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Alyssa Denham key in Arizona softball’s return to Women’s College World Series

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

By being the winning pitcher Saturday against Ole Miss, Arizona righthander Alyssa Denham fulfilled a promise she made to Taylor McQuillin a while back.

“I texted Tay at the beginning of this year and I told her that I was going to do everything I can to help not only her but the rest of the senior class finish their career the way it should be finished,” Denham said.

That meant earning a trip to the Women’s College World Series, something the previous eight senior classes failed to do.

It’s no secret that elite pitching is necessary for any team to make it to Oklahoma City and Denham and McQuillin have been an outstanding duo during Arizona’s six-game winning streak.

Denham, the No. 2 starter, has allowed one earned run in 14 innings of work in the postseason, picking up wins against Auburn and Ole Miss, both of which moved the Wildcats into the next round of the NCAA Tournament.

The junior worked herself into a few jams in both games, but always had the mental fortitude to get out of them, which head coach Mike Candrea sees as a big step in her development.

“It shows me that she’s grown up a lot,” he said. “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.”

With her recent excellence, Denham lowered her ERA to 1.87 on the season. That is more or less the same as it was in her sophomore season at Arizona, but her peripherals are much better.

Denham, who projects as Arizona’s ace next season, only struck out 72 batters in 106 innings as a sophomore. She has 109 strikeouts in 105 innings as a junior. Opponents are only hitting .184 against Denham this season, compared to .227 in 2018.

“When she came here she had a good drop ball. I think a lot of it last year was she struggled a little bit with her posture and trying to get in the right position,” Candrea said of the 6-foot-1 Texan. “I think right now Taryne (Mowatt) helped her mechanically and she’s a kid that if she puts that big body in the right position, she’s going to make the ball spin down.”

Denham’s velocity is up too. She said earlier this season that she never lifted weights before she transferred to Arizona from Louisiana-Lafayette in January 2018, and that she could only squat about 190 pounds when she finally did hit the gym.

Now, the former Sun Belt Freshman of the Year can squat 245 pounds, giving her pitches more punch. Denham regularly hits 64 to 66 mph on the radar gun instead of the 59 to 62 mph she was throwing last season.

“She’s definitely benefitted from the weight room,” Candrea said. “She’s a heck of a lot stronger than she was when she first came here.”

After flexing on Ole Miss, Denham caught up with Rebels head coach Mike Smith.

“He told me that he was so proud of me and he’s seen me grow.” Denham said.

In an alternate universe, the two would have shared the same dugout. When Denham announced she was leaving Louisiana-Lafayette, Smith was one of several coaches to reach out. He knew Denham because he recruited one of her older sisters to McNeese State.

But Denham wanted to join the Wildcats instead. And now she is showing why they wanted her.

“I think the toughest part when she came here was coming here in the spring,” Candrea said. “We had a couple kids that really didn’t have the whole fall to get in the mix of our team and understand the culture of the team chemistry and all that stuff. And I just think right now she has a better idea of what we represent and what we want from her. She’s a lot more relaxed.”