On the verge of a critical road win against third-ranked UCLA, Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin got Pac-12 Player of the Year Rachel Garcia to hit a lazy fly ball into right center field for what should have been the game’s final out.
Instead, the only thing that could have gone wrong did go wrong.
Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and Jenna Kean had a lapse in communication and stared at each other as the ball landed between them on the outfield grass.
Garcia raced into scoring position and the tying run was now at the plate in the form of all-conference outfielder Taylor Pack, the Bruins’ dangerous No. 3 hitter.
Earlier in the season, such a miscue may have flustered the Wildcats, causing things to spiral out of control like they did the weekend prior when they were swept at home by Washington and every pivotal moment seemed to swing the Huskies’ way.
But not this time.
McQuillin regrouped, re-entered the circle, and fanned Pack on five pitches to seal Thursday’s 5-3 win.
Call it a lesson learned.
You see, not long after Arizona was swept by Washington, head coach Mike Candrea reached out to UA softball legends Jennie Finch, Lovie Jung and Leah O’Brien-Amico. He had each of them scribble a letter to the current players, detailing how they dealt with adversity during their playing days.
Reading their messages helped the Wildcats ease their nerves heading into the UCLA series, said shortstop Jessie Harper.
“It really resonated with us because we had just come off of struggles and a tough weekend against a tough team,” McQuillin agreed.
The senior was especially moved by Jung’s letter, which more or less advised her to stay in the moment and not dwell on the past or overthink the future.
In Thursday’s case, forget about that dropped fly ball and focus on getting the next hitter out.
“For me, that was the biggest outcome because if I look back at myself a couple years ago in pressurized situations, and I failed, I thought the world was ending,” McQuillin said. “And now if I fail, I know I have support from my entire team.”
The Wildcats claimed Saturday’s series-finale against UCLA too, their first series win against a high-caliber team all season.
Previously, they were 1-8 against the top 10.
The team’s new calm mindset was apparent. Candrea thought Arizona’s hitters, who handed Garcia her first loss, were patient and had a thorough approach at the plate. He also liked the way they played defense, going without an error all series.
“There was just something in us last Thursday when we played UCLA,” McQuillin said. “Everybody was zoned in at every single position no matter what was going on.”
Candrea was even more impressed by the way McQuillin and the rest of the pitching staff handled high-leverage situations, the kind of moments they will need to succeed in if they are to have any success in the postseason.
“Our pitchers were in some tough moments and I saw different look,” he said. “It seemed like they were under control and they were confident. And I think that was the one barrier that I was trying to get this group over is we can’t afford to hit the panic button when we get in those moments. Everyone’s going to be nervous. And so you need to get used to it and you need to find a way to deal with it.
“And Taylor McQuillin, the last two innings she threw in the first game, I saw different gear that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Maybe a gear that I haven’t seen ever.”
At this time last week, the Wildcats were losers of three straight and four of their last five.
Candrea admitted finishing the regular season on a six-game losing streak—AKA getting swept by UCLA—would have been devastating.
But now, Arizona is brimming with confidence heading into Friday’s Tucson Regional opener against Harvard.
All season they have talked about how they all have the pieces to make a run to the Women’s College World Series.
Winning two games at UCLA proved it’s actually true.
“That last weekend meant so much more than just going there and getting a good seed for postseason,” McQuillin said. “It was finishing conference strong and really showing who Arizona was.
“That’s really what we learned: that we are a team and that if we play like one team, our options are limitless.”