Mike Candrea took a slight step away from the media scrum surrounding him and began to reminisce.
“Oh God,” said UA’s 32nd-year head coach, followed by a long pause after being asked which former player of his compares to Dejah Mulipola.
“I’d…she...,” Candrea hesitated, before delivering his answer. “She’s a little like Leah Braatz.”
Mulipola is Arizona’s highly-touted freshman catcher. And Braatz, the player she reminds Candrea of? Oh, she’s only a four-time All-American whose name is littered all across UA’s record books.
No big deal.
“A little bit different ... but just strong, really strong with her legs and hands,” Candrea said of Mulipola. “She hits the ball opposite field very well when she’s on top of things.”
Candrea points toward the blue right-field wall in Hillenbrand Stadium.
“You’re going to see some lasers hit that way,” he claims.
“I think Braatz was a little like that as a hitter. Not a lot of movement. She just kind of sits in her legs, very quiet hands, and just throws the bat head. There’s not a lot that can go wrong in a swing like that.”
Indeed. When Braatz graduated in 1998, she departed as UA’s all-time leader in home runs (85) and doubles (59). She won three National Championships and twice earned national honors for her excellence as a catcher.
Not a lot went wrong.
But, Mulipola — with the same effortless swing — is already producing similar results.
Through the first 11 games of her career, the freshman, batting second in every game this season, leads Arizona in hits (16), batting average (.593), and on-base percentage (.611).
Mulipola is also second on the team in RBIs (17), doubles (3) and slugging percentage (1.111), and is tied for third in home runs (3).
Last Sunday, the Orange County native went 5-for-5 in Arizona’s doubleheader, driving in eight runs and bashing two homers on her 19th birthday as the Wildcats improved to 11-0 to begin the season — their best start since they won a National Championship in 2006.
“She’s got pretty good discipline at the plate for a young kid,” Candrea said. “She’s got great hand-eye coordination and squares the ball up. If she swings at strikes, she has a pretty good chance of squaring the ball up and hitting it hard. You see her power. The balls that she hits sometimes are lasers.”
Mulipola’s brilliance doesn’t end there, though. Ask one of Arizona’s pitchers what they think about the first-year catcher behind the plate and they light up.
“Dejah is incredible. She’s ridiculous,” said ace Danielle O’Toole, a redshirt senior. “She’s probably one of the best catchers I’ve ever had.
“And I’ve thrown for a long time, so that’s something to say.”
Added senior right-hander Nancy Bowling in agreement: “Yeah, she is the best catcher I’ve ever had. ... There’s just something kind of calm about her. She never gets too up, she never gets too down. You know she is going to be back there working her butt off every single time.”
Add that to her ability in the batter’s box and Mulipola has what Candrea calls “the whole package.”
“She sticks pitches well. She throws well. The way she throws in between innings keeps people from running (on us),” Candrea said, adding that Mulipola’s throws back to the pitcher are as laser-like as the way the ball pops off her bat.
“I think just her consistency and her stability there helps our entire pitching staff.”
Mulipola has speed too, Candrea adds.
“She’s quick for her size, and as a catcher you don’t expect that,” he said of the 5-foot-8 freshman. “You ought to come watch her sometime when we’re doing conditioning. She’s athletic. She can run. She’s got power.
“If she was a guy, the scouts would be going crazy over her. She’s got some tools.”
Despite that, Mulipola says she did not see herself playing this well this quickly at Arizona.
“No, definitely not,” she said after her eight-RBI day.
Candrea disagrees. He saw it coming. After all, Mulipola was a top-five recruit in the country, a member of the USA Softball Junior Team, and a high school All-American.
“I knew she was good,” Candrea said. “There was a reason why she made the [USA Softball] Junior Team. You’re looking at the best in the country at that age group. … Those are the types of kids you need to compete for championships.”
Looking for a championship, Mulipola eagerly committed to Arizona during her sophomore year of high school. She even remembers the exact date she made the pledge.
“October 19,” she recalls.
From that day in 2013 until her first game as an Arizona Wildcat in 2017, it was, as fellow freshman Jessie Harper (who also committed as a sophomore) put it, a “long waiting process.”
But that process is over, and Mulipola says she is excited to finally be playing between the white lines at Hillenbrand Stadium.
This time, Candrea cannot disagree.
He feels the same way.
“I’m excited about having a catcher that’s got the whole package,” he said. “She can do it all.”
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire