The words ‘thank you, seniors’ were displayed on the videoboard in right field of Hillenbrand Stadium as the venue emptied after the series finale between Arizona and ASU.
For the last time in the regular season, the Wildcats’ senior class took the field at their home ballpark, and the end result couldn’t have been any better as far as Mike Candrea is concerned.
The Wildcats run-ruled ASU 8-0 in five innings on Sunday to clinch the series victory over their in-state rival.
Afterward, the eight seniors — the UA’s largest senior class since 2001 — received a framed jersey, a bouquet of flowers, and one last cheer from a sold-out crowd.
There was no shortage of tears.
“You couldn’t write the script any better than that,” Candrea said. “Senior Day, it’s always one of my favorite days, but you never know how it’s going to turn out. And I would have to say that a majority of the time we’ve been on the victory end, but the way we did it tonight against ASU was pretty special.”
Especially since the win came one night after the Wildcats lost 5-2 to the Sun Devils — which was just their second home loss all season.
“That was frustrating, so we wanted to come out today and close the series well,” said senior shortshop Mo Mercado.
That they did.
Danielle O’Toole tossed a one-hit shutout while freshman first baseman Jessie Harper led UA’s offense with three hits, including two homers, one of which was a fourth-inning grand slam to break the game open.
“I really wanted to do it for our seniors,” said Harper, who has 18 home runs this season. “I know yesterday was a little bit of an upset, but we just had to come out here strong. This whole year has been about the seniors. This is the year for them. I think this is a year for us to bring back Arizona softball and re-live the tradition that’s within the school. So I’m just overly proud of the seniors and I thank them all for teaching me, bringing all our freshmen up. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be as comfortable as I am now.”
Mercado and Harper hit back-to-back homers in third inning to start the Wildcats’ offensive flurry.
An inning later, Mercado drew a bases loaded walk to extend UA’s lead to 3-0 before Harper hit a grand slam to right to put UA up 7-0.
The freshman stole the show on senior day, going 3-for-3 with five RBIs and making a leaping catch in foul territory to help O’Toole escape a jam in the fourth inning.
The seniors didn’t mind.
“This a group,” Mercado said. “We were like ‘yeah, steal it girl.’”
O’Toole starred, too, pitching five scoreless innings in her final regular season game in the circle at Hillenbrand Stadium.
The redshirt senior, who decided to transfer to Arizona after two seasons at San Diego State, allowed just one hit and three walks while striking out five.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said of transferring, while holding back tears. “It’s the best decision of my life.”
O’Toole is 26-3 with a 0.92 ERA in her final season in Tucson.
“It’s nice to have Tooly on the mound,” Candrea said. “We always feel good with her.”
Meanwhile, ASU was forced to use three pitchers as each proved to be ineffective. Breanna Macha (11-8) started and only lasted only 2 1⁄3 innings before being removed after giving up back-to-back homers to Mercado and Harper.
She was replaced by Giselle Juarez, who stymied the Wildcats on Saturday night, but she couldn’t replicate her success. Juarez lasted just one inning, allowing three runs on two hits and two walks.
Dale Ryndak relieved Juarez and immediately walked Mercado to bring home a run before giving up a grand slam to Harper and, one batter later, a solo homer to Alyssa Palomino to increase UA’s lead to 8-0.
“She had a good weekend, to say the least,” Candrea said of Harper. “We needed it. We’re struggling a little bit offensively and hopefully that will get us back, but this team has responded good all year. And I thought yesterday we were a little flat. From batting practice on, we just weren’t quite there. They got things corrected today and played a hell of a game.”
Arizona tallied seven hits and was flawless in the field, finishing without an error.
The Wildcats improve to 47-5 overall, their highest win total since 2010 when they made their last College World Series appearance.
And, if they can stave off Utah, they’re on track to win their first Pac-12 title since 2007, too.
Just as the videoboard said after the game: Thank you, seniors.
“They really put us back on the map to be honest with you,” Candrea said. “We’ve had a little bit of a struggle, to say the least, for a few years. I think this senior class really wanted to get Arizona softball back where it was a factor.
“And this year, they’ve done that. They played the game hard, they’ve had great leadership, brought in a great freshman class, but really the seniors did a tremendous job of teaching them what’s expected and what Arizona softball looks like and I really believe this senior class raised the bar. They did. They raised the bar in all aspects and I’m so happy for each and every one of them.”
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