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A way-too-early look at 2019 Arizona softball

The Wildcats return all but two starters next season

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Arizona softball’s season came to an end Friday when it lost to UCLA in Super Regionals.

The Wildcats went 43-16, including a 13-11 mark in the Pac-12. It’s the eighth straight year they have fallen short of the Women’s College World Series.

Will 2019 be the year they finally return to Oklahoma City? Hillenbrand Stadium will look a lot different, but UA’s roster won’t.

Here’s an early outlook.

Most key players are returning

Barring any transfers, Arizona will only lose three players this offseason. Two are starters — outfielders Ashleigh Hughes and Aleah Craighton — while the other is backup catcher Robyn Porter.

So Arizona will return the power bats of shortstop Jessie Harper, first baseman Alyssa Palomino, and catcher Dejah Mulipola, a rock-solid second baseman in Reyna Carranco, and its entire pitching staff.

Other key players set to return are starting third baseman Malia Martinez, designated player Ivy Davis, reserves Hillary Edior, Tamara Statman, and Joelle Krist, and outfielders Jenna Kean and Carli Campbell.

Martinez, Davis, and Kean were everyday starters by the end of the season, but they will have to compete to keep their starting jobs.

Martinez started in every game but one, and struggled mightily in the second half of the season, Davis was a boom-or-bust hitter who emerged in conference play, and Kean surged at the end of the year, but scuffled at the beginning.

I’d expect all three to be starters in 2019, but it wouldn’t be surprising if someone emerges and takes their spots. Though Kean does seem like a safe bet to start given her speed and versatility in the left-handed batter’s box.

Not to mention she can play all three outfield spots and Arizona has to replace Hughes and Craighton.

How much better will the returners be?

Returning a lot of players is generally a good thing because that means your team has more experience and less uncertainty. But what if those returners just aren’t good enough to form something special?

That’s a dilemma Arizona might be faced with, especially within its pitching staff. Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Denham are good pitchers, but not elite.

Here are their numbers compared to the top pitchers in the Pac-12 (all these players are returning next season, by the way):

  • Miranda Elish, Oregon: 0.89 ERA
  • G Juarez, ASU: 0.91 ERA
  • Rachel Garcia, UCLA: 1.02 ERA
  • Gabbie Plain, UW: 1.06 ERA
  • Taran Alvelo, UW: 1.12 ERA
  • Megan Kleist, Oregon: 1.14 ERA
  • Taylor McQuillin, Arizona: 1.68 ERA
  • Alyssa Denham, Arizona: 1.85 ERA

Denham and McQuillin will be a year older, a year more experienced in 2019, but will one of them take that step forward and join the conference’s elite arms? Will Hanah Bowen or Gina Snyder emerge? Will one of Arizona’s two incoming freshman pitchers make an immediate impact?

Those are the million dollar questions. If the answers are no, Arizona will probably be a middle-of-the-road team in the Pac-12 again. The Wildcats were 2-12 against UCLA, Oregon, Washington, and ASU this year. Pitching wins.

From an offensive perspective, Arizona will hit a lot of home runs in 2019, but it needs to improve its situational hitting.

That’s usually a skill that develops as players get more experience and expand their “database,” as Mike Candrea calls it.

Arizona led the conference in long balls per game, but was just fifth in runs scored.

Open outfield

Arizona’s outfield is wide open heading into the 2019 season. Hughes and Craighton, the only two full-time starters, are set to graduate.

Soon-to-be sophomores Carli Campbell and Jenna Kean both made several starts in the corner outfield, so they should have a leg up on the competition entering the fall and spring.

As a whole, Arizona will be young out there. Aside from Kean and Campbell, the only other returner listed as an outfielder is freshman Taryn Young, who was a pinch-runner in 2018.

And only one of Arizona’s five signees, Riley Kuderca, is listed as an outfielder.

Maybe Palomino will move back to the outfield and someone like Krist or Edior will start at first base, but that seems unlikely given Palomino’s history of knee injuries.

So UA’s outfield is likely going to consist solely of freshmen and sophomores to go along with its infield that will exclusively be made up of juniors.

UA adds five recruits

Speaking of UA’s signees, the Wildcats inked five recruits for 2018. The headliner is Pinnacle High School right-hander Marissa Schuld.

Here’s an overview of the class. Check out Schuld’s strikeout numbers.

Marissa Schuld, right-handed pitcher

  • Pinnacle High School, Phoenix, AZ
  • 2018 stats: 11-1, 0.74 ERA, 76 innings, 151 strikeouts, .574/.626/1.252 with 16 HR, 12 doubles, 57 RBI
  • 2017 Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year
  • 2017 AZ Central Softball Player of the Year

Vanessa Foreman, left-handed pitcher

  • Gahr High School, Cerritos, CA
  • 2018 stats: 11-2, 1.11 ERA, 88.2 innings, 91 strikeouts
  • Named USSSA Elite Select first-team All-American in 2016
  • Two-time PGF National Champion with the OC Batbusters

Ali Ashner, utility

Isabel Pacho, catcher/infielder

  • Ironwood Ridge High School, Tucson, AZ
  • 2018 stats: .653/.750/1.094 with 9 HR, 13 doubles, and 38 RBI
  • First-team all-state 2015-18

Riley Kuderca, outfielder

  • Patterson High School, Patterson, CA
  • 2018 stats: .462/.506/.589 with 1 HR, 2 doubles, 3 triples, 11 RBI, 22 SB
  • Ranked No. 75 nationally by FloSoftball

Roster updates

Here are roster notes that people have asked about, and here’s the link to UA’s 2018 stats if you want to catch up.

  • Freshman catcher Lexi Harrington redshirted this season.
  • Freshman infielder Hannah “Peanut” Martinez appeared in two games early in the season, but is hoping to get a redshirt year.
  • Sophomore infielder Jaycee Lindley, who served as a pinch-runner before leaving the team mid-season, is no longer listed on the roster.
  • Would-be-freshman pitcher Taylor Gilmore left the team before the start of the season.

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire