There has been a palpable buzz at Arizona softball practices ever since the team first convened in the fall.
The focus has been sharper, the energy more exuberant.
Longtime coach Mike Candrea attributes it to the Wildcats’ schedule, which will test them early and often in the 2019 season, starting this weekend in Tampa, Florida.
Arizona will play five games in three days against some of the nation’s top teams, including No. 19 Michigan and No. 5 Florida as part of the USF Opening Weekend Invitational.
That is a lot to be excited about.
“I like the challenge and I think it will be a great test for us to kind of see where we’re at and where we need to go,” Candrea said. “This team has been on top of their game from the time we started in September till now, and so I know they’re biting at the bit to play someone else besides themselves.”
When asked what the No. 7-ranked Wildcats hope to achieve in Tampa, Candrea dryly said “five wins” before admitting the real goal is simply to play well.
“Sometimes you can play bad and win and it’s not a really good indicator, and sometimes you can get beaten and play really well,” he said. “And so I think the goal for us is to make sure that we’re playing well both offensively, defensively and we’re getting good pitching because those are the three ingredients you have to have to take this baby into June.”
Arizona’s first game is Friday at 12:30 p.m. MST against Michigan. The Wolverines have won the Big Ten 10 times in the last 11 years. UM coach Carol Hutchins, who’s been in charge since 1985, is the NCAA all-time leader in wins, entering the season with 1,571, eight more than Candrea.
Later that day, the Wildcats will play USF, which is hosting the tournament and won the American Athletic Conference last season.
On Saturday, Arizona will face a Florida team that has reached the Women’s College World Series five times in the last six years and was picked to repeat as SEC champions for the fifth straight season.
The second game of Saturday’s doubleheader will pit UA against Illinois State, then Arizona will wrap up the tournament Sunday morning against NC State.
At that point, the Wildcats should have a better idea of how good they really are. Right now, they believe they have what it takes to reach the Women’s College World Series.
“Coach always says at practice that this team is something special and I’m excited to put that to the test,” said UA shortstop Jessie Harper.
And what makes this Arizona team special is its depth. The Wildcats, who return seven starters and all four pitchers from last year’s Super Regional team, are loaded across the diamond.
Candrea thinks the Wildcats can go two-deep at every position and hopes to test that theory this weekend by digging deep into his bench and divvying up the at-bats, though he knows that might not be realistic.
It all depends how tight the games are.
“Our ultimate goal right now is to play well and win, so whatever that dictates will dictate who will be out there,” he said.
Arizona’s offense was overly reliant on home runs last season, so the Wildcats have spent much of the preseason honing their situational hitting. They ditched traditional batting practice for sessions in which UA hitters are facing live pitching and a normally-positioned defense.
Some points of emphasis include bunting, avoiding unproductive outs, and staying on top of riseballs, all things Arizona struggled with last season. (Florida ace Kelly Barnhill is known for her devastating riseball.)
“I think truthfully we are as ready as we can be for this first weekend,” Candrea said. “But until we go out and take a test, we don’t know where we’re at.”
Candrea hopes to use all six of Arizona’s pitchers, which would mean summoning some of them in relief. That was a rarity last season when the Wildcats almost exclusively leaned on Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Denham, who logged 90 percent of the team’s innings.
“The tough part is just knowing when to make that move,” Candrea said. “Some kids are much better in a starting role than they are in relief. But somewhere down the line, we’re going to have to give them opportunities to find out who can come into a ball game late and shut things down. And so there’s gonna be a little trial-and-error throughout these first two or three weeks, and that’s really what non-conference is all about.”
Redshirt junior All-American Alyssa Palomino is expected to start in center field for the Wildcats this season.
That is Palomino’s natural position, but she moved to first base last year after suffering two ACL tears in each of the previous two seasons.
Palomino returning to the outfield makes sense from a softball perspective — Arizona added all-SEC first baseman Rylee Pierce from Missouri in the offseason and is inexperienced in the outfield — but it could pose some injury risks.
So far, the Wildcats are not concerned about that. The plan is for Palomino to play every inning in center this weekend.
“I really don’t see any limitations on her at this point,” Candrea said. “She’s strong as an ox, she’s in great shape right now, she’s feeling good about who she is, and she wants to be out there, and I think that’s the big thing.”
Palomino will actually be referred to as Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza this season, as she amended her surname to honor her stepfather Jesse Cardoza.
“My stepdad officially legally adopted me, so I changed my name and hyphenated it,” she said. “That’s the story.”
Palomino-Cardoza hit .363 and led the Pac-12 in home runs last season (19). She was one of four Wildcats named to the USA Softball Player of the Year Watch List. The other three were Harper, McQuillin, and catcher Dejah Mulipola.
Projected starting lineup
Here is how I think Arizona will line up defensively to open the season. The corner outfield spots are the most uncertain, in my opinion.
C: Dejah Mulipola
1B: Rylee Pierce
2B: Reyna Carranco
3B: Malia Martinez
SS: Jessie Harper
LF: Carli Campbell or Marissa Schuld
CF: Alyssa Palomino
RF: Jenna Kean or Hillary Edior
DP: Ivy Davis or Joelle Krist or Marissa Schuld
The schedule for this weekend’s games can be found here. Unfortunately none of them will be televised or streamed.