With the Tucson Regional set to begin on Friday afternoon, the Arizona Wildcats are about to embark on the most exciting part of their season.
“It’s an exciting time of the year for every college softball player, every softball coach, and I’m no different,” UA head coach Mike Candrea said Thursday.
“It’s a culmination for us of a great body of work in our non-conference season and our conference season and now we’re ready for the next season, which is postseason. I’m excited to get started to say the least and I think this team is well prepared.”
Every team in the NCAA Tournament is eager to begin postseason play, and it is especially true for Arizona.
The Wildcats had a bye week to cap off their regular season schedule, meaning they have not played since May 7 when they beat UCLA to clinch their first Pac-12 title since 2007.
To replicate a game environment, the Wildcats played a series of intersquad games last weekend.
“They were very competitive but I probably would’ve preferred to been playing that weekend,” Candrea said. “But it is what it is and we did what we could. We had a good week of practice. We were able to go back to some of the basics and revisit some things. I think we’re as ready as we can be.”
And ready to see some new faces in the opposing dugout.
“I think all of us are chomping at the bit to have another team in the dugout instead of scrimmaging ourselves,” said UA shortstop Mo Mercado.
That said, the Wildcats’ first postseason opponent is a familiar one. Arizona is hosting New Mexico State on Friday at 6:30 p.m. PST. The Wildcats played the Aggies in a doubleheader on April 18 in Las Cruces.
Arizona won both games by a combined score of 19-1 — not that it matters at this juncture.
“I don’t look beyond today, to tell you the truth,” Candrea said. “I know one thing about looking too far ahead is you can get bit really quick and I think especially in today’s world with the parity that there is around the country, it’s one of the lessons you learn very quickly.
“We’re trying to take care of business right now with New Mexico State, an opponent that we played already earlier on, an opponent that I think swings the bat very well, and has good pitching. It’s going to be competitive. They’re coming off winning their WAC championship so they’re highly motivated, we’re highly motivated and we can’t wait to get on the field and play the game."
Candrea downplayed the importance of his team’s previous matchup against New Mexico State.
“That’s always good, but in today’s world it’s not that hard to find information on opponents,” he said. “The internet and television has really helped us in that regard as far as gathering information. Back in the day when you never saw anyone, it was kind of frightening to walk up and sometimes you get surprised.
“But I think in today’s world if you do your homework, we’ve seen plenty of video on all the teams that we could be facing this weekend and we’re doing our part to prepare ourselves as well as possible."
The Aggies went 29-23 this season and were champions of the WAC, finishing 11-4 in conference play. NMSU is scoring 6.08 runs per game, placing it 14th in the country, and has already seen what UA’s pitching staff has to offer.
“Seeing two outstanding lefties in the circle, it’s nice to take a peek at that before you get to try it again,” said NMSU head coach Kathy Rodolph, referring to UA’s Danielle O’Toole and Taylor McQuillin. “But obviously [Arizona’s] an outstanding program. They swing it well, they pitch well, they do what Coach Candrea is known for, but I think that actually having an opportunity to play them with us being so young gives us a stage of what to expect."
Rodolph isn’t kidding about the Aggies’ youth. NMSU only has two seniors on its roster and just a handful of players who have NCAA Tournament experience.
And only one player on the team — junior infielder Rachel Rodriguez — has played at Hillenbrand Stadium before, which undoubtedly will be sold out for Friday’s game.
“At the end of the day, the big crowd doesn’t matter,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about both teams going on the field and battling it out and playing our game.”
Home away from home
For two Aggies, playing at Hillenbrand Stadium will be a homecoming of sorts — outfielder Amy Bergeson and pitcher Kayla Green are Tucson natives.
Bergeson, who is hitting .313 in 44 games, graduated from Sahuaro High School. Green, who has a 4.36 ERA in a team-high 189.1 innings of work, hails from Cienega High School.
Rodolph has continually been impressed by Tucson’s talent.
“I think that the Tucson kids absolutely have to work really, really hard and maybe don’t get quite the credit that some of the Phoenix kids get,” she said. “I like somebody that’s willing to go the extra mile, will work hard, that will grind, that doesn’t have quit in them, so I love my Tucson kids.”
Throw the numbers out
The Wildcats (48-7) enter the NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed and one of the favorites to win the Women’s College World Series.
But they aren’t paying attention to any of the outside noise, even if it is complimentary.
“We know better than that, that you have to play the game between the lines,” Candrea said. “It’s not being played on social media or on television or whatever it may be. It doesn’t matter how many all-regional players you have or all-Pac-12 players you have, it’s going to happen between the lines this weekend and that I know for a fact.”
Arizona has eight all-regional players, tying a program record, but star power isn’t exactly the name of the game in NCAA Tournament play.
“Most of the time in postseason it’s not your big names that make a difference, some of the times it’s your bottom of the order that will have the great at-bats or two at-bats or a great steal,” Candrea said. “You see new heroes being developed each and every day at every regional.”
One of those new heroes could be Eva Watson or Alexis Dotson. The senior outfielders may have to start in center field in place of standout freshman Alyssa Palomino.
Palomino injured her left knee in practice this week and is considered ‘day to day.’
On Thursday, Palomino was a spectator at practice, sporting crutches and a heavy leg brace as her team prepared for Friday’s postseason opener.
If Palomino misses extended time, it would be a sizable loss for the Wildcats. She has started in all 55 games this season, batting .302/.408/.711 with 16 homers and 54 RBIs while being a solid defender in center field.
Last week, she was named to the All-Pac-12 Second Team and the All-Pac-12 Freshman Team.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire