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What to watch for when Arizona softball opens season in Tampa

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats begin the 2019 season on Friday at 12:30 p.m. MST against No. 19 Michigan in their first of five games in the daunting USF Opening Weekend Invitational.

Our full preview of the weekend can be found here, and here are seven things to be on the look out for.

Pitching

Senior Taylor McQuillin has improved in the circle every season, but now that she is entering her final year she will have to unleash her best stuff if Arizona wants to erase a nine-year drought of missing the Women’s College World Series.

Last season, McQuillin notched 28 wins and posted a 1.68 ERA. Her win total was second in the Pac-12, seventh in ERA.

Her ERA, although solid, will have to get lower. The top five pitchers in the Pac-12 posted 1.31 or lower ERAs and all played in the WCWS. McQuillin’s ERA has dropped each season, so fans should take comfort in her continuing that trend.

Alyssa Denham served well as the No. 2 pitcher last season after transferring in from Louisiana-Lafayette.

Her 1.85 ERA was good for eighth in conference, but like McQuillin, it will have to improve. With Denham now having a year of Pac-12 play under her belt, she’s poised to make her and McQuillin a formidable duo.

The wild card in the pitching staff is star freshman Marissa Schuld.

Schuld is a highly decorated pitcher from Scottsdale, who is a two-time Arizona Gatorade Player of the year. She added FloSoftball 2018 High School Player of the Year to her accomplishments, and has the makings becoming another legend that has pitched in the circle at Rita Hillenbrand.

Schuld performed well in fall ball, but the question is if she can dominate against elite competition.

If Schuld pans out like many anticipate, Arizona softball will have a trio of top-notch pitchers that can lead them to the WCWS.

Another name to keep an eye on is Gina Snyder. Despite only seeing 6.1 innings last season, Snyder is a senior that is vocal and can hold the team accountable. The Tucsonan hit 70 mph on the gun recently.

Dejah’s bounce back

Call it a “sophomore slump” or a bad season, but the Wildcats need junior catcher Dejah Mulipola to have a year that’ll have her in Pac-12 Player of the Year conversations.

Last season, Mulipola was fourth in conference with 42 strikeouts and had an average of .313. She hit .335 and struck out 29 times her freshman year.

Mulipola has all the talent to be the best in conference, and nothing is more telling of that than her being one of two collegiate players to make the USA Softball 2019 National Team.

If Mulipola can produce like she did her freshman year, the Wildcats will have a lineup that will be dangerous from top to bottom.

Alyssa in the Outfield

Alyssa Palomino wanted to go back to the place where she belonged: the outfield. And after spending last season at first base, it looks that is exactly where she will be.

Fans know the hardship the redshirt junior has gone through having torn both her ACLs the last two years, but having her back in the outfield makes sense.

Rylee Pierce, the transfer from Missouri, brings her second-team All-SEC talent to first base this season.

Palomino is expected to play center, but wherever she plays she will provide veteran leadership to what will be a young outfield.

Sophomore Jenna Kean looks like the only other lock to be in the outfield, while the third spot is unclear. (Schuld is even an option out there)

Leader of the Pac

Oregon, a program that had made back-to-back WCWS trips and won the Pac-12 six times in the last seven years, has endured an exodus of players since Mike White left to be the head coach at Texas.

It got so bad that the Ducks had to add several walk-ons, including a soccer player, to fill out their roster. As a result, the reigning champs have been picked to finish dead last in the conference.

Meanwhile, Arizona State’s best pitcher Giselle “G” Juarez transferred to Oklahoma as well. With Oregon losing nearly all its talent and Juarez leaving ASU, the Wildcats figure to be a top three team in the Pac-12.

UCLA and Washington, who are ranked ahead of the ‘Cats in preseason polls, will be the likely favorites to win the conference, but it should be a three-team race.

Right out of the gate

When Arizona plays Michigan on Friday, it’ll be the first time the programs have met since 2014. UA has lost the last six meetings against UM, last getting a win in 2007.

Arizona plays No. 5 Florida on Saturday, a team UA hasn’t beat since 2001.

Arizona will be tested right away by some of the best teams in the nation. We will see how the pitching staff looks against top hitters and how the bats fair against top pitching.

New Rita

Even though new Hillenbrand Stadium won’t host its first game until Valentines Day, it will be one of the best stadiums in college softball when construction is completed

Not only will it provide a great experience for fans, but it will help Mike Candrea in his recruiting efforts, as he will once again have the facilities to win over the best players in the nation.

Look good, play good

Nike is making sure the Wildcats look good on the diamond, giving them new Nike Vapor Hyper Elite 2.0 uniforms for the 2019 season.

The new look combines tradition with some modernism. You can view all the new combinations here.