Mariah Lopez and Dejah Mulipola will be Arizona teammates for the first time this season, but they first crossed paths when they were preteens growing up in Southern California.
Lopez attended a private tryout for Victory USA, and Mulipola—the team’s star backstop at the time—was asked to catch her bullpen session.
Flanked by her mother, father and then-Victory coach Mark Campbell, Lopez pumped pitch after pitch into Mulipola’s mitt. It was pretty clear that she was something special.
“I don’t know how fast 12-year-olds throw now,” Mulipola said, “but Mariah threw pretty fast.”
Lopez was the one trying to make an impression that day, but Mulipola was nervous too. Lopez says Mulipola is quiet around people until she gets to know them. So when Lopez wrapped up her bullpen session, Mulipola could only mutter two words to the right-hander: “Good job.”
“Now I talk Mariah’s ear off,” Mulipola laughed. “We FaceTime each other all the time and we’re literally nonstop talking, so it’s funny that she mentioned that I was very quiet because now we’re not quiet at all.”
That tryout was just the beginning of a long, fruitful friendship.
Not only did Lopez make the team, they dominated travel ball together. They won multiple national championships as they starred for Victory USA, Team Mizuno, the OC Batbusters and even the U.S. Junior Olympic Team.
Mulipola still vividly remembers at least one of those title runs. They were teenagers on Team Mizuno and had gotten knocked into the loser’s bracket. Somehow they rattled off 10 straight wins to take home the trophy, leaning on Lopez the whole way.
“I was catching every game, Mariah was pitching every game,” Mulipola said. “She was exhausted and I was like, ‘there’s nobody else that I want on the mound and I don’t care if you’re exhausted, we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna do this.’
“We were in sync. Our brains were literally the same person for those 10 games and we ended up winning. I just remember her pitching lights out all 10 games. I just knew me and Mariah together, we’re definitely a powerful battery. ... She may not admit it, she may not think so, but she definitely is a workhorse, and when she’s focused she’s very unstoppable.”
Lopez’s best memories with Mulipola were off the field, like when they used to dance and make funny videos at their teammates’ houses. (Something they still like to do.)
“Our Coach Mark, we would spend a lot of time with him,” Lopez said. “We’d stay the night at his house because his daughter was also on our team, and one time we were coming back from Colorado, we went home with him because it was such a late night flight and we were like cracking up, just delusional in the kitchen, eating this corn dip, just going insane. We probably should have been going to bed.
“And then another time his speedometer wasn’t working and we were kind of freaked out because he was driving so fast on the freeway. One time he made me record Dejah. He’d try to scare her when she was sleeping. Just funny stuff that we literally have been reminiscing about for a long time.”
Despite Lopez’s best recruiting efforts, they went separate ways for college, but stayed in touch as they emerged as two of the top players in the country.
Lopez went 51-2 with a 1.61 ERA in three seasons at Oklahoma and was the winning pitcher in the 2017 Women’s College World Series championship game.
Mulipola was a star freshman on Arizona’s Pac-12 championship team that year and has since become the best catcher in the country. She won the 2019 Johnny Bench Award as a junior after smacking 23 homers and playing her typical stellar defense as the Wildcats snapped a nine-year WCWS drought.
Lopez transferred to Arizona for her senior year in part so she could reunite with Mulipola and several other former travel teammates. Mulipola said she didn’t have any input in Lopez’s decision to join the Wildcats, though she reacted to the news like you’d expect.
“I was just pumped," Mulipola said. "I think I got almost 300 likes on my Twitter post that I posted about her coming here. It was a big deal because people knew that we grew up together.”
There was one problem: They weren’t actually going to be teammates.
Mulipola made the U.S. Olympic team a few months later and opted to redshirt the 2020 college season so she could tour with them. So when Lopez made her Arizona debut in February, Mulipola was all the way in Florida refreshing her Twitter timeline for updates.
“When she was going through the (Team USA) tryout process, I was like, ‘I am so happy for you, but I will be happy if you’re still here with us,”’ Lopez said. “It was just so hard for me because I was like, ‘yes, I’m gonna be with you’ and then it all happened.”
It’s only because of the coronavirus crisis, which canceled the end of the 2020 season and gave seniors like Lopez a chance to return in 2021, that they get to be batterymates again. It’s the ultimate silver lining.
“I think that’s going to be very beneficial, especially being seniors,” Mulipola said.
While each has grown since their travel ball days, Lopez and Mulipola expect 2021 to be like old times. They still know each other’s tendencies and Lopez chuckles about how her signature screwballs always seem to hit Mulipola’s target.
“We’re obviously going to take what (signs) Coach [Taryne Mowatt] is putting out there, but [Dejah] knows how certain pitches are going to work, are going to look,” Lopez said. “She has a different look from the back side, but we kind of are on the same page when it comes to that type of thing because of the fact that we played with each other for so long and we grew up on the same wavelength of education when it came to pitching and catching.”
Mulipola gave some examples.
“Say she throws a screwball in a 1-2 count, I know where I need to set up, she knows where I’m going to set up, and then we also kind of work together on where the pitch is going to be,” she said. “And also say we throw an off-speed pitch and we want it in the dirt to get the batter to chase, I think we’re both on the same idea of what we want to do with that pitch and where we want the outcome to come from.”
Lopez is also eager to learn what she can from Mulipola, who now has experience catching the best pitchers in the world.
“It’s very, very special just because Mariah and I are very close and we’ve only gotten closer since I’ve been back at school,” Mulipola said. “I think just having core people on the field with you that you’ve grown up with, you trust them, so that’s a big factor when you’re playing in tough games and tough situations.”
They’ll be in a lot of those in 2021. It’s Women’s College World Series or bust for the Wildcats, and Mulipola, Lopez and the rest of their star-studded senior class are expected to lead the way to Oklahoma City.
Lopez remembers being a kid and dreaming with Mulipola about winning a national championship in college together.
Now it could actually happen.
“It just has come full circle for us because [Campbell] recently passed away and he was a big influence, along with other coaches from that team, that shaped us into who we are,” Lopez said. “And we just kind of feel like it all came full circle for us and it was maybe a little nudge from him to get us to get back together and finish together, so we’re really excited about it.”