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Aleah Craighton, Alyssa Denham a ‘great addition’ for Arizona softball

The Louisiana-Lafayette transfers didn’t have the most conventional route to Tucson, but they should help the Wildcats in 2018

Alyssa Denham

It’s Nov. 1, 2017 and the Louisiana-Lafayette softball team has arrived at Lamson Park on a rainy Wednesday night feeling like anything but the home team.

The black, iron-clad gates bordering the Ragin’ Cajuns’ stadium had been wrapped with chains and adorned with signs that read: “Closed Facility.”

Good luck getting in.

“We were just trying to get our personal belongings,” pitcher Alyssa Denham said at the time. “Keys, backpacks. We have class tomorrow.”

A team that had just won the Sun Belt Conference a few months earlier was in complete disarray.

Long-time ULL coach Michael Lotief had been fired that day amid allegations of verbal and physical assault. He had been at the helm for 16 years.

“Very unexpected,” said Aleah Craighton, a now-former ULL outfielder.

Earlier that Wednesday, Denham and other teary-eyed players surrounded their head coach in his lawyer’s office as he addressed his dismissal and refuted the claims.

“Heartbreaking,” Denham called the situation at the time.

“Having such a great person being taken, not out of only my life, but all of my friends’ lives — these are my sisters here — it’s like losing a family member.”

Eventually, Denham would lose many, many more.

She and Craighton would soon become two of several ULL players to leave the program following Lotief’s firing.

“Bad,” Craighton now describes that situation, “but it could have been worse.”

Two and half months have passed since that fateful day, but now Craighton and Denham are soaking in the sunshine on 70-degree January days in Tucson, Arizona.

“The weather here is beautiful,” Denham said. “I think there’s been like one day that there’s been clouds in the sky. I love it.”

Craighton, a senior, and Denham, a sophomore, both transferred to the University of Arizona at the beginning of the spring semester, giving them roughly a month to get acclimated with their new team before its Feb. 9 season opener against Northwestern in Tempe.

That adjustment hasn’t always been easy.

“I didn’t know anybody here so it was me and Aleah, but everybody’s welcomed us with open arms and been super welcoming,” Denham said.

“At first it was kind of rough just figuring out a schedule and a routine, but now that I have everything lined up — academic-wise, sleeping, lifting, practice — everything’s pretty smooth now.”

Denham and Craighton made their decisions individually, but both felt Arizona was the best place for them. They liked the coaching staff, their new teammates, and the large UA campus even if Denham gets lost sometimes.

“I looked at a couple other schools, but I really enjoyed this coaching staff,” Denham said. “I like working with (pitching) coach Taryne (Mowatt), and I wanted to have a coaching staff that was successful, had a good track record, and that’s what I’ve found here.”

Denham’s biggest concern about the move to Tucson was having to start over and make new friends. Luckily, she already had one in Craighton.

“We’ve gotten super close and we were good friends last year, so having her be with me as we get used to a new environment, new people, it’s really nice,” Denham said.

Arizona head coach Mike Candrea, friends with Lotief, was not expecting to make any roster additions, let alone in January, but he is always open to adding players who can contribute — and Craighton and Denham certainly can.

Craighton, a two-time All-American outfielder at ULL, hit .345/.536/.779 with 18 homers and 53 RBI in 2017.

Denham, a right-handed pitcher, was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in 2017, going 15-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 129.2 innings.

Talented, yes, but that’s not all Candrea was looking for.

“You’ve got to be careful that it’s not just a great player but a quality human being that’s going to fit in,” he said.

“Because they’re walking in in January. This team has been together since September. So the chemistry of this team is very important to us. The culture is very important for me, and it had to be the right fit.”

It was. Junior pitcher Taylor McQuillin said Craighton and Denham have been a “great addition” to the team.

“They gel with everyone on the field and off the field, so that’s the best part about it,” she said. “I think it’s just going to help our successes this year.”

Indeed, adding Craighton and Denham has significantly brightened the team’s outlook heading into the 2018 season.

Craighton, a self-described power hitter, can help Arizona replace the top-of-the-order production lost because of the graduations of Katiyana Mauga, Mo Mercado, and Mandie Perez.

Denham, a tall, stoic right-hander with pin-point command and wicked spin on her pitches, profiles as a top-end starter — one who can ease the departure of former ace Danielle O’Toole.

And both transfers are confident they can contribute quickly, even if Candrea prefers to wait and see.

“I don’t think it’s going to be too hard,” Craighton said. “Change is obviously different, but I don’t think I have to change too much to get acclimated.

“Softball-wise, the game is still the same.”