The 2020 Arizona softball season kicks off in Tempe on Feb. 7 when the Wildcats will face Kansas to open the annual Kajikawa Classic.
Expectations are sky-high, with Arizona ranking No. 3 in D1Softball’s preseason poll. Here is what you need to know about them before Opening Day.
It’s WCWS or bust
The date 6.3.2020 is printed on the back of Arizona’s red practice jerseys. It doesn’t take a genius to know what it means.
“Our goal every year is to get back to the World Series and play the last game of the season,” said head coach Mike Candrea, who’s entering his 35th season.
The Wildcats reached the Women’s College World Series in 2019 for the first time in nine years, and now that they have a taste of it, they are hungry for a return.
“It was loud, it was quick, a lot going on, but it was an amazing experience,” senior shortstop Jessie Harper said of the WCWS. “All I dreamed of since being a little girl is going and competing on that stage, and just doing it with my teammates brought out some real great emotions for us as a team. But I’m ready to go back there this year. That’s how I want to end my senior year.”
Seniors will lead the way
If the Wildcats do return to Oklahoma City, it will largely be on the backs of seniors like Harper.
The star-studded class includes a pair of home-run-smacking All-Americans in Harper and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, reigning Pac-12 batting champion Reyna Carranco, and all-around third baseman Malia Martinez, who has steadily improved over her career, a trend that Candrea said continued this offseason.
That quartet combined for 283 hits, 67 homers, and 232 RBI last season. Harper, whose 29 homers led the NCAA, needs 27 more to break Arizona’s all-time record of 92 held by Katiyana Mauga.
“It’s pretty deadly, honestly,” Oklahoma transfer Mariah Lopez said of the top of the lineup. “There’s no room for mistakes and you kind of have to go straight at them.”
Lopez and Alyssa Denham, Arizona’s top two pitchers, are also members of that senior class (we’ll get to them in a second). All six upperclassmen have started in a WCWS game, and Lopez has even won a national championship, so no moment should be too big for them.
“One of the strengths is our experience, and so it kind of felt like people would look at that at the beginning of the year and say, ‘well, they should be good,’” Candrea said. “But you gotta go out and play the games and win the right games, so we got a long way to go. I don’t get too excited about preseason polls.”
The pitching should be as good if not better than last year
A hard-throwing righty, Lopez is essentially replacing former ace Taylor McQuillin, which could be an upgrade for the Wildcats, who ranked sixth in the nation in ERA last season.
Lopez went 19-1 with 1.25 ERA at Oklahoma last year, holding opponents to a .159 batting average with 159 strikeouts in 117.2 innings. McQuillin went 24-8 with a 1.58 ERA with 228 strikeouts in 207 innings (albeit the Pac-12 is a better league than the Big 12).
Meanwhile, Denham is primed for the best year of her career. The lanky right-hander has packed on muscle, raising her velocity into the upper 60s. Now the hope is that all the work she put in this offseason will result in more consistent command.
When she’s on, she’s proven she can dominate. The tall Texan posted a 1.94 ERA in 108 innings in 2019, experiencing some incredible highs like throwing a no-hitter at Oregon State and being the winning pitcher in the Regional- and Super Regional-clinching victories over Auburn and Ole Miss, respectively.
“Last year, I was still trying to figure out the velocity and the spin and the movement, compared to now where I think I have it figured out,” Denham said.
Lopez and Denham have trained hard to improve their endurance, honing in on “pitcher-specific cardio workouts” like running at an incline.
Neither Lopez nor Denham have been an ace at the college level before, and they will need to be in tip-top shape to handle a larger workload.
Or...maybe not. They could be more of a 1A and 1B than a traditional 1-2 punch.
“I expect that to be a strength for us this year with Mariah (throwing) up in the zone and (Denham throwing) down in the zone,” Candrea said. “I think it’s a really good combination. And then you bring in (Hanah) Bowen or bring in Marissa (Schuld), both of them can throw on all different planes. And I think the key is going to be for all of them to develop a good off-speed pitch. And that’s one of the things we’ve been working on more than anything.”
Lots of positions are up for grabs
Harper (SS), Carranco (2B), and Martinez (3B) are locks to start at their respective positions. The rest of the diamond is unsettled but not for a lack of options.
“One thing about this team is there’s a lot of flexibility and a lot of depth,” Candrea said. “So you can see a lot of different lineups.”
Palomino-Cardoza will start somewhere, but her position will likely hinge on the performance of others.
One possibility: shifting from her usual perch in center field to first base to make room for freshman Janelle Meono, a top-40 recruit who has impressed with her speed and contact hitting and seems like a surefire starter.
Palomino is a self-described “outfielder at heart” but played a solid first base as a redshirt sophomore as she returned from a torn ACL.
Junior Ivy Davis, a versatile defender with some pop, is another option there. So is Bowen, a contact hitter known for her plate discipline.
“The key is who’s going to be swinging the bat,” Candrea said.
Behind the plate, the Wildcats have the unenviable task of replacing Dejah Mulipola, who will miss the 2020 season due to her commitment with the U.S. Olympic team. Mulipola clubbed 23 homers last season, and was an even better defender, but it’s her calming presence that will be missed the most.
Especially since the two catchers replacing her have very little, if any, collegiate experience. There is freshman Sharlize Palacios, a top-40 recruit, and Tucsonan Izzy Pacho, who has a powerful swing but hit just .195 in 41 at-bats as a freshman last season.
“Yeah, we miss Dejah, but we’ll get it done,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
Palacios, who hit .566 with 11 homers at Eastlake High School in Southern California, seems to be the frontrunner, but she has missed time this winter with a finger injury.
“I was impressed with her this fall,” Candrea said. “I thought she swung the bat well, has some maturity, and she’s a good leader behind the plate. But again, it’s just having that experience that you want back there and being able to handle the pitchers and handling the situations. And I think with time she’ll be fine. And I think Izzy’s done a good job there too, so I feel good about both of those kids.”
In the fall, Denham noted they were still getting used to receiving her down-breaking pitches, but said Thursday that they have picked things up quickly.
“They fit right in, they’re awesome, so they’re not going to skip a beat,” Denham said.
When it comes to the corner outfield, the Wildcats have a horde of speedy left-handed hitters to choose from. Juniors Carli Campbell, Jenna Kean and Peanut Martinez all started more than 24 games last season, each flashing their own strengths.
Campbell is an elite defender and almost always puts the ball in play, pretty much exclusively for singles. Kean is the best hitter (.313 AVG) and biggest threat on the bases (7 stolen bases). Martinez is sort of a mix of both, plus has a cannon for an arm.
Candrea said Meono and fellow freshman Bella Dayton, yet another speedy slapper, will get a look out there as well.
Arizona submitted a projected starting lineup to D1Softball that lists Palacios at catcher, Davis at first, Palomino-Cardoza in center, Meono in left, Peanut in right, and Pacho at designated player.
That is my projection as well, but I was told to not look too much into that. Things are bound to change.
“We have a lot of people that can be put in different places,” Harper said. “So I’m really looking forward to seeing who stands out in those spots.”
The schedule is very difficult, just how they like it
Arizona’s non-conference schedule will pit them against six ranked teams, including No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, No. 5 Oklahoma in Tucson, No. 9 Florida in Palm Springs, and No. 14 Tennessee in Tempe, No. 22 Auburn and No. 25 Missouri (both in Palm Springs).
The Wildcats will also host exhibitions against Mulipola’s USA squad and Team Mexico, whose pitching staff features former UA aces Danielle O’Toole and Taylor McQuillin.
To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, right?
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 25-1 and you get into Pac-12 play and you haven’t played anyone,” Candrea said. “So, yeah, it’s a good schedule. It’s a schedule that I think will test us early and test us often and that’s what we need.”
Arizona’s Pac-12 schedule will be stiffer this year, with No. 19 Oregon and No. 23 Arizona State expected to be much improved. Both struggled last season after being decimated by transfers.
Arizona will face those schools and No. 2 Washington on the road, leaving No. 4 UCLA as the only premier Pac-12 opponent to play at Hillenbrand Stadium this season. The Bruins will be without National Player of the Year Rachel Garcia and All-American utility Bubba Nickles who are joining Mulipola on the U.S. Olympic team.
UCLA, Washington, and Arizona are once again expected to finish in the top 3. Harper said the Wildcats consider themselves the favorite.
“I feel good about where this team is right now,” Candrea said. “I think we’ve helped ourselves, we’ve got good experience. I think we’ve got good power, we’ve got good speed. I think we’re going to be able to play good defense and I think we’re able to pitch. And if all those things come to fruition when the uniform’s put on and the game’s on the line, I think it’s gonna be a fun team to watch.”
Team chemistry will be the key ingredient
The Wildcats have all the pieces to add a ninth national championship to their trophy case, but it won’t come easy. They will still have to get timely hits and outs, and maximize every ounce of talent they have.
The downside to having so much depth is not everyone will play as much as they’d like. That can lead to unrest.
It didn’t in 2019, when the Wildcats were very tight-knit, one of the reasons they broke through to OKC. Denham said it was “extremely hard” when they had to go separate ways after the season, but the returners are doing what they can to restrengthen those bonds and make the newcomers feel welcome.
“It’s knowing our teammates on a deeper level, engaging in deeper ways and being able to know how to talk to somebody, and to be able to be a teammate, be a friend whenever anyone needs it,” Palomino-Cardoza said.
Palomino-Cardoza couldn’t give an example of what that means, but Harper said the Wildcats eat dinner in large groups and watch The Bachelor on Mondays.
“We all talk gossip of that,” she laughed. “It’s so poorly produced but it’s fun, I love it. I love the drama.”
So long as it stays away from her team. They don’t have time for that.
“I think for us the key is just knowing that we can (make it to the WCWS) and not putting that pressure on to get back there, and just doing all the little things that line up to getting us there,” Harper said. “I think that’s keeping it simple for now and not looking too far in advance.”