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What to watch for when Arizona softball hosts ASU

Two top-20 teams clash at Hillenbrand Stadium

Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

It’s rivalry week at Hillenbrand Stadium.

The No. 11 Arizona Wildcats (24-7, 6-0) will host a three-game series against the No. 18 Arizona State Sun Devils (25-8, 5-1), starting Friday at 5 p.m. PDT on Pac-12 Network Arizona.

Here are some things to watch for.

Keeping it rolling

Before Arizona took on ASU last year, UA coach Mike Candrea thought his team needed a spark, so he handed his players a story about geese and how they fly in a V-formation to get the most out of each other.

No such metaphors are needed this year because Candrea is pleased how his team is jelling right now. The Wildcats have won six straight and 20 of their last 23.

“I think we’re in good place right now,” he said. “All along this year I’ve kinda liked the chemistry of this team. I’ve liked their work ethic. There’s nothing that really has made me want to flip the switch. I think our biggest theme right now has been just keeping our minds clear and playing the game. I don’t think right now that they need any added motivation. I think playing ASU is enough. They know they’re a quality team and we’re here at home and it’s going to be an exciting weekend.”

Right-hander Alyssa Denham, who threw a no-hitter Sunday against Oregon State, said UA players are “all close now”, hinting that always wasn’t the case last season.

“We have a good relationship with each other and with our coaches, and it’s just so much fun to come out here every day,” she said.

“Home run heaven”

That is how ESPN softball analyst Amanda Scarborough described this rivalry series. It is a fitting description.

ASU has the top offense in the country, scoring 9.12 runs per game, thanks to a nation-leading 64 home runs and a .355 batting average. The Sun Devils have scored a whopping 76 runs in six conference games, plating 10 or more runs five times.

Meanwhile, Arizona is No. 2 in the nation in homers with 57, averaging eight runs per game in conference play.

The Wildcats are the only team in the country with three players with 10 or more home runs — shortstop Jessie Harper (17), catcher Dejah Mulipola (13) and center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza (10). They are affectionately known as the Hillenbrand Bombers.

“Yeah, I definitely do think it’s gonna be crazy,” said Harper, who is second in the nation in homers. “I mean, we have our home-run hitters and they have theirs. But it’s just about playing our game. Our pitching has been doing really well lately. So as long as our pitchers keep doing what they’re doing, and we back them up defensively, that’s pretty much the main thing.”

The Hackbarth twins are ASU’s most dangerous hitters. Outfielder Kindra Hackbarth leads the team with a .449 average and has 14 doubles and 11 homers while catcher Maddi Hackbarth, the reigning USA Softball Player of the Week, has 16 home runs and 43 RBI.

“They’re good hitters, so we just gotta make sure we hit our spots and be consistent and go right at them,” Denham said.

G is gone

ASU reached the Women’s College World Series last season behind the arm of then-sophomore G Juarez, who went 26-6 with a 1.22 ERA, being only one of three pitchers in the nation to amass 300 strikeouts.

But Juarez surprisingly transferred to Oklahoma after the season, leaving the Sun Devils scrambling for pitching. (Last year’s No. 2 starter, Breanna Macha, graduated.)

Thus, two new faces in freshman Abby Andersen (9-4, 3.03 ERA) and Fresno State transfer Samantha Mejia (12-3, 3.15 ERA) are now the workhorses of ASU’s staff.

Predictably, the numbers have not been pretty. The Sun Devils enter the series with a 3.74 ERA, seventh in the Pac-12. They have just 122 strikeouts in 200 innings and have walked 100 batters. In conference play, the Devils’ ERA has shot up to 5.76, a mark that would be devastating if not for their explosive offense.

Related: ASU needed to score nine runs in the seventh inning to beat Utah 18-17 last weekend.

“Their pitching is not great right now, but on any given day any pitcher that’s got that uniform on can get hot,” Candrea said. “So we’ll do our homework and prepare.”

Arizona continuing its ownage

The Wildcats have won three straight series against the Sun Devils, including last year when Arizona won two games in dramatic fashion in Tempe.

That the Sun Devils were the better team and playing at home (which is true for Arizona this year) didn’t matter.

“I’ve been around the conference long enough to know that on any given day, and in this conference, anyone can beat anyone,” Candrea said. “They’ve all got good athletes, it’s just a matter of getting them at the right time. And it does come down to pitching and being able to execute the game in the circle.”

Did you know?

Candrea has two degrees from ASU. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1978 and a master’s degree in 1980.

But he’s no Sun Devil.

“No, absolutely not,” Candrea said a couple years ago. “If you cut my veins now, they’d be red and blue. I’m way beyond that.”

Another sellout

All three games of the series are sold out, aside from some standing-room-only tickets that will be sold on the day of the game.

That means UA has sold out eight straight games.

“Tucson’s a college town and I’ve always felt that way,” Candrea said. “This is the show, the University of Arizona. So if you do your job and you have a good product, those people will come, and the great thing about our fans as they’ve been very loyal to us over the years. A lot of those people have had season tickets since we opened up the first Hillenbrand Stadium in 1993.”

Family reunion

Harper’s younger sister, MaKenna, is a freshman outfielder for the Sun Devils. This series will be the first time the two have ever played each other.

Both sisters shared their thoughts on that here.

They are expected to have over 30 family members in attendance. They will be wearing grey “HARPER” shirts. The A is Arizona’s block A. The E is ASU’s pitchfork logo turned sideways. Meanwhile, one sleeve is stitched with the number 19 to represent Jessie and the other sleeve has 55 to recognize MaKenna.