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What to watch for in the Arizona-UCLA softball series

The Wildcats wrap up the regular season in Westwood

Hanah Bowen
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

College softball’s most storied rivalry will be rekindled Thursday when sixth-ranked Arizona (40-11, 17-4 Pac-12) begins a three-game series at third-ranked UCLA (45-3, 19-2 Pac-12) to cap the regular season.

These programs account for 20 national championships, with UCLA owning 12 (including one that was vacated) and Arizona claiming eight. No other program has won more than four.

The Bruins have had the upper hand lately, going 17-3 against the Wildcats since 2013, including a two-game sweep in Super Regionals last year to end Arizona’s season.

Thursday’s series opener begins at 7 p.m. MST, Friday’s matchup starts at 5 p.m. MST, and Saturday’s finale begins at noon. All three games will be broadcast on the Pac-12 Network.

Here are some things to watch for.

Arizona’s right to host Supers

At this point, the only way Arizona can win the Pac-12 is by sweeping UCLA. That is extremely unlikely to happen, so this series is more about winning a game or two to secure the right to host Super Regionals.

The Wildcats currently rank fourth in RPI and sixth in the NFCA Coaches poll, possibly in danger of falling out of the top eight if they get swept by the Bruins.

“Oh, we know that we need a steal a few games from UCLA in order to be either close to being at the top for Pac or fighting for that first place or second place,” said UA shortstop Jessie Harper. “Obviously, we want to be on top, so we know that these games are pretty detrimental for that.”

From UCLA’s standpoint, the Bruins can clinch a Pac-12 title with a series win. It would be their first conference championship since 2009.

“This season has gone really well. We’ve had a couple downs but it’s mainly been uphill,” infielder Taylor Pack told the Daily Bruin. “In these past four years, I think that this is really our best shot to win and our team has really meshed well and everything is coming together for us at the right time. So I think we’re going to have a really great end of the season.”

Another opportunity to beat the elite

Getting swept by Washington last weekend was yet another instance of Arizona falling short against an elite team.

The Wildcats are 1-8 against the Top 10 this season. In order to be a great team—one that can reach the Women’s College World Series—they have to be able to embrace the big moment, head coach Mike Candrea said.

Well, it doesn’t get any bigger than UCLA-Arizona.

“Sometimes you look at failure as a threat to you. And unfortunately in this game as long as I’ve been around it, you’re going to fail and you have to really learn how to embrace that failure and learn from it,” Candrea said. “And I think that’s the key: being able to take these tough moments, like this past weekend, and be able to draw from it and try to go out and try to improve upon whatever your mindset was or whatever you were thinking in those situations.

“Because at the end of the day, that’s really where you have to be to play your best softball at the College World Series. You have to be good physically, mentally, and emotionally. And that hasn’t changed in forever. And so I look at it as an opportunity for us to go in to a tough environment, play a good team and try to make ourselves better. And I think if we can focus on that, focus on having good at bats, playing a game one pitch at a time, all the things you talk about, but actually be able to do it, I think that could springboard us for a while.”

Rachel’s riseball

Third in the nation in batting average and second in ERA, UCLA is led by Rachel Garcia, the Pac-12 Player and Pitcher of the Year.

The redshirt junior is 20-0 and second in the nation with a 0.71 ERA. She also sports a .348 batting average with eight home runs, capable of doing just about anything on the softball diamond.

“She’s a monster,” Harper said.

Garcia limited the Wildcats to four runs in 23.1 innings last season, stymying them with a hard, deceptive riseball. Arizona needs to be more disciplined against that pitch this time around.

“It’s not always the challenge of staying on top of it as much as it is identifying it,” said UA assistant Caitlin Lowe. “It’s eyes. You have to be able to trust that you’re seeing something in your zone and that you’re doing what you can with it. I mean, if you just say, ‘stay on top, stay on top,’ you’re just going to start hacking at things. But really just identifying it and almost not worrying about it (is key) because we have to worry about the strikes that we can hit.”

Lowe, in charge of scouting opposing pitchers, said the most daunting part about facing Garcia is her fearlessness.

“She competes,” Lowe said. “Honestly if you really boil her down, she’s just a competitor, so she’s not going to back down. We have to get into the box and have confidence in our abilities. And if we do that, I think that we hit her and we have before. It’s just a matter of kind of stringing things together and playing a better softball game than they do.”

Being the stacked team they are, the Bruins also have Pac-12 Freshman of the Year Megan Faraimo on their pitching staff. The right-hander has a 1.34 ERA in 99.1 innings, giving UCLA a stronger 1-2 punch than it had last season.

In total, seven Bruins were named to the All-Pac-12 First Team.

“They’re a team that probably has more run production than Washington does one through nine, so we’re gonna have to pitch very well, we’re gonna have to play good defense, and then we’re gonna have to get some key hits,” Candrea said.

Not keen on Kean

One of the most surprising things about the Washington series was that Arizona outfielder Jenna Kean did not play.

The speedy sophomore, who’s started 36 games this season, was benched in favor of Carli Campbell, who is hitting nearly 70 points lower than Kean. Candrea hinted Campbell started for defensive reasons, though she did have two hits in the series.

Still, look for Kean to return to the lineup this week. Arizona needs more offensive firepower now that leading hitter Reyna Carranco is out indefinitely with a broken hand.

“I think Carli did a really nice job this weekend getting on base when we needed to,” Candrea said. “If I look back at the seventh innings, Hannah (Martinez) and her both did a really nice job of setting the table for us. Yeah, I would love to get Jenna Kean in the lineup and utilize her speed, so I would imagine this weekend she’ll get an opportunity and kind of see what we need to do to put our best foot forward going forward.”

Bowen the backup

Hanah Bowen is who Arizona will be counting on to help fill Carranco’s void at second base. Mostly used as a relief pitcher, Bowen has three hits in 16 at-bats this season. The sophomore has only started three games at the position in her UA career.

Check out our full story on the utility player here.

California love

16 of Arizona’s 21 players hail from California, including pretty much the entire starting lineup, so it is a special occasion anytime they play in the Golden State.

“I know I’m only 23 miles away from UCLA, so I grew up going to all the UCLA series.” said Harper, a Stevenson Ranch native. “I loved watching softball growing up so I kind of stayed there a lot. But I know we’re gonna have tons of our fans in the stands, which is amazing. So I don’t think they’re going to have too much of a home field advantage.

“I know I have a big crowd coming out, (Hillary Edior) has a big crowd coming. I’m pretty sure everyone on our team has a big crowd coming out. It’s been hard for us to get some tickets...but this is just gonna be a great experience playing in front of our fans and I know they’re gonna be cheering loud for us. But I’m excited to just go head to head with UCLA. I think this is going to be a very, very telling series of what we have in store going into postseason.”