arizona’s pitching has been unsurprisingly dominant to begin the season.

The Wildcats allowed just four earned runs in 32 innings in their first five games, limiting teams to a .189 batting average.

Danielle O’Toole, who made the USA National Team this fall, tossed complete games in all three of her starts, including a five-hit shutout against the No. 21 Baylor Bears.

In total, the redshirt senior has pitched 20 innings, compiling a 0.35 ERA, while striking out 22 batters.

Taylor McQuillin started in the other two games for the Wildcats, and it was a tale of two starts for her.

The sophomore threw a two-hit, 17-strikeout shutout against Cal State Northridge on Friday, but could not follow up on it the next day against Northwestern.

McQuillin was relieved in the third inning in by Nancy Bowling after Candrea felt she was getting behind on too many batters.

Bowling entered with the bases loaded and no outs and was able to escape the jam unscathed, keeping McQuillin’s ERA at 0.75.

“I felt as good as I have in a long time about our pitching staff,” Candrea said. “I think it’s going to get nothing but better and better.”

Up next

No. 10 Arizona (5-0) returns to action Thursday when it hosts Drake at 5 p.m. to start the Wildcat Invitational. The Wildcats will play four games in six days, all of which will take place at Hillenbrand Stadium.

It is considered to be a weaker field of teams than the Wildcats faced last weekend.

Here is the full schedule:

Thursday, Feb. 16

  • No. 10 Arizona vs. Drake — 5 p.m. MST

Friday, Feb. 17

  • No. 10 Arizona vs. Ball State — 3 p.m. MST
  • No. 10 Arizona vs. Abilene Christian — 5 p.m. MST

Saturday, Feb. 18

  • No. 10 Arizona vs. Boston College — 3 p.m. MST
  • No. 10 Arizona vs. Drake — 5 p.m. MST

Sunday, Feb. 19

  • No. 10 Arizona vs. North Dakota State — 1 p.m. MST

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire