For the last several years, first base has been somewhat of a merry-go-round for Arizona softball. The Wildcats will have a change at the position in what has been an almost annual occurrence, but who takes over in 2020 may have less to do with first base than other parts of the line-up and even overall offensive strategy.
As a freshman in 2017, senior shortstop Jessie Harper was a first-team NFCA All-American at first. The next season, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza moved in from centerfield after her second knee injury. Once again, Arizona had a first-team NFCA All-American at the position. Last season, it was senior transfer Rylee Pierce.
Now, the position is up for grabs again.
Watching the Wildcats in fall ball, it appears that the competition is wide open. Players have been rotated in and out of the position almost every other inning in both games—at least five players have seen time there—and coach Mike Candrea is certainly giving them all a good look.
In the end, though, performance on the infield may not be the only consideration. He is also looking out at centerfield.
“It’s gonna take me a while to kind of figure that out,” he said about first base. “I think Janelle (Meono) gives me something that I didn’t know I had, and that is someone who can play centerfield very well. So that allows me to maybe look at Palomino. I think really, if today I’m looking at it, I think Palomino looks the most comfortable at first base, but there’s a lot of time between now and February. So I want to make sure that I’m taking a look at all of these kids and see some of the combinations that we have.”
Last season, former Wildcat pitcher Taylor McQuillin referred to centerfield as the “happy place” of her longtime teammate and friend, Palomino-Cardoza.
Candrea knows that’s true, but he also knows that she’s a team player.
“She’ll do whatever it takes for this team to be successful,” Candrea said of his senior All-American. “She loves being in the grass, but she’ll like being in the dirt.”
Moving Palomino-Cardoza to first and putting Meono in center would not only give the team a little more stability at first, it could also be part of a move to get more speed into a lineup that was heavily reliant on power last season. The Wildcats have had junior speedster Jenna Kean on the roster for the past few years, but she is not alone this year.
Meono and fellow freshman Bella Dayton add to the speed threat. Even freshman catcher Sharlize Palacios showed off some wheels against Phoenix College in the team’s second fall game, although not in the realm of players like Kean, Meono, or Dayton.
In 2019, Arizona had a grand total of 20 stolen base attempts with 14 of those being successful. Kean had eight of those attempts and exactly half of the successes. That was a considerable drop from 2018, when the Wildcats were 31 for 35 in steal attempts. The year before, they were 30 for 34.
With Arizona losing some of its power while Dejah Mulipola plays for USA Softball, it may be a good time to consider putting runners in motion on the and pressuring the defense. The Wildcats could be in a position to do that this season, especially if Candrea can get some of those freshmen on the field.
“There’s a lot of good things,” Candrea said, “but obviously come February, you gotta find the nine that gives you the best chance. But I really believe right now it’s gonna be a team that we’re gonna be able to use a lot more people throughout the season.... I like our lineup. I think we can put out a strong nine that has some speed and some power in it.”