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Aleah Craighton, Alyssa Denham starting to break out at Arizona

The Louisiana-Lafayette transfers had an impressive weekend after a slow start to the season

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Arizona softball made a major splash in the winter when it unexpectedly landed highly-regarded Louisiana-Lafayette transfers Alyssa Denham and Aleah Craighton.

Craighton, a two-time All-American outfielder, was immediately projected to be one of Arizona’s best hitters, while Denham, the reigning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, was expected to be UA’s No. 2 pitcher behind ace Taylor McQuillin.

But fast forward to the 2018 season’s midpoint, and the newcomers have not quite lived up to expectations.

Craighton, who hit .365 at UL with 48 career home runs, 154 RBIs and a .794 slugging percentage, is batting .288/.421/.600 with six homers and 21 RBIs at Arizona.

Denham, despite posting a very solid 1.65 ERA, has been unable to carve out a steady role in the rotation, logging just 44 innings across 10 appearances (including seven starts) — a far cry from the 129.1 innings she threw as a freshman at UL.

Not to mention Denham’s 44 innings are only 14 more than freshman Hanah Bowen has pitched, as the two have been competing all season to be McQuillin’s primary alternative.

(McQuillin, by the way, has tallied 133.1 innings and pitched in all but one conference game, shouldering most of the load in the circle.)

Arizona head coach Mike Candrea saw this coming.

Before the season, he made an effort to tame all presumptions regarding Craighton and Denham, even though they had been stellar at UL.

And that was mainly for one reason: the manner and timing of their arrival was unconventional.

Denham and Craighton left UL in December after head coach Michael Lotief was abruptly fired after “subjecting student-athletes and coworkers to violent, vulgar language and verbal and physical assault, creating a hostile learning and working environment,” according to a school news release.

So Denham and Craighton did not join the Wildcats until January when the spring semester began. Thus, they did not have a chance to get acclimated to their new surroundings in the fall like most newcomers do.

Candrea figured such an odd entrance could be problematic, and he now believes it explains their slow start.

The stiffer competition they now face in the Pac-12 could also be a factor, though Denham and Craighton have downplayed that.

“You could say that Pac-12 hitters are better than Sun Belt hitters,” Denham said, “but we also played big schools like Alabama and (Texas) A&M. So it’s not my first time seeing big hitters.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s totally different,” Craighton said of Pac-12 softball. “The ball is still the same, it moves the same. Yeah, the pitchers are a little bit better, but it’s all about the approach at the plate.”

Craighton did admit hers hasn’t been the best. Her timing has been off.

“She needs to start earlier so she has time to get her front foot down and then has time to be able to swing the bat,” Candrea explained. “She was waiting until the ball was on her. So she’s trying to tilt and hit all at the same time, and that’s why she could never get her hands out.”

Craighton made some adjustments last week, and the results were noticeable Friday when she roped a single to left and drew a walk in Arizona’s 3-2 win vs. Cal.

The redshirt senior had just two hits in her previous 17 at-bats.

“So yeah, I thought tonight was a breakthrough for her,” Candrea said after that game. “And I’m looking forward to seeing her tomorrow. The kid has extreme power. But you’ve got to be able to get the barrel out there, not sitting back here all the time.”

Sure enough, Craighton’s strength was on display the very next day when she cranked a solo home run over the batter’s eye in center.

It was her first homer in conference play, though it probably won’t be her last. Craighton looked, and felt, more like the slugger she was at UL.

“I’ve been struggling a little bit but we’ve been working on a few things, trying to get my swing back to where it was,” she said. “So I think this weekend was a breakout weekend.”

Denham had a breakout weekend of her own. The stoic 6-foot-1 right-hander threw 6 13 scoreless innings in relief in Saturday’s 7-3 victory against the Bears.

Denham faced the minimum, allowing UA’s offense to mount a comeback after Bowen had surrendered three first-inning runs.

“She came in a did a helluva job,” Candrea said. “Sometimes you have these breakout moments as players, and I thought today was one for her.”

Overall, Saturday’s victory was arguably Arizona’s most impressive conference win. It was able to defeat a top-25 team without using McQuillin, while its usually-top-heavy offense was fueled by a balanced, 11-hit effort.

Most of all, it provided a glimpse of how much more dangerous the Wildcats are when Craighton and Denham are playing up to their potential.

Their lineup is longer, their rotation has a potent 1-2 punch, and they have all the makings of a College World Series contender.

“It’s taken a little while for both Aleah and Alyssa,” Candrea said, “but I’ll say two things about those kids and it’s a tribute to Michael Lotief and his program because he wouldn’t recommend kids to me if they would not fit in well here. Both of those kids are very high character, have worked extremely hard, have really stayed positive through the struggles.

“They’re definitely going to be an important part of our program moving forward, so we’re happy to have them here.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire