OKLAHOMA CITY — When Washington swept Arizona at home earlier this month, UA coach Mike Candrea was concerned about his team’s inability to handle the big moment.
Now, they are conquering the biggest moments on the biggest stages.
Dejah Mulipola hit a two-out, two-run homer in the eighth inning to propel the Wildcats to a 3-1 win over Washington to open the Women’s College World Series on Thursday.
“I was just trying to breathe and be in the moment and see a pitch, and I just happened to see one,” said Mulipola, whose game-winning blast went to straight away center. “I actually didn’t think it was out, but when I tell that to everyone they don’t believe me. That’s why I was so excited rounding first base.”
It was the first WCWS game to go to extra innings since the 2017 championship series. The Wildcats will play No. 2 UCLA in the winner’s bracket Friday at 4 p.m. PT.
“I was probably most pleased with the way we handled the big moment,” Candrea said. “That’s been our theme ever since we lost three games to Washington. That was the message. We didn’t handle the big moment then, so it’s kind of nice to see that work pay off.”
Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin, who was knocked around by the Huskies earlier in the month, outdueled UW’s Taran Alvelo, as the Wildcats snapped a six-game losing streak to the Huskies that dated back to last season.
McQuillin struck out seven; Alvelo fanned 11. Both surrendered six hits.
“This was a huge win for us,” McQuillin said. “They’ve knocked us down the past couple years, and we’ve been knocking at the door, just couldn’t get through. So I think today we really showed our grit and really show that we can push through. It shows that we’re a team. We finally created this team unity that we have on and off the field, and we’re using it to our advantage right now.”
Neither McQuillin nor Alvelo gave an inch until the sixth when Arizona shortstop Jessie Harper broke the seal by clubbing a solo homer to right-center.
But that lead only lasted a few minutes because UW’s Sami Reynolds evened the game by depositing the first pitch of the bottom of sixth into the right-field bleachers.
It was a deja vu moment for Candrea, never mind that this was Arizona’s first WCWS game since 2010.
“This game brought me back to the 90s,” the 34-year coach said. “That’s what softball used to look like. You would compete, compete, compete, it was a pitcher’s duel and all of a sudden someone found a way to score a run. And I thought it was quite ironic today that Harper’s home run went out, that they came back to tie it up. Both pitchers were phenomenal. It was just a really good, fastpitch softball game.”
Alvelo was dominant from the start, striking out the side in the first inning. The Wildcats did not crack the hit column until Malia Martinez doubled off the right-field wall with one out in the fourth.
Although it did not yield any runs, Candrea thought that opposite-field hit gave the Wildcats a jolt of confidence. They had been well behind Alvelo’s 70-plus mph fastballs.
“The big thing was us trying to get off the knob, trying to just square the ball up, not trying to pull everything,” Candrea said. “And the second time around, I thought we started making some adjustments.”
Arizona put two on to lead off the seventh, but Alvelo fanned Hanah Bowen and Peanut Martinez before getting pinch-hitter T Statman to ground out.
The Huskies found themselves in an identical spot in bottom half of the frame, but Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza made a stretching grab in right center before McQuillin induced a groundout to escape the jam.
The Huskies put two more runners on in the seventh, but McQuillin retired Morganne Flores and Reynolds to send the game to extras.
“I think early in the game I felt a little too relaxed,” McQuillin said. “I think I tried to really relax myself and I later realized that I’m a little bit better when the butterflies are flying in formation as the pitches are coming. But it’s our first time here. It’s a different feeling. And I think we had to get used to it pretty quick, but I think we did a pretty good job of doing that today. And Dejah came up in the big moment.”
And this time the UA catcher came through. Earlier in the month, Alvelo struck out Mulipola on three pitches to close out a win in Tucson.
“We live for these moments,” McQuillin said. “These are the moments that we prayed for when we came to play college softball. These are the moments we want to be in. To be here, with our team, getting the first win in the World Series, the first win of the World Series this year, it’s a great feeling. I wouldn’t want to share it with anybody else but this team right now.”