A sharp grounder skipped along the infield dirt to Arizona second baseman Hanah Bowen, who gloved it and flung it to Rylee Pierce for the final out of a 9-1 win over Ole Miss.
Pierce pumped her fist, Bowen raised her arms, and Alyssa Denham hopped up and down in the circle as their teammates poured out of the dugout and formed a dog pile near the center of the diamond.
When the celebration finally died down, head coach Mike Candrea was ambushed with a tub of water.
The drought was finally over. Ending eight years of heartbreak, the Wildcats had won the Tucson Super Regional to advance to their first Women’s College World Series since 2010.
“We’ve had some rough years, but I think this year we’ve definitely come together, we’ve definitely worked together as a team,” said redshirt junior Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. “We’ve been through it all, we’ve been there for each other through the whole thing, and it’s just incredible to see the team that we are.”
It is Arizona’s 23rd appearance in the Women’s College World Series, though maybe none have been as gratifying as this one, having to wait so long to achieve it.
Cameras showed Candrea in tears as the Wildcats were putting on the final touches of their victory Saturday. After the game, the 34-year coach hugged players, friends, and family who were just as emotional as he was, including his wife Tina.
“We work every year for this,” said Candrea, wearing an ‘OKC Bound’ hat at the podium. “Sometimes you can walk away and have this feeling. Sometimes you fall a little bit short, but...I don’t live in the past. I live in today and today’s moment, where my feet are, and I’m just very happy right now for this group of young ladies.”
The Wildcats, who remain unbeaten in the postseason, continued their tour-de-force early Saturday by grabbing a 1-0 lead in the second inning when Dejah Mulipola clubbed an opposite field homer to right.
Ole Miss matched it in the third with a deep blast by Autumn Gillespie, but it was all Arizona (47-12) from there as 2,835 fans rallied behind them.
Though it turns out the biggest home-field advantage the new Hillenbrand Stadium offered was bright sunlight that blinded the left side of the field.
With Ole Miss outfielders being a step slow, Reyna Carranco and Hanah Bowen were able to drop in RBI singles that pushed Arizona’s lead to 4-1 in the fourth. Malia Martinez, who went 4 for 4 in Friday’s win, then launched a homer to right to make it a four-run cushion in the fifth.
“The sun was in our favor,” Candrea said. “We play a lot of games with the sun and the one thing that you have to do is your outfielders have to be comfortable knowing that they can use their glove or they can change their angle. Even with sunglasses on sometimes it can be difficult. But yeah, that was a key turning point.”
Palomino-Cardoza put the game out of reach by belting a two-run homer to center in the seventh. Pierce added an RBI single and Mulipola scored on a throwing error for good measure.
That was more than enough support for Denham, who surrendered six hits but never wilted under pressure in her second postseason start.
Ole Miss loaded the bases with nobody out in the second, but the tall right-hander weaved her way out of it by striking out two batters before inducing an inning-ending groundout.
“I think that was probably one of the best feelings that I’ve ever felt,” Denham said. “You gotta just dig deep and bear down.”
Denham walked two batters in the fifth, but shortstop Jessie Harper gunned a runner out at home on a fielder’s choice and Denham fanned Brittany Finney with a filthy changeup to keep the four-run lead intact.
“It shows me that she’s grown up a lot,” Candrea said of Denham .”In that moment, the one thing we’ve talked about was being able to handle the big moment. Well, that’s about as big as it gets. And she handled it quite well.”
Harper made another stellar defensive play in the sixth, ranging to her left to corral a chopper before using a back-handed flip to get it to Pierce for the final out of the inning. Harper was responsible for all three outs of the frame.
“Jessie Harper looked like Derek Jeter tonight,” Candrea said. “I mean, absolutely phenomenal defensive plays.”
Arizona’s first opponent in Oklahoma City will be No. 3 seed Washington, who swept three games from the Wildcats in Tucson earlier this month, making for an ominous rematch.
But the Wildcats are a different team than they were at the beginning of May. They have won six straight and seven of their last eight, including series wins over No. 2 UCLA, No. 24 Auburn and No. 11 Ole Miss.
“We’re playing well as a team and I know what it takes in Oklahoma City. It’s a grind, every pitch, every at-bat. You can’t get ahead of yourself and you can’t worry about what happened,” Candrea said. “And then you have to have the ball bounce the right way. But it’s going to be the same thing. We have to pitch well, we have to play good defense, and we have to have timely hitting and I thought this weekend we had all of those.”
Arizona also has another thing working for them, maybe the most important of all—bubbling team chemistry.
“The past couple years that I’ve been here, we just hadn’t meshed and I think this year everyone truly bought into what coach was selling,” Mulipola said. “Underclassmen, upperclassmen, bench players, starters. So I think we truly just bought in and we worked as a unit. Our motto this year is one team, one heartbeat, and it definitely showed on the field, which is why we finally broke the curse and we’re going to where we should be.”
Postgame press conference
Mike Candrea, Dejah Mulipola, Alyssa Denham and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza reflect on finally reaching the Women’s College World SeriesPosted by AZ Desert Swarm on Saturday, May 25, 2019