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Florida State series is a ‘midterm’ for Arizona softball

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The Wildcats can prove they are a WCWS contender with a strong showing against the defending champs

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona Wildcats are on spring break, but they face a critical test this weekend when they welcome the reigning national champion Florida State Seminoles to Hillenbrand Stadium for a three-game series.

“I kind of look at it as a midterm to kind of find out where we’re at right now at midseason and see where we need to go to pass that final exam,” said UA coach Mike Candrea.

One thing the Wildcats can prove: That they are a legitimate Women’s College World Series contender.

Right now they aren’t.

The Wildcats are 4-3 vs. ranked teams, but 0-3 against top-10 opponents, evidence that there is a clear divide between them and the nation’s elite. A win or two against the No. 1 team in the country would go a long way toward breaking that barrier.

“It’s not the end-all, but it definitely is a great judge of where we are right now and so I think how we play this weekend is as important to me as anything,” Candrea said.

The Seminoles (23-1) have beaten No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 8 LSU and No. 6 Tennessee this season and were winners of 28 straight until GCU handed them their first loss Wednesday in Phoenix.

Candrea sees no reason the Wildcats (17-5) can’t do the same.

“There’s a lot of parity in this country, and on any given day anyone can beat anyone,” he said. “I’m always the firm believer of Miracle on Ice. No one ever thought that we’d beat the Russians, but we found a way to do it at the right time. And so I think that’s why you play the games. I think that’s why we put on a uniform is to have that opportunity, to be able to play in special moments.”

McQuillin under the microscope

This is the first three-game series the Wildcats have played this season, which presents a new challenge for UA ace Taylor McQuillin, who will be an open book by the time the series finale rolls around.

“Three-game series are a little bit different because you do see the same lineup more than once,” she explained. “So it’s just coming out knowing that you have the first game to really start off strong, and then second game to keep your established growth, and then third game to really take what you’ve learned the past two games and just continue on going or use that to change up your game plan a little bit.”

McQuillin has toed the rubber against the likes of No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 4 Florida and No. 5 Alabama this season, getting mostly good results when not marred by spotty defense, a problem that has only cropped up at home this year.

But Florida State is better than those aforementioned schools, leading the nation in batting average (.386), slugging percentage (.685) and home runs (38). Six Seminoles are hitting at least .400.

“I think one of the biggest things is that they’re very patient hitters,” McQuillin said. “They swing at a lot of strikes and know what they’re looking for. They don’t get fooled very easily. So it makes our job a little harder, but this what we came here to do, so we’re really excited about it.”

FSU will lean on ace Meghan King, who is 10-1 with a 1.20 ERA and 81 strikeouts in 64 innings. Last summer, the redshirt senior went 4-0 with a 0.20 ERA in 34.1 innings in the WCWS, the lowest ERA in tournament history.

“Obviously she knows how to get the job done,” McQuillin said. “She works up in the zone, curveballs to both sides of the plate, likes to throw the rise ball when she’s ahead. So she’s a strong pitcher, a really good performer and she plays the game really well. Our hitters gotta be on time. She’s got a little bit of speed with her too.”

Pierce suffers wrist injury

Arizona first baseman Rylee Pierce has a “pretty severely” bruised wrist after being hit by a pitch Tuesday at New Mexico State, Candrea said.

Candrea said the injury, which is on Pierce’s throwing hand, is “going to take some time” to heal, but he did not rule her out for the Florida State series.

“I don’t expect her to make a miraculous recovery,” he said before Thursday’s practice. “At this time it’s hard to tell. It’s by tolerance and seeing what she can do.”

The Missouri transfer was just starting to catch fire after a slow start to the season, with seven hits in her last 20 at-bats.

“Most kids like that will come into this program and try to do too much, try to prove their worth,” Candrea said. “But I think last week she had a really good approach at the plate.”