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Arizona softball: Alyssa Palomino, Ashleigh Hughes ready for the NCAA Tournament

Palomino is ready to make her postseason debut, while Hughes is primed for a larger role

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Around this time last year, Alyssa Palomino’s knee buckled during a routine outfield drill, ending her season just before she could make her first NCAA Tournament appearance.

So instead of powering the Arizona Wildcats’ offense through the postseason, she was relegated to being a cheerleader as they devastatingly fell one win short of the College World Series.

“It was hard,” recalls Palomino, who’s suffered two ACL tears in three years at Arizona.

“But I learned to get into that role pretty quick, just being the teammate that I needed to be, being loud and just picking them up. But it was hard just watching them go through postseason, and I felt the losses as much as much as they did.”

Which makes her that much more amped for Friday.

That’s when Palomino will make her long-awaited postseason debut as No. 14 Arizona opens the Tucson Regional against Saint Francis (Pa.) — barring any more last-minute injuries, of course.

“Me and Bruce, our trainer, have been joking all week that I gotta get through yesterday, which I did, and now we’ve got to get through today and I think we’ll be good,” Palomino said Thursday. “I’m just excited to get out there. I’ve had butterflies all week long.”

Despite suffering two devastating knee injuries at Arizona — the first one forced her to miss her entire true freshman season — Palomino continues to excel on the diamond.

In fact, she’s a better player than ever. The redshirt sophomore is posting career-highs in nearly every offensive category.

And only one Pac-12 player — teammate Jessie Harper — has hit more home runs than Palomino this season (18).

Keep in mind Palomino is doing that all while learning how to play a new position. She shifted from center field to first base to preserve her health and fill a team need.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with Alyssa since I was 12, so I’m kinda used to her out on the field and in the lineup, but I think that the past couple of years have been a little bit different for her,” said UA pitcher Taylor McQuillin. “...But I think that it’s only made her stronger. I think that she’s matured more from it.”

Palomino’s left knee still bothers her — she missed a game a few weeks ago after tweaking it — and she admits she won’t be 100 percent this postseason, or maybe ever.

But whether she’s at 80 percent, 60 percent, or 100 percent, the Wildcats are thrilled to have their left-handed slugger in the lineup.

“I’ll give 100 percent of what I do have and I’m feeling good and ready to get after it,” Palomino said. “It’s definitely been a long time coming, and the emotions and feelings are built up. So I’m ready.”

Hughes “ready to go”

After Ashleigh Hughes broke her left hand on April 21, she never wavered in her belief that she was going to play again this season.

It turns out she was right.

The senior outfielder has been used as a pinch-runner a few times already, and now she’s primed to take on an increased role in the postseason as her hand continues to heal.

Hughes practiced Thursday seemingly without limitations. The only remnant of her injury was a soft splint on her glove hand.

“Ashleigh’s doing well,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “She’s swung the bat the last couple days, and I think she’s ready to go.”

Candrea isn’t sure if Hughes will return to her usual spot atop Arizona’s lineup, though.

For one, she has not had an at-bat in nearly a month.

For another, freshman Jenna Kean has been effective in Hughes’ stead.

Hughes was hitting .293/.326/.447 with a career-high five homers before getting injured, while Kean has had eight hits and seven walks in the last 10 games.

Both provide plenty of speed, too.

“No one said we’re going to take (Kean) out of the lineup, but we’re still toying with what gives us the best opportunities both offensively and defensively,” Candrea said. “We’re still kinda contemplating that. I guess you’ll have to come to the game to find out what happens.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire