The Arizona Wildcats hoped to open the remodeled Hillenbrand Stadium with a bang, but that didn’t quite go as planned.
UA’s home opener was rained out, and when Arizona finally did take the field, it lost in disappointing fashion to an unranked South Florida team.
The rest of the weekend was a mixed bag. The Wildcats added painless wins against Illinois-Chicago, Cal State Fullerton and New Mexico, but dropped a game to No. 7 Alabama, their fourth loss in this young season.
Recaps of all five games can be found in our softball section, and here were some of my takeaways.
This team is a work in progress
At 6-4 with two losses to unranked teams, Arizona is not playing like a Women’s College World Series contender right now. The offense has struggled cashing in with runners in scoring position, the defense has been sporadic, and the pitching has been good but not great.
What is concerning is not that the Wildcats lost two games in the Hillenbrand Invitational, it’s how they lost them. They surrendered four unearned runs in the 4-1 loss to USF and made four errors in the loss to No. 7 Alabama. In both games, they went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
The game got quick on them, coach Mike Candrea said.
“I knew this was going to be a very challenging schedule for us,” he said. “I thought we would do a little bit better with it, so I’m not really overly pleased with that but this team I know their potential, I know where they can go, so it’s just a matter of sticking with it.”
Nerves probably had something to do with Arizona’s subpar performance. After all, it was the Wildcats’ first time playing in their new stadium, in front of a jam-packed crowd. They also only had one opportunity to practice under the lights before the games began, making them uncomfortable in what should be familiar surroundings.
“I think we kind of put a lot of pressure on ourselves, just knowing the situation that we were in,” said UA ace Taylor McQuillin.
Candrea sensed the tension before the loss to USF.
“The most important thing about any stadium is the product between the lines,” he said. “My disappointment a little bit was that that first night we were not as excited as I expected to run through a wall because of this place.”
The hope is that the Wildcats will take their lumps in stride, and use them to improve when they play in the vaunted Mary Nutter Classic this weekend in Palm Springs.
“Every team has its downs before it has its ups,” said second baseman Reyna Carranco. “I think we’re just getting those out of the way and experiencing those so we don’t have to experience those again.”
The short game was the answer
The bottom of Arizona’s order was laden with power hitters to begin the season, but that changed this weekend when sluggers like Hillary Edior and Izzy Pacho were replaced by speedy contact hitters like Jenna Kean and Carli Campbell.
And, suddenly, the bottom of the order became productive.
Kean had three hits and three runs in the final two games of the Hillenbrand Invitational. Campbell went 2 for 4 with a walk, a run, and an RBI in the final three games, including a 1-for-2 outing against Alabama.
This was after the Nos. 6-9 hitters had just four hits in 53 at-bats in Tampa the weekend prior.
“We just kind of decided we’re going to go with our speed and short game at the bottom of the lineup and try to make things happen,” Candrea said. “I thought both Carli and Jenna did a good job getting on base because that’s all we want to do is try to turn that lineup over. And that’s why I have (Alyssa) Palomino at the top to try to get her up as much as we can because she can do damage.”
Pierce is pressing
While the very bottom of the order came to life, No. 6 hitter Rylee Pierce continued to struggle. The senior first baseman is just 1 for 15 at the plate this season, and came up empty in some critical situations, including striking out with the bases loaded against Alabama.
However, Pierce did double in Sunday’s finale against Cal State Fullerton, a sign that her bat could be heating up. It seems like it’s only a matter of time. The Missouri transfer was a career .306 hitter at her previous school, blasting 24 homers over three years against SEC pitching.
“It was nice to see Rylee Pierce get a hit today, maybe take the monkey off her back a little bit,” Candrea said. “She’s just pressing.”
Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, who is hitting .433 with five homers, said the Wildcats have been trying to do too much with runners on base, leading to some agonizing at-bats and a lot of missed scoring chances.
“That’s when we get ourselves in trouble,” she said. “So I think just keeping it simple and getting a hit in the gap is all we need in those moments.”
Harper’s streak ended
Jessie Harper had started 67 straight games at shortstop until that streak was snapped when sophomore Ivy Davis got the nod in the final two games of the Hillenbrand Invitational. Candrea thought Harper needed a mental break after committing three errors in the first three games.
“Ivy is a good shortstop and she is an option that we have, but truthfully the game just got quick on Harper,” he said. “When the ball was hit, next thing I know she’s on her knees and her hands were getting stiff. And so I just really felt like ... I think it’d be good to give you a little mental break, put you in the (designated player) spot, let you watch the game and get two or three good days of practice and get back out there.”
Candrea expects Harper to retake her spot at short, but said Arizona is always trying to find lineups that feature the best mix of offensive firepower and defensive mettle.
At minimum, Davis, who has also played outfield and designated player, got some valuable reps. She also had three hits (two doubles) and two RBI in the Hillenbrand Invitational.
“Ivy is very capable of playing (shortstop), so I think it’s good for her to get some experience, because one thing about this is when you rely on one person in one position and something happens to the them, you want to make sure that you can really say next man up is OK,” Candrea said. “So we’ve got to prepare everyone for that and Ivy takes ground balls every day at shortstop and third base. That’s the one thing that we’ve done this year is a lot of kids play multiple positions, which gives us a lot more depth.”
Hillenbrand Stadium needs some finishing touches
Much like the team that calls it home, the new and improved Hillenbrand Stadium is a work in progress. The sound system didn’t quite resonate as well as expected, some of the press box windows wouldn’t open, and they forgot to build steps for the camera well, forcing photographers to climb on trash cans to get onto the platform. (Eventually, a ladder was placed there, but still.)
Hillenbrand Stadium design flaw: you have to step on those trash cans to get into the camera well. pic.twitter.com/OvyCVs0eiF— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) February 16, 2019
Candrea expects it to be another month or so before the venue is totally complete. Some comestic things still have to be done.
Otherwise, the new digs have drawn rave reviews.
“Once they get graphics on this thing, it’s going to continue to change a little bit, look better, but it’s a special place and we want to make it a special place,” Candrea said. “The old Hillenbrand Stadium was really good to me for a lot of years and we got to make this one good, and the only way you do it is you have great talent but you go out and execute the game and play the game hard and play it right. It’s performance-based, so at the end of the day that’s what matters.”