Taylor McQuillin and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza more or less began competitive softball together. And the plan all along was for them to finish alongside each other as well.
But along the way life happened, in the form of a season-ending knee injury to Palomino-Cardoza at the very start of her college career, which forced her to redshirt in 2016 and put the duo on different eligibility paths.
So instead of this weekend’s NCAA tournament serving as the last hurrah for both, only McQuillin is facing the prospect of this being her last games at Hillenbrand Stadium. But whenever the Arizona Wildcats’ 2019 season is over, it will mean the end of the road for McQuillin and Palomino-Cardoza as teammates.
“We don’t really talk about it being our last season together after playing together for 10 years,” McQuillin said Thursday, the day before Arizona faces Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Hillenbrand Stadium. “But it is what it is and we’re going to make the most of it. This is my last go-around. One to three weeks left, you don’t really know. For me I’m going to go out there and play every game like it’s my last one.”
McQuillin, a senior pitcher, and Palomino-Cardoza, a redshirt junior outfielder, both played for Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School as well as the OC Batbusters, winning a state championship with the former and trio of national club titles with the latter. They came to Arizona as an unofficial package deal in 2015, with their sights set on graduating together in 2019.
“The plan was supposed to be, okay, we’ll go through high school together, go through college together, graduate at the same time, start life at the same time,” McQuillin said.
But that plan went askew on the first day of fall practice in 2015, when Palomino-Cardoza tore her right ACL and needed surgery. Her first year of college would be spent rehabbing that injury, rather than playing, while McQuillin moved ahead as a true freshman and served as Arizona’s No. 2 starter.
The year off didn’t have any affect on Palomino-Cardoza’s game. As a redshirt freshman she hit .302 with 16 home runs and 54 RBI, and though she was slumping at the end of the regular season she was poised to make a big impact for the Wildcats in the postseason.
That is, until a second torn ACL—to the left knee, this time—felled her two days before the NCAA tourney.
Palomino-Cardoza was able to recover in time for the start of the 2018 season, earning All-America honors while hitting .363 with 19 homers and 42 RBI. This year she’s hit 15 long balls and posted career highs in average (.382) and RBI (56).
That has coincided with a second dominant season by McQuillin as Arizona’s ace, logging a 20-7 record with a 1.59 ERA and 192 strikeouts in 167.1 innings.
This will mark the second consecutive season the pair has started and finished the season together, about half as many years as coach Mike Candrea thought he’d get when he signed the duo four years ago.
“When (Alyssa) came in with Taylor I felt like we got two of the best players in the country,” Candrea said. “I’ve known Alyssa for a long time and watched her for a long time. I knew she had extreme power, that she was a kid that could hit 20 home runs a year. Didn’t know that we’d have a hard time of keeping her healthy there for a while.”
McQuillin believes Palomino-Cardoza has become a better player, and person, for what she’s had to deal with, both physically and mentally.
“It’s nice to know that her body is happy and healthy and still thriving in her old age,” said McQuillin, who is seven months older than Palomino-Cardoza. “The team calls her Grandma because of all of her injuries and all of her setbacks. I think the best part about it is being able to overcome them and come out stronger every time. These injuries did make her stronger. She just really didn’t let up.”
Palomino-Cardoza will have another year at Arizona after this one, but she still considers this postseason to be an unofficial last hurrah because of her connection to McQuillin.
“We won a couple championships together, so I think one last one might really be the cherry on top of our careers togethers,” she said. “We’re going to go out with a bang.”