After a week off from conference play, the seventh-ranked Arizona Wildcats softball team returns to action Thursday at 6 p.m. MST when they begin a three-game series against No. 24 Stanford.
The Wildcats (35-7, 12-0) are currently riding a 17-game winning streak as they enter the tough half of their Pac-12 schedule.
Here are some things to watch for at Hillenbrand Stadium this weekend.
The Cardinal have been one of the worst teams in the Pac-12 for quite some time. Prior to this season, they had not won a conference series in seven years.
But second-year head coach Jessica Allister, formerly at Minnesota, is quickly turning the program around.
Stanford, ranked 24th in the latest USA Softball poll, enters Hillenbrand Stadium with a 30-7 record, its best start since 2010. And the Cardinal’s 7-2 conference record is their best mark since 2005. (Though it helps that they haven’t played Arizona, UCLA or Washington yet.).
The Cardinal rank fourth in the Pac-12 in ERA (2.47) and fourth in batting average (.300), on-base percentage (.397) and slugging percentage (.469).
The player to know is right fielder Teagan Cowles, who is hitting .419 with and leads Stanford in doubles (9), triples (5) and home runs (5).
The Cardinal only won three Pac-12 games last season, but one of them came against the Wildcats in Palo Alto to cap the regular season.
“Stanford is a very good team,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “They were playing well at the end of the year (last season) when we faced them and I knew they were going to get better. I think Jessica Allister does a really good job with that program. And I know they’re playing the game with a lot more confidence than they were at this time last year. So we expect our hands full and we’ve got to come out and have a good week of preparation. And I’m glad that we’re at home right now.”
Finally, some close games
Aside from Friday’s 2-0 extra-inning win at Grand Canyon, the Wildcats have been blowing out their competition ever since they got through an arduous non-conference schedule.
In 12 conference games, Arizona has outscored its Pac-12 opponents 114-11. But that should change in the latter part of the season. The Wildcats still have to play Stanford, No. 2 UCLA and No. 3 Washington.
Candrea admitted the Pac-12 is down this year — Oregon and Arizona State are nowhere close to the Women’s College World Series teams they were last season — but still thinks the conference will adequately prepare Arizona for the postseason.
“I thought this whole year our schedule has been really good for us and the challenge of the schedule early in the year I thought really kind of set us up for preparedness for what you’re seeing right now,” Candrea said. “But yeah, I think at this stage, you would like some close games. You don’t want five-inning games all the time because you know darn well it’s going to come down to finding a way to win with pitching or good defensive plays, timely hitting. Those are the things that you’re going to need down the road. This weekend I hope we score a ton of runs, but if we don’t we got to find a way to win.”
Getting the offense back on track
It is hard to be overly critical of a team that has won 17 games in a row, but Candrea was not too pleased with Arizona’s offense at GCU last weekend.
The Wildcats scored 16 runs in the three-game sweep, a step down from the 7.3 runs per game they average this season.
“I thought we were really slow at making some adjustments, and a lot of it was just the speed of the game,” Candrea said. “We weren’t used to seeing the slower pitcher, and we had a hard time and it took us a while to kind of adjust to it. But I really commend this team because I thought we got the job done with not having our best offense. I thought our pitchers looked really good. And so it was an off week for us, but it was a good off week. I think Grand Canyon was a very good opponent for us. And hopefully that will springboard us into this next four weeks.”
Similarly, center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza thinks the off week against GCU can help the Wildcats in the long run.
“Our bats weren’t all that alive, so now we know what we have to do to keep them alive,” she said. “And maybe that’s what we needed to do to stay strong in Pac-12.”
Let’s talk about Reyna
Arizona’s junior class has received a lot of praise this season and rightfully so. The quartet of Palomino-Cardoza (13), Jessie Harper (21), Dejah Mulipola (17) and Malia Martinez (11) makes Arizona the only team in the country with four players with 10 or more homers.
Second baseman Reyna Carranco might not have the same kind of power numbers — she’s blasted four homers this year— but she has been the team’s most consistent hitter.
Carranco leads the Pac-12 in batting average (.441) and has 22 multi-hit games. Her 60 hits have her tied for ninth in the country.
Putting the NPF aside
On Monday, Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin was selected by the Cleveland Comets with the sixth overall pick in the NPF Draft, so it would be understandable if she isn’t totally focused on Stanford this weekend.
Not so fast.
While the senior left-hander is excited she can continue her softball career after college, her focus remains on leading the Wildcats to the WCWS.
“I think everybody’s focus now is we have a couple more weeks of conference and then it’s postseason,” McQuillin said. “And for me, I feel like this is a special team and this is the year that we’re really trying to have our ultimate goal at the end of the season and make a strong standing in postseason. And for me, that doesn’t stop. And for the team, it doesn’t stop. Because at the end of the day, playing professional softball doesn’t happen until college is over. So I still have a lot to look forward to in the few short weeks that are left for me at Arizona, and that’s what I’m gonna look forward to.”
For more on McQuillin being drafted, check out my feature from Tuesday.