The Arizona Wildcats softball team begins its season Friday, so head coach Mike Candrea held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the upcoming year.
Here were the key takeaways.
Palomino will play first base and is “95 percent” healthy
Candrea said redshirt sophomore Alyssa Palomino is “95 percent” healthy now after she tore her ACL just before Regionals last year.
“The five percent I think is more about her lack of having at-bats and playing the game at that speed all the time, but I think she’s getting closer to it, and I think she’s going to be ready to compete this weekend,” Candrea said.
Palomino played center field last year, but is on track to start at first base this season. Candrea said Palomino could play corner outfield this year if needed, though.
“That is more because of our needs than anything, not because she can’t play the outfield,” Candrea said. “She’s a tough kid, loves to play the game and I think she’s a very quick healer. So I would say she’s 100 percent, but I think at 95, 90 percent she’s pretty good to have.”
Indeed, Palomino was third in the Pac-12 in home runs (16) and fifth in RBI (54) last season.
When asked if he is worried about Palomino getting injured again (she missed her true freshman season because of a torn ACL, too), Candrea said:
“It always concerns you, but you can also get hit walking across the street. So you can’t put them in a bubble. If you’re gonna play, you’re gonna have to play. And I think a lot of times when you’re more cautious about things is when you’ll really get hurt. She’s gonna have to be able to swing the bat and to do that you have to be able to rotate and right now the ACL that was last (injured) was her left, so that’s her backside. She’s just starting to turn on the ball again, but she’s gotta be able to run bases, she’s gotta be able to make cuts. So far she’s been cleared to do all that and she’s doing it.”
Candrea listed Joelle Krist and Hillary Edior as other options at first base.
Louisiana-Lafayette transfer and two-time All-American Aleah Craighton will likely take Palomino’s spot in center. But freshman Jenna Kean, who Candrea said has a good arm and Caitlin Lowe-like speed, is in the mix there too.
“I think we have some options in center field, a lot more than we had last year,” Candrea said. “Jenna Kean is truly a center fielder. Aleah Craighton is truly a center fielder. I think Palomino would probably not play center field for us this year because we have a little more speed there. But she could play off in right field. She could play left field.
“It’s all going to depend on what we need. It all comes down to the offensive side first.”
McQuillin is the ace; Denham and Bowen are competing for the No. 2 spot
Unsurprisingly, Candrea named left-hander Taylor McQuillin as the team’s ace, citing the junior’s experience, history of pitching in big games, and increased maturity level.
McQuillin was Arizona’s No. 2 starter behind Danielle O’Toole last season.
“I think she knows that her time is here, that it’s her time to take the ball,” Candrea said of McQuillin. “In softball, a lot of times it’s how far your pitching can take you. I think it was not a good ending for her and she’s probably stood on that, but I think she’s worked very hard to reinvent herself a little bit. I think with the addition of (pitching coach) Taryne (Mowatt) to be there and to help her develop her off-speed pitch and be able to throw the ball in the inner half of the plate against right-handers, I think it’ll be fun to watch.”
McQuillin was second team All-Pac-12 last season, going 16-4 with a 1.92 ERA with 159 strikeouts in 120.1 innings pitched, but Candrea said she has “changed herself a little bit.”
“Which you have to do at this level,” Candrea said. “You have to recreate yourself each year. The key with Taylor is we got to get her to throw on the inside part of the plate. I think that’s our goal this year — take command of the inside part of the plate.
“Because last year we were too much curveball away. She’s got great movement but she’s added a great off-speed pitch.”
Next in line behind McQuillin are Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Alyssa Denham and freshman Hanah Bowen.
Candrea described Denham, a sophomore, as a tall right-hander with experience. Denham was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year last season, going 15-2 with a 2.27 ERA in 129.2 innings. (you can read more about Denham and Craighton here).
“I’m really excited to see what she does, what her role is going to be,” Candrea said. “And then Hanah Bowen I think is a freshman that has pitched at a very high level in travel ball. Will pitch to contact, but she’s better than people think.
“So we have three really good ones and then Gina Snyder I think is an interesting young lady because she transferred from Purdue because of some health issues, didn’t think she was ever going to play again, but this kid she can bring it up to 67 miles an hour. She throws hard. Sometimes she doesn’t get in the right zip code, but if we can get her dialed in a little bit, I think she’ll give us some quality innings.”
Malia Martinez to start at third
Since Arizona all-time home run leader Katiyana Mauga has graduated, Arizona has a major void to fill at third base — and it looks like sophomore Malia Martinez will get the first crack.
“I think Malia has put in the work and effort,” Candrea said. “I think she’s got a chance to be a good hitter at this level. Hits for power, will give us someone down toward the bottom of the lineup that can drive in runs. Pretty good feet, good hands, quick release.”
Despite losing Mauga, Candrea said Arizona has a lot of depth at third. Maybe more than any position.
“How ‘bout that?” he quipped.
Freshmen Ivy Davis and Hannah Martinez will back Malia up. But it remains to be seen how adequately they can replace Mauga.
“Kids like that, people don’t remember what they were like as freshmen,” Candrea said of Mauga. “Kati was a pretty special and always will be. She’s got great hands, great eyes, very high softball IQ, so to replace her in one year will be very difficult. There will be some numbers we won’t replace, but I do believe we have defensively a way of replacing her.
“And I think offensively, Malia Martinez can come in and do a really good job.”
Sophomore Reyna Carranco will remain the starter at second base, and sophomore Dejah Mulipola will catch. Jessie Harper will shift to shortstop after playing first base (you can read more about that here). All three were stellar as freshmen last season.
“I think the influx of Aleah Craighton with Palomino, Jess Harper, Mulipola, we’ve got some power in the middle of the lineup,” Candrea said. “But I think what’s helped us this year is we also have go speed at the top and the bottom.”
Senior Ashleigh Hughes will continue to start in right field.
“Ashleigh has a chance of being our leadoff hitter or being our ninth hitter, but I think she’s playing about as good of softball as I’ve seen her play since she got here,” Candrea said.
It is not clear who will start in left field, but it sounds like it will either be Kean or redshirt freshman Carli Campbell whose feistiness is comparable to Tanner Boyle’s from Bad News Bears.
“There’s a lot of different moving parts that can happen, which is good,” Candrea said. “I think a lot will depend on our ability to put our best offensive team out there and keep the defense that we need to be competitive with our pitching.
“So it’s going to be a balancing act. There probably are some core kids that you’ll see in the lineup everyday and most of that is because of their ability to swing the bat. Or be able to play defense at a particular position.”
Hillenbrand Stadium renovation update
Candrea was asked if there is an update on the Hillenbrand Stadium renovations, and this is what he said:
“The only update right now is that we are definitely in the developmental stage. A construction company has been picked. We went through our first days of looking at some renderings and we’re probably going to be following up here soon with something that we can present to some potential donors. We’re trying to set up a meet the team event where they can go over the project.
“Our biggest thing right now is shade. Shade is a big thing. The press box is a huge thing. We would like to have some level of club seating that we can make the game experience a little better. But from the dugouts up, it’s going to be all different. Different entry way. I think everything is going to be built inside of the stadium so we’ll have more room out there.
“There’s a lot of things we would like to do. It’s the money. If you have unlimited money, we could do anything but I think it’s going to be nice and a very good upgrade for us. I’m really excited for the program and the future of the program. Because for us to keep up in the recruiting wars with the SEC and other schools — I’m not one to sit here and say the facility is everything, but it’s a big part of it.”
No complaints about being picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12
Arizona won the Pac-12 last season, but was picked to finish fourth this year. Candrea downplayed the significance of preseason rankings, but had no issue with where the Wildcats were selected.
“That’s about where it should be right now if you look at last year and who we lost,” he said.
Arizona is ranked No. 7 to start the season, but Oregon (3), Washington (4), and UCLA (5) are all ranked higher.
“The good thing about that is it should make us all stronger for postseason,” Candrea said.
Arizona’s non-conference schedule is challenging, too.
The Wildcats open their season Friday in Tempe when they will face Northwestern and No. 24 Oklahoma State in a doubleheader as part of the Kajikawa Classic.
Later in non-conference play, Arizona will battle No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 16 Minnesota, plus travel to Austin for a three-game series at Texas.
So the Wildcats will be challenged plenty before they go through the gauntlet that is Pac-12 play.
“Right now, it’s a matter of helping us identify who we are and where we need to go,” Candrea said about the Kajikawa Classic. “I kinda look at it as a big test. A midterm test and in order to find out where this team needs to be, I think we need to play quality competition. Because we could sit here and pad our schedule and walk out of here 10-0 and not really be prepared when we walk into the Mary Nutter (Classic) or a three-game series at Texas.
“I’m going to try to challenge this team with our schedule.”
Friday’s doubleheader will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network. McQuillin might be saved for Game 2 against Oklahoma State.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire