OKLAHOMA CITY — The Arizona softball team’s season came to an end Saturday, as the Wildcats were eliminated by Alabama in the Women’s College World Series.
It was a memorable year that saw the Wildcats return to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2010, but here are some questions facing the team heading into the offseason.
Will Dejah Mulipola play for Arizona in 2020?
Underclassmen don’t usually have to answer questions about their future in college softball, but Mulipola is an exception.
Because if Arizona’s star catcher makes the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, she will not play for the Wildcats next season. Instead, she said she will redshirt and return in 2021 as a super senior.
Playing in the Olympics would be a tremendous feat for Mulipola, but it would sting the Wildcats, who won’t have much experience behind the plate. Mulipola’s backup, Hillary Edior is a senior and won’t be around in 2020.
Instead, Mulipola’s likely replacement would be rising sophomore Izzy Pacho or incoming freshman Sharlize Palacios.
Pacho only had 41 at-bats and one start behind the plate as a freshman, but was a PGF All-American as a senior in high school and one of the best hitters to ever come out Tucson, so she does have the potential to be a quality starter, if not a good one.
Palacios, who plays for the OC Batbusters, is the No. 38 recruit in the country, according to FloSoftball.
“She has good catching skills and a good arm, and I think will be a very good hitter,” UA coach Mike Candrea said on signing day. “I’m excited about Sharlize, I really think she’s going to be a good one. She has everything you look for in a catcher, she’s a strong hitter with solid defense and great knowledge of the game. She’s a good teammate who works hard. I like everything about her.”
Still, Mulipola’s 23 homers, 55 RBI and exceptional defense and receiving will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
As for her chances of making the national team, Mulipola was one of just two catchers on the 2019 U.S. roster, so it seems more likely than not that she will be suiting up in Tokyo next summer.
How will Arizona replace Taylor McQuillin?
The senior ace’s career is over—as is No. 3 pitcher Gina Snyder‘s—and the Wildcats don’t have a clear replacement, which is concerning since elite pitching will be required to return to OKC.
No. 2 starter Alyssa Denham is solid, but her numbers (1.94 ERA) are not quite No. 1 material, and her lone start in the WCWS didn’t inspire much confidence. But she did improve as a junior and her best softball is probably still ahead of her.
Same goes for Arizona’s other returning arms—Hanah Bowen, Marissa Schuld, and Vanessa Foreman—who are still unproven.
Bowen, who played second base after Reyna Carranco’s injury, posted a stellar 0.48 ERA, but only pitched 29 innings and most of them came against weaker teams.
Schuld, the two-time Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year, also posted a 0.48 ERA, but that was in even fewer innings (14.2).
Fellow freshman Vanessa Foreman, the southpaw of the group, posted a 3.75 ERA in 9.1 innings, suggesting she still has ways to go to be a high-level starter in the Pac-12.
As of now, the pecking order would be Denham, Bowen, Schuld and Foreman. Arizona did not sign any pitching recruits. It’s a quartet packed with more potential than production, though who better to coach them up than Taryne Mowatt, who’s done wonders since returning to her alma mater in 2018.
How will the transfer portal affect Arizona?
Transfers are more prevalent than ever, so perhaps the Wildcats can address their pitching needs through college softball’s version of free agency.
And if the 2019 offseason is anything like 2018, there will be plenty of quality arms on the market. Two WCWS teams—Oklahoma State (Samantha Show) and Oklahoma (G Juarez)—are led by transfers in the circle.
Recent history suggests Arizona will be active on the transfer market. The Wildcats added Denham and two-time All-American outfielder Aleah Craighton from Louisiana-Lafayette in 2018, then added Rylee Pierce from Missouri prior to the 2019 season.
At the same time, the Wildcats have managed to avoid losing any key players to transfer.
Who will play first base?
Pierce is a senior, as is her backup Joelle Krist, so the Wildcats will have new blood at first base in 2020.
Pacho or Palacios could start here. So could a transfer. Or if we want to get crazy, Jessie Harper could move back to first base and rising junior Ivy Davis, who is thought to be the better defender, could step in at shortstop.
First base is one of the easiest positions to fill—the Wildcats have had three different players play the position at a high level the last three years—so this isn’t a huge concern.
Can Arizona carry its chemistry into next season?
Candrea said he will remember this senior class for a long time. Not necessarily because of its on-field contributions—though McQuillin was great in the circle, Pierce was solid at first and T Statman was a clutch pinch-hitter—but because of how it set the tone for the team’s seemingly impeccable chemistry, even though half the six seniors rarely played.
“To be able to buy into what we want and to continue to be bought in when you’re not playing all the time is a very difficult thing. Kids will sometimes get disconnected in that regard,” Candrea said. “They did everything they could each and every day to prepare themselves for the moment, their opportunity. There was never a sad face or anyone pouting or anything like that.”
Several players said team chemistry is the reason the Wildcats finally made it back to the WCWS, so new leaders will have to emerge next season in order for them to return to Oklahoma City.
Will Jessie Harper break Arizona’s home run record?
Harper blasted a career-high and NCAA-best 29 homers in her junior season, giving her 66 for her career. That means she is only 26 shy of matching Arizona’s all-time record set by former teammate Katiyana Mauga in 2017.
Will the soon-to-be seniors go out with a bang?
Even if Mulipola sits out the 2020 season, Arizona will be relying heavily on its rising seniors.
They include Denham, Harper, Pac-12 batting champion Reyna Carranco, breakout star third baseman Malia Martinez, and stud center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza.
They will depart as one of the most decorated classes in recent history, and now hope to use their WCWS experience to lead the team to even greater heights next season.
“I think that was a good opportunity,” Denham said. “Now we actually know what we are working for next year. We’ve experienced it. Now I think that it’s going to light a fire under us to want to get back here next year.”
Which underclassmen will break out?
Slap-hitting outfielder Peanut Martinez and third baseman Malia Martinez—who was already pretty good in 2018—saw huge increases in their production in 2019.
Now Arizona could use similar breakouts at first base, pitcher, left field and catcher (if Mulipola is not with the team).
Arizona only signed three recruits, but Bella Dayton, a speedy slapper, could be a candidate to start in left field. The Wylie, Texas native is the No. 23 recruit in the country, per Extra Inning Softball. Dayton hit .579 in her senior season with six homers, eight doubles and seven triples.
Fellow incoming freshman Janelle Meono, another top-40 recruit, is a similar kind of player.
Schuld will be everyone’s pick to have a breakout sophomore season, whether it be at the plate, in the circle, or both. The former FloSoftball National Player of the Year, Schuld owns Pinnacle High School’s career records in home runs (37) and strikeouts (617).