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What to watch for when Arizona softball plays in the Mary Nutter Classic

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona softball team returns to action this weekend when it will participate in the annual Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs, California.

The 14th-ranked Wildcats open the event against Missouri and UC Santa Barbara on Thursday before taking on No. 20 Oklahoma State and Long Beach State on Friday, then will cap the event Saturday with a tilt against No. 4 Oklahoma and an exhibition against Team Japan, the No. 2 team in the world.

All games will be live streamed for a fee on FloSoftball. Here are some things to keep an eye on.

Friends and family

This will be the fourth time Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin has played in the Mary Nutter Classic, and it is always a weekend she has circled on her calendar.

“One, it’s really fun. Two, you play a lot good teams and the competition is great. Three, it’s where a lot of us are from out in Southern California,” said the senior hurler. “So we’re excited to go out there, have tremendous support from our family and friends and hopefully come out of there with six wins.”

McQuillin, a Mission Viejo native, is one of 16 Californians on Arizona’s roster. 13 of those 16 have started at least one game this season. That could come with some drawbacks in Palm Springs.

“We’ve been there 1000 times, and it’s another ballpark and another opponent, so sometimes the toughest thing about the game is the distractions that sometimes family and friends can cause, wanting a little bit of your time yet you’re there to do one thing and that’s to play the game of softball,” said UA coach Mike Candrea.

“And so yeah, it takes a little maturity to understand that and be able to control that. And so there’s a time and a place for them to be preparing for a game and there’s a time and a place for them to play the game. And then when the game’s over, they get a chance to visit. But yeah, that does present a challenge. But it’s no different than when an Olympian is in Athens, Greece and has family and friends there that want a piece of them too. But the good thing about the Olympics is we get to put them in a village with chainlink fences that no one else can get in.”

Playing up to their potential

If there is anything we have learned in this young season, it’s that Arizona softball is a work in progress. The team, the stadium, pretty much everything.

The Wildcats have trudged to a 6-4 start, oftentimes unable to piece together the three keys to softball — timely hitting, good defense, and dominant pitching — in the same game.

The offense has been a little too reliant on homers, the defense was flawless the first weekend but shaky the second weekend, and the pitching has been good but not great. Going 3-2 in the Hillenbrand Invitational was a disappointment, but one the Wildcats say they will learn and grow from.

Well, what’s a better way to test that theory than the Mary Nutter Classic where Arizona will play five quality opponents, including two top-25 teams? (Six if you include the exhibition against Team Japan.)

“I think we haven’t shown what we can do so far,” said sophomore utility Ivy Davis. “We have a lot of potential on this team and I think that every game we’ve played so far has been a learning experience and we’re just going to grow from here and it’s going to be a really good season.”

McQuillin’s durability

The schedule lines up so that McQuillin (2-3, 1.75 ERA) will take the rubber against Missouri, No. 20 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Oklahoma, a big chance for the UA ace to make a statement.

It has been difficult to gauge McQuillin’s performance this season because she has been hounded by some porous defense, but the lefty thinks her command can be a little sharper in the late innings.

“No matter what happens on defense or what happens with our hitting, I think that the thing I can control is where I locate pitches and how I can establish the strike zone and get outs,” McQuillin said. “That is going to be a big one for me heading into this weekend.”

Sticking with the short game

Arizona leads all Power Five teams in homers (20), but has struggled scoring in other ways this season. A lineup change helped a bit last weekend, when Candrea inserted slappers Jenna Kean and Carli Campbell at the bottom of the order.

The sophomore duo combined for five hits, a walk, four runs, and an RBI in the Hillenbrand Invitational. Not the gaudiest stat line, but it came after UA’s Nos. 6-9 hitters were 4 for 52 in Tampa the previous weekend.

The short game is somewhat of a dying art because of the new emphasis on swing launch angle that has swept through baseball and softball, plus an NCAA rule implemented last season makes slap-hitting more tedious, but Candrea thinks it can still be an effective way to manufacture offense.

“Well, I think the teams are doing a better job defending the short game,” he said. “So you have to have more tools to be an effective short gamer. You can’t just short game, short game, short game. People are going to pick up on that. But I’ve always thought that the short game started with a drag bunt. So I think that’s the first weapon you have to have.

“And then from that, being able to soft slap, hard slap and then swing away. If you can’t swing away, then people are going to crash in and they’re going to defend it. But ultimately, we’d like to be able to have all three going and that makes an effective short game.”

Pierce vs. her old team

Things could get a little awkward Thursday when UA first baseman and former Missouri Tiger Rylee Pierce will line up against her old school, though it’s doubtful there will be any hard feelings.

Pierce, who joined Arizona in the fall for “softball reasons,” said before the season that she loved her at three years at Missouri and “wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”

“It was really tough to say goodbye to all the people and the donors and the fans and just the whole community I did know back in Columbia, and to recreate something here,” she said. “Ultimately, what made me feel like this was the right thing for me is because I didn’t have to say goodbye to all the people I met there. It was more like, ‘I’ll see you soon.’”

The former All-SEC performer is still trying to find her footing in Tucson, with just one hit in her first 15 at-bats.

“She’s just pressing,” Candrea said.