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‘Special’ junior class key to Arizona softball in 2019

Shortstop Jessie Harper
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

They followed very different paths to their places in Arizona softball’s 2020 class, but the members of this year’s junior class have one thing in common: they are vital to the success of this team.

Up and down the lineup. Around the infield. Leading the outfield. In the circle. You won’t find a place on the diamond that doesn’t rely heavily on the junior class for both leadership and execution.

“The dynamic of our junior class, we definitely came in with an impact,” shortstop Jessie Harper said. “We’re all impact players. I definitely have a lot of confidence in my junior class. I think that we kind of work together well, and we kind of have the roles on the team where—you could find it on the infield last year. Alyssa Denham, when she was in the circle, and when Alyssa Palomino was at first, we were all the infield players, so it was kind of cool. Something a little different that you don’t always see. But I definitely think our junior class has a lot of big things in store for this season, so I’m excited to see what we’ve got.”

They didn’t all start out as members of the class of 2020. Harper, Reyna Carranco, Malia Martinez and Dejah Mulipola have been classmates since the start, but the two Alyssas—Palomino and Denham—went through some early challenges before joining this core group.

When Palomino came to Arizona in 2016, she was already a star on the junior national team, high school and travel ball levels. The two-time high school All-American set the RBI record at the 2015 Junior World Women’s Championship and had taken home championships at every level she played.

Her life as a Wildcat didn’t start out quite as positively, though. The first day of practice in the fall of 2015, she suffered the first of her two ACL tears. A redshirt year allowed her to recuperate. That misfortune has allowed her to become part of a group that was responsible for the majority of both offensive and defensive production last season.

“I didn’t come in with them,” Palomino said about this year’s junior class, “but this junior class is something special. I am actually honored to be a part of this junior class. I wasn’t supposed to be with them, but I think this core group that we have is something special. Just the leadership combined with our senior leadership is something that we’ve created, a bond that we’ve created. It’s awesome.”

For Denham, the plan wasn’t to be a Wildcat at all. The Texas native started her career at Louisiana-Lafayette in 2016. She had a successful freshman season, earning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors and finishing as a finalist for the NFCA Division I Freshman of the Year at the end of the 2017 season.

Turmoil and an unexpected coaching change in Nov. 2017 led several ULL players to transfer. Denham and former Wildcat Aleah Craighton landed at Arizona in Jan. 2018.

“I feel way more comfortable,” Denham said, comparing her arrival just weeks before the season last year to being established at Arizona this season. “A lot of confidence comes with being a junior. It’s year three of college softball, but it’s my second year here. So, I feel a lot better. It’s been a little over a year, so it’s pretty exciting, too. I’m more comfortable with my teammates, with my coaches, and just super excited to get started.”

Now, Denham and Palomino are part of the class that will play a major role in deciding how far Arizona goes both this season and next.

But both Palomino and Denham stressed the importance of those outside that core group of juniors, especially their seniors. While Denham acknowledged that the junior class stands out a bit because of the number of starters in that group, she was quick to stress the contributions made by others.

“I think every class brings a lot of options to the table,” Denham said. “The junior class, a lot of girls in the class play, but I really think that everybody brings a lot of contributions to the field.”

Despite that modesty, the numbers don’t lie. The junior class wrote its name all over the 2017-18 stat books during their sophomore year—in the program, in the conference and in the nation.

The members of that class were the ones playing the majority of outs on both offense and defense. They made a combined 303 starts, with 17 in the circle and the other 286 in the infield. That accounted for over 51 percent of the possible starts in a 59-game season.

The most obvious contributions by the class came in the batter’s box. Arizona had 454 hits and 273 RBI over the course of the 2018 season. The sophomore class was responsible for 281 of those hits and 180 runs batted in, well over 60 percent of both offensive categories.

Perhaps more impressive than the pure numbers was the balance of the hitters. Palomino and Harper were the top two home-run hitters in the Pac-12 last season with 19 and 18, respectively. Mulipola added in 12 more.

But their 49 total home runs didn’t come as the result of feast-or-famine plate appearances. Arizona’s top three home-run hitters were able to get on base even when they weren’t launching bombs over the fence. The trio of players were the only three everyday contributors for the Wildcats who had OPS over 1.000: Palomino at 1.196, Harper at 1.093 and Mulipola at 1.015.

Palomino (.363) and Harper (.340) also had the two highest batting averages on the team. Mulipola was fourth with a .313 average.

Fans love the big offensive numbers, but Arizona coach Mike Candrea always says that success begins in the circle. That’s where Denham came in.

The transfer took on the role of No. 2 starter behind Taylor McQuillin fairly early. The two combined to provide an effective one-two punch because they are so different. McQuillin is the left-hander who throws a bit harder. Denham is the righty who works to use placement to overcome what she lacks in speed.

In her 106 innings, the junior pitcher had a 1.85 ERA and a WHIP of 1.13. That ERA was good for eighth in the Pac-12 and 63rd in NCAA softball. She allowed the opposition to hit .227 while limiting them to three or fewer earned runs in every one of her 17 starts.

As great as the current juniors were last season, there are always improvements to be made. The challenges are a different as the players.

“I try to improve on everything,” Denham said. “Speed, spin, placement, movement. You want to improve on all of them. You’re never to a point in pitching to where you can stop working on them.”

For Harper, the physical parts of the game aren’t necessarily the most difficult.

“Personally, I always just think it’s my mentality,” she replied when asked what she needed to improve on the most. “Softball is definitely a mental roller coaster. You can have a super good day and go 3-for-3, and the next day you can be down in the dumps 0-for-3. So, definitely just keeping the mental train going, riding the little bumps.”

While she has improved on keeping that mental and emotional roller coaster from getting her off-track, Harper believes there’s still work to do.

“I’ve learned a lot, especially learning from Coach (Candrea),” Harper said. “As you grow, you want to have all of your tools grow with you. So, definitely, my mental game is still something that I’m working on.”

As they work on their own games, it’s also time for the junior class to step in and provide examples for those following them.

“We’re kind of the upperclassmen, but we’re not the seniors yet,” Mulipola said. “So I think we bring a lot of experience and strength to the team. We know what we have to offer as a class, and we know what it takes to get to Super Regionals and how to push our team, how to push the underclassmen as well as help the upperclassmen with leadership on the team.”