After Washington swept Arizona in Tucson in early May, Wildcats head coach Mike Candrea went home and tuned his TV to Sunday Night Baseball.
Jessica Mendoza was doing color commentary for ESPN, and it gave the longtime coach an idea.
The Wildcats failed to get key hits against Washington, so he texted Mendoza, who played for Candrea on the U.S. Olympic team, to see how she handled high-pressure situations during her playing days.
Candrea then reached out to former Arizona All-Americans Jennie Finch, Lovie Jung, and Leah O’Brien to pick their brains on the subject.
They scribbled down their thoughts and Candrea disseminated them to his current players.
They haven’t been the same since.
After losing eight of their first nine against the Top 10, the Wildcats went to UCLA and took two of three from the second-ranked Bruins to close out the regular season.
Arizona then went unbeaten in Regionals and Super Regionals to reach its first Women’s College World Series since 2010. Four of Arizona’s five postseason wins came against No. 24 Auburn and No. 11 Ole Miss.
The team that once shied away from big moments is now thriving in them.
“I think it was just the mentality that this is the part of the season where we’re only going to play harder and harder teams from here on out,” said UA ace Taylor McQuillin. “So we can either lay down and die, or figure out a way to come out and fight and win. … That was really the turning point for us. Just because we’ve been knocked down doesn’t mean we’re out.”
So how do the Wildcats feel about opening the WCWS against Washington? Junior catcher Dejah Mulipola called the rematch a blessing from the softball gods.
“It was fate,” she said. “They came in here and they swept us, so I think it’s going to be a really good game and they’re going to see a different team from us.”
One thing is for sure: Arizona will need to change its approach against UW right-hander Taran Alvelo. The flame-throwing senior allowed just one run while striking out 18 batters in 12.1 innings in Washington’s sweep of Arizona.
UA center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza said the Wildcats need to lay off Alvelo’s riseball and work on getting their front feet down on time.
“Being short and simple,” added Mulipola. “Me, personally, I was trying to swing for the fences with her and you can’t do that with speed. You can’t match power with power is what Coach always says.”
The Huskies have won six straight against Arizona dating back to last season, but Candrea is optimistic that his team will fare better against Alvelo in Oklahoma City, pointing to the success it had against UCLA ace Rachel Garcia, who was 20-0 before the Wildcats hammered her twice.
Arizona also lit up Auburn pitcher Lexie Handley, who, like Alvelo, throws in the low 70s.
“I’m hoping now that we’ve gone through the gamut that we can make that adjustment with timing a lot quicker,” Candrea said. “But (Alvelo’s) a good pitcher and you have to have the mentality that you’re going to stay on top. So it’s more of a game that’s going to be played on the ground. And it’s more of a game that you have to be quick from point A to point B and she’s gonna supply the power. If you’re trying to supply power against power, that’s when the swing gets long and then you start seeing the strikeouts occur.”
McQuillin also gets a chance for redemption. The Huskies plated nine runs in 10 innings off the UA ace in the series sweep. McQuillin only lasted three innings in the finale after allowing a season-high seven runs on 10 hits.
“The postseason is a brand new season and our team has gotten stronger in the postseason,” McQuillin said. “That’s really what we need going up against seven other teams that deserve to be there.”
The Wildcats played all seven of their WCWS counterparts during the regular season, becoming the first team to do so since Arizona in 2000. And while they have beaten three of them—UCLA, Minnesota and Oklahoma State—the Huskies are exactly who they want to face.
“No one comes in here and beats us and gets away with it,” said UA outfielder Carli Campbell.
“It’s a revenge game for sure,” added Palomino-Cardoza.