It was business as usual.
The Arizona Wildcats were going through a mid-week practice and Eva Watson was readying to track down a fly ball in a typical outfield drill.
Then she heard a scream.
“I turn around and then it was almost like my heart broke,” Watson remembers.
What she saw was horrifying. Starting center fielder Alyssa Palomino was writhing in pain on the outfield grass.
“I didn’t know what happened or how much pain she was in and I just wanted to be there for her, so I ran over there,” Watson said.
Palomino had torn her ACL.
“It was devastating because I feel her pain,” Watson said. “She’s my roommate and I know how much she loves this sport.”
Palomino’s season was over and Watson, though saddened by the news, knew what it meant for her: She had just become Arizona’s new starting center fielder — and right at the start of the postseason, no less.
“It’s crazy but it’s exciting,” Watson said. “And honestly I haven’t felt that nervous just because me, [Alexis Dotson] and anyone else sitting on the bench we prepare everyday as if something might happen or coach could call us anytime in the game. So I’ve been preparing this entire time, so I didn’t feel like I needed to change anything ... because I felt ready anyway.”
Watson’s past experience helps, too.
The senior made 63 starts in her first three seasons with the Wildcats, including 38 last season when she hit a team-best .387.
This season, Watson only started in five games prior to Palomino’s injury, but was thriving as a baserunning specialist.
“It’s kind of tough sometimes as a senior to accept a role that’s different and she did accept a role where she wasn’t playing as much,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “But the great thing about this senior class is all of them have continued to prepare like they’re starters each and every day. So anyone of them I’m sure if I put in a ballgame will be quite ready.”
Watson certainly was.
In three starts in the Tucson Regional, she was 4 for 6 at the plate, scored four times, and stole two bases.
“I’m not surprised. She does it everyday in practice,” said UA left fielder Mandie Perez. “I just think she was waiting for her opportunity to finally get to show off her speed both in the outfield and at the plate. It’s not surprising to me because I see it all the time.”
It’s also not surprising because Watson had similar success in the postseason last year. She hit 7 for 15 and scored five times.
“I’m not going to lie, I think it helps being a senior just because I have been here before so that definitely helps with the nerves,” she said. “It’s not my first time ever in a regional.”
Watson and Palomino have plenty in common off the field — they watch Netflix, eat ice cream, attend FCA meetings, and live together — but they couldn’t be more different on the field.
Watson is a speedy slapper; Palomino hits for power.
“I think it is funny because we actually are completely opposite players,” Watson said. “She hits bombs and I just run.”
Swapping the two has changed the complexion of Arizona’s offense.
The Wildcats entered the postseason as the nation’s leader in homers, but did most of their damage with small ball in the Tucson Regional.
Watson batted ninth, which put three slappers at the bottom of the order. That trio hit 8 for 9 in the Tucson Regional, sparking an offense which generated 25 runs in three games.
“Coach always loves speed and that definitely changes the pace of our game,” Watson said. “I think a lot of teams prepare for us as if they’re preparing for a lot of power hitters and then when you have that much speed back to back it changes up your defensive plan and your pitching plan and all of that. And I think our speed helps set it up for the power hitters so they don’t feel like they have to do as much.”
One of Arizona’s power hitters is enjoying Watson’s success as much as anyone else: the injured Palomino.
“[Alyssa] has been so unbelievably supportive,” Watson said. “She’s asking me, ‘are you ready? Are you nervous at all? Are you excited?’
“Every single time before my at-bat she’ll say something to me or give me a hug after the game and tell me how proud she is of me. We have such a great relationship.”
Arizona hosts Baylor in Super Regionals in a best-of-three series this weekend. The Wildcats are two wins away from reaching the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010.
Watson will bat ninth and start in center while Palomino will cheer from the bench. Their roles have been reversed but the team’s goal hasn’t changed.
“It’s crazy how it worked out,” Watson said, “but I’m so thankful for how my teammates have supported me and really welcomed me out there on the field. I’ve had a couple of them like Mo [Mercado] tell me ‘I have 100 percent confidence in you’ and I haven’t played all year. That’s really great to hear from your teammates.”
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