A highly-anticipated softball season is here.
The Arizona Wildcats, ranked 10th to begin the season, will kick off their 2017 campaign Thursday when they host the Hillenbrand Invitational, which is a four-day, 15-game tournament that includes Northwestern, No. 21 Baylor, Cal State Northridge, Fordham, and Tulsa.
As evidenced by the Wildcats’ top-10 preseason ranking — its highest since the 2012 season — they are expected to do big things this season.
The Wildcats finished 40-21 and made it to Super Regionals last season, and return eight starters and all four of their pitchers from that team.
Important starters, too — Arizona returns 90 percent of its hits and RBIs from its offense that finished fourth in the Pac-12 in runs scored a season ago.
As a result, the Wildcats were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 Coaches Poll behind UCLA.
Here’s their schedule this weekend as well as a preview of each position group.
Thursday, Feb. 9:
No. 10 Arizona vs. Fordham — 6 p.m. MST
- Fordham went 39-21 last season and won the Atlantic 10, winning a program-high 18 conference games. The Rams return eight starters from that team, leading them to be picked to repeat as A10 champions.
Friday, Feb. 10:
No. 10 Arizona vs. Cal State Northridge — 5 p.m. MST
- CSUN finished 34-22 last season and is projected to finish third in the Big West conference this season. The Matadors feature Taylor Glover, who is on the USA Softball Player of the Year Top 50 Watch List. The senior outfielder put up some ridiculous numbers last season, batting .429/.454/.588 as a junior.
Saturday, Feb. 11:
No. 10 Arizona vs. No. 21 Baylor — 3 p.m. MST
- The Bears finished 45-14 a season ago and return six starters and four pitchers, including Kendall Potts, who posted a 1.93 ERA in 105.1 innings. Baylor did lose Heather Sterns, though, who posted a 2.10 ERA in 179.2 innings. The Bears finished second in the Big 12 last year and are projected to finish third in the conference this season.
No. 10 Arizona vs. Northwestern — 5 p.m. MST
- Northwestern reached the NCAA Tournament last season, posting a 27-28 record and finishing third in the Big Ten. However, the Wildcats graduated seven seniors, including their top two pitchers. They do return Sabrina Rabin, however, who was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season. She hit .358 and stole 40 bases, leading what is known to be a speedy lineup.
Sunday, Feb. 12:
No. 10 Arizona vs. Tulsa — 12 p.m.
- The Hurricane are the reigning American Athletic Conference champions, and are coming off a 35-21 season in which they made the NCAA Tournament. Tulsa returns 12 starters from a year ago, and are projected to repeat as AAC champions. Four of the Hurricane’s returning starters were first-team all-conference honorees last season.
All games will be live streamed here.
The Wildcats were second in the Pac-12 in ERA last season (2.67) and they return all four pitchers — fifth-year senior Danielle O’Toole, sophomore Taylor McQuillin, senior Nancy Bowling, and senior Michelle Floyd.
“The one thing that we’re bringing is experience,” said head coach Mike Candrea*, who is entering his 32nd season at Arizona. “I feel very good about the progress that they have made over the last year. Danielle O’Toole obviously is very battle tested, and I think will be one that we’ll be leaning on. But Taylor McQuillin is another talented young lady, another lefty. Nancy Bowling has really done a nice job this fall and is very well-prepared to give us some quality innings. Michelle Floyd is our fourth pitcher and Michelle has improved a lot and I think you’ll see her at times give us quality innings and great effort.”
O’Toole and McQuillin were the pitching staff’s top two arms last season, as they pitched 216 innings and 128 innings, respectively.
O’Toole, who made the USA Women’s National Team this offseason, was named to the Pac-12 all-first team last season — becoming the first Wildcat to get the nomination since 2010 — as the left-hander led the conference in wins (26) and was third in ERA (2.17) and strikeouts (192).
McQuillin went 12-8 with a 3.17 ERA last season as a freshman, leading her to be named to the Pac-12 all-freshman team.
Meanwhile, Bowling had a 3.44 ERA in 38.2 innings while Floyd had a 3.94 ERA in 10.2 innings. They are the staff’s two right-handers.
The Wildcats have experience across the roster — except at catcher.
Lauren Young, who started in all 61 games last season, graduated and now Arizona heads into the 2017 season with three catchers who have played sparingly (if at all).
That doesn’t mean there isn’t talent at the position, though.
Freshman Dejah Mulipola is expected to start for the Wildcats, and she was the No. 5 recruit in softball in 2016, per FloSoftball.
In 16 fall at-bats, Mulipola led Arizona with a .625 batting average, including six extra-base hits, two of which were home runs.
“I think our freshman Dejah Mulipola has been a really pleasant surprise. A really strong kid, good arm,” Candrea said. “I think offensively she is going to be really good for us.”
Arizona’s other two catchers are Tucson native Robyn Porter, a junior, and Hillary Edior, a sophomore.
Edior hit .186 in 43 at-bats last season, while Porter hit .091 in 11 at-bats.
“One thing about this team is we have some quality depth and I think that’s the same at both the catcher and the pitcher position,” Candrea said.
The two decorated names in the infield for Arizona are seniors Mo Mercado and Katiyana Mauga.
Mercado, the team’s starting shortstop, slashed .378/.415/.575 last season as she led the Wildcats in hits (73), being named to the All-Pac-12 second team.
“She’s really the glue to that infield for us,” Candrea said.
Mauga, who starts at third base, is chasing history this season.
With 67 career home runs to her name, Mauga is 20 homers away from tying Arizona’s all-time record (which is held by Stacie Chambers), 23 homers away from tying the Pac-12 record, and 28 homers shy of the NCAA record.
Last season, Mauga hit .317 with 21 homers and 62 RBIs, and since starting her career in 2014, she has never hit fewer than 20 homers in a season.
Junior Ashleigh Hughes is expected to start at second base this season, where she started 53 times last season.
Hughes tallied 166 at-bats in which she slashed .271/.319/.337, and she was tied for the team-lead in stolen bases with 12.
Candrea said sophomore Monica Pasillas, and freshmen Jessie Harper and Reyna Carranco will also be vying for playing time at second. Harper, who can play all four infield positions, and Carranco are also Mercado’s backup at shortstop.
Jaycee Lindley, another freshman, will likely redshirt, per Candrea.
Finally, at first base the Wildcats will likely use a combination of sophomore Joelle Krist and Nancy Bowling.
Krist played in 44 games last season (starting in 28 of them) and slashed .195/.308/.442 in 77 at-bats.
Of the 15 hits Krist had a season ago, six of them were homers.
Bowling, when not on the mound, hit .247/.376/.438 with five homers and 23 RBIs.
Harper may see some time at first base, as well.
To say Arizona’s outfield has been around the block would be an understatement. Candrea calls Arizona’s outfield “our old ladies.”
“We’re very blessed to have some fifth-year seniors and (four-year) seniors in the outfield,” he said.
Redshirt senior Mandie Perez started all 61 games in left field for Arizona last season, and she will get the nod at the position in 2017.
Last season, Perez had a line of .338/.416/.581 as she slugged 11 homers and had 12 stolen bases. She was named to the All-Pac-12 first team.
“Mandie is our leadoff hitter,” Candrea said. “Very tough to pitch to, very quick hands. She’s one that can do a lot of things. She can hit with power, she can short game it, (she is a) great baserunner, very aggressive.”
Redshirt freshman Alyssa Palomino is expected to start in centerfield. After being one of the top recruits in the country, Palomino missed the 2016 season after she tore her ACL in the first day of practice.
“If she’s not 100%, she’s 99%,” Candrea said in January. “But yeah, she looks good. She’s moving good, swinging the bat well. I see no reason why we should have any issues with her at all.
“If you look back at her body of work when she was on the J.O. (Junior Olympic) team, she did nothing but set records,” Candrea added. “So it’s there, it’s just a matter of her getting back to where she needs to, and I think she’s getting back there. If there’s anything that hurt her probably was the lack of live ABs. When they had the tryout in January, you’re sitting there a whole month, so it can effect a hitter that doesn’t get the live she might have needed in the month of December, but I think her time will come.”
Senior Eva Watson, who started 38 games in center last season, will likely play both center and right field this season.
Watson led Arizona in batting average (.387) last season.
“Center field we have some options this year,” said Candrea, who noted Watson is “a little banged up.”
Along with Watson in right field is Alexis Dotson. Dotson started all 61 games (21 in centerfield, 40 in right field) last season, hitting .287/.312/.399.
Candrea noted that freshman outfielder Carli Campbell, who’s from Canyon del Oro High School, will likely redshirt.
“We have a lot of depth on this team. ... If one goes down we’re not devastated,” Candrea said. “There’s someone else that can step in. From a coaching standpoint, it’s going to be a challenge for me to make sure that I can give all of these kids enough innings to give them a fair opportunity because the game of softball is one of those games that can be very tough if you’re in and out of the lineup to gain any continuity. That will be a challenge for me, to balance the talent we have with the playing time.”
Also of note is Tamara Statman, who started 55 games as Arizona’s designated player last season. The sophomore, who had the game-winning hit to send UA to Super Regionals, hit .289/.395/.437 as a freshman.
She will presumably be a stalwart in Arizona’s lineup once again this season.
- Mandie Perez, LF
- Dejah Mulipola, C
- Alyssa Palomino, CF
- Katiyana Mauga, 3B
- Mo Mercado, SS
- Joelle Krist, 1B
- Jessie Harper, DP
- Alexis Dotson, RF
- Ashleigh Hughes, 2B
Arizona has made the NCAA Tournament 30 years in a row, and if it earns another appearance this season, the UA will have the longest streak in NCAA softball history.
However, the Wildcats have not reached the Women’s College World Series since 2010.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire
*all quotes transcribed via Arizona Softball’s YouTube page unless noted/linked otherwise
**per UA’s official game notes