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What to watch for when Arizona softball hosts Oklahoma, others in Hillenbrand Invitational

Mariah Lopez
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

After going 5-0 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, the Arizona softball team will open its home schedule this weekend when it hosts the annual Hillenbrand Invitational.

No. 4 Arizona will play five games in three days, the opponents being Long Beach State (2-3), Northern Iowa (3-3), Bryant (0-0) and No. 2 Oklahoma (4-0), a perennial Women’s College World Series participant.

The full schedule can be found below, and here are some things to keep an eye on at Hillenbrand Stadium.

Mariah Lopez vs. Oklahoma

Arizona coach Mike Candrea said Tuesday that he had not yet decided who will start in the circle against No. 2 Oklahoma on Saturday.

If you like storylines, you should hope he gives the nod to senior Mariah Lopez, the hard-throwing right-hander who transferred to the UA after spending her first three seasons with the Sooners, including 2017 when she was the winning pitcher in their Women’s College World Series-clinching victory.

Lopez has been coy about the reason(s) she left Oklahoma, but it probably had something to do with the fact the Sooners continually recruited over her, even though she went 51-2 at OU, the highest winning percentage in school history.

Saturday, hopefully, will be her opportunity to show them what they’re missing. Lopez is coming off a dominant weekend in which she allowed one run over 11.2 innings while racking up 20 strikeouts.

“I think that Mariah and is going to have the advantage in that situation, because I think that she has different stuff this year that they haven’t necessarily seen,” said UA pitcher Alyssa Denham. “But I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

She’s a G

One of the arms Oklahoma brought in was ASU transfer G Juarez, who is entering her second season with the Sooners, after going 28-4 with a 1.39 ERA last year. The senior compiled 269 strikeouts in 186.1 innings, holding opponents to a .151 average.

The Sun Devils, meanwhile, have struggled mightily in the circle ever since Juarez led them to the WCWS in 2018.

“She’s a tough lefty and I think one of the good things at this stage of the game is to be able to have a matchup like that where you’re facing a quality pitcher and a quality team and kind of see where you’re at,” Candrea said.

First-home-game jitters

Friday will be the first time Arizona’s newcomers will play in a real game at Hillenbrand Stadium, Lopez included. There will be butterflies.

“My first game, it was at the old Rita, so even now to have a brand new stadium and bigger crowd, it’s just a lot of great feelings there,” said senior third baseman Malia Martinez. “And I think the biggest thing that coach would always tell us is that pressure is a privilege. So to really just embrace the moment, to be there, and be excited to be a part of that whole experience.”

The Wildcats were shaky in their home opener last year, falling to South Florida in a game they committed two costly errors and left six runners on base. Of course, every player had first-game jitters that day since it was the first-ever game in the remodeled Hillenbrand Stadium.

Related note: Arizona was second in the NCAA in attendance last year, averaging 2,587 fans.

A familiar face

Bryant head coach Nick French will be returning to Arizona, where he was a volunteer assistant in 2010. French is in his second season at Bryant after going 13-32 last year.

”I am really excited to be back in Tucson. Hillenbrand is a special place for me, Coach Candrea gave me my first opportunity at the Division 1 level, and I’m forever grateful to have been a part of Arizona softball,” French said. “Getting to learn under a staff that had more than 30 WCWS appearances as head coaches was the best softball education I could have received as a young coach. Being able to take my own team back there now a decade later is a privilege and a thrill.”

Avoiding a letdown

While Arizona-Oklahoma is the marquee matchup this weekend, the Wildcats have to be careful not to look over Long Beach State, Northern Iowa and Bryant.

None are great or projected to win their conference (though UNI and LBSU were picked to finish second), but an upset is not unrealistic given the current state of college softball.

“We keep saying there’s a lot of more parity, but there really is,” Candrea said. “A lot more kids are playing the game at a high level, therefore there’s a larger body of opportunities and people to pick from... and I think just overall in our sport people are doing a better job of recruiting.

“Schools are putting in more money to allow their staffs to recruit better players and building facilities. And I think softball is just right now can really blossom even more than it is. I look back 20 years ago it was the same people all the time because, really, the finances were not quite there for a lot of schools to go out and recruit as extensively as they do now.”

Who’s leading off?

One of the most interesting developments from the Kajikawa Classic was that Arizona used three different leadoff hitters in five games.

Two of them—speedy lefties Janelle Meono and Isabella Dayton—are freshmen. The other was senior All-American Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza.

Meono and Dayton hit a combined 2 for 17 in Tempe—though Dayton did flash some impressive pop and defense—but Candrea will continue tinkering with the one-spot at the Hillenbrand Invitational.

Palomino-Cardoza has proven she can handle it—and well—but her power might be better served in the middle of the order, which is weaker now that Dejah Mulipola is gone for the Olympics.

“I still believe that we have a couple young kids that could fit that leadoff role,” Candrea said. “The first weekend Janelle was, I thought, uncharacteristically swinging at some bad pitches and not being selective, and that just comes from maturity. And so I think part of the process for us is to keep running them in and seeing what we can do and that’s what I felt like would be an advantage for us this year, is we have some different options. And I really just kind of felt against Tennessee, putting Palomino on top of the order again, a young pitcher on the circle doesn’t want to start the game off facing someone like her.”

Home-run hitters

Oklahoma and Arizona will each bring some elite power hitters to Hillenbrand this weekend. Obviously for the Wildcats it’s Palomino-Cardoza and Jessie Harper, the two active career home runs leaders. Harper has 68 career homers, 24 shy of tying Arizona’s all-time record. APC has 57.

Oklahoma graduated one of the best senior classes in program history, but still has two established home-run threats in sophomore Grace Green and junior Jocelyn Alo.

Green blasted 17 homers last year. Alo hit 18 after launching 30 in 2018.

Palacios’ thumb, Pacho’s arm

Arizona freshman catcher Sharlize Palacios did not play in Tempe last weekend as she continues to work her way back from a broken thumb on her glove hand.

Palacios has been able to get back behind the plate, but swinging with her ailing finger has been the issue so far.

It is unclear if she will play this weekend, making sophomore Izzy Pacho the starter for now. Pacho had some trouble squeezing low pitches last weekend, but for the most part held up, especially at the plate where she hit 6 for 16 with a homer, a double, and a sharp single off the right-field wall.

Oklahoma hasn’t stolen any bases this season, but did swipe 66 last year, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they test Pacho’s arm.

Arizona’s Hillenbrand Invitational schedule

Friday, February 14

vs. Long Beach State — 2 p.m. MST

vs. Northern Iowa — 4:30 p.m. MST

Saturday, February 15

vs. Bryant — 11:30 a.m. MST

vs. No. 2 Oklahoma — 4:30 p.m. MST

Sunday, February 16

vs. Long Beach State — 12:30 p.m. MST

All games will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream-2