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A way-too-early look at Arizona softball’s 2021 roster now that seniors can return

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Malia Martinez and Jessie Harper
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

With the NCAA voting Monday to grant spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility, it means the Arizona Wildcats softball team will be absolutely stacked in 2021 now that they can bring back six star seniors who otherwise would have exhausted their eligibility.

But wait, there’s more! Arizona is also set to welcome the No. 1 recruiting class, which consists of eight signees. (You can read all about them here.)

Here is a way-too-early position-by-position breakdown of Arizona’s 2021 roster. For now, we will assume all seniors will return, all incoming freshmen will join the program as expected, and there will be no transfers, though that’s probably unrealistic.

Pitchers

  • Mariah Lopez (senior), Alyssa Denham (senior), Hanah Bowen (junior), Vanessa Foreman (sophomore), Marissa Schuld (sophomore), Devyn Netz (true freshman), Jessie Fontes (true freshman)

Lopez and Denham were a formidable 1-2 punch in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, combining to post a 1.67 ERA, and there is no reason to think that won’t hold true in 2021. If anything they should be better.

However, a big difference here is Arizona could have a dominant No. 3 pitcher on top of that. Lopez and Denham had combined for over 90 percent of UA’s innings in 2020, as Bowen, Schuld and Foreman couldn’t gain ground as a reliable third option.

Netz and Fontes are both super highly-rated recruits, with Netz, who plays at nearby Ironwood Ridge, being the No. 6 recruit in the country according to Extra Inning Softball. Fontes, a fellow right-hander, is ranked 24th.

If they are the real deal, they can help lessen the load on Denham and Lopez, something the Wildcats wanted to do in 2020 but were unable to.

That said, with only so many innings to go around, you can probably expect one or two pitchers to transfer. Foreman, who has hardly pitched, seems the likeliest to head elsewhere simply because Bowen and Schuld have shown they can also produce offensively.

Catchers

  • Dejah Mulipola (senior), Sharlize Palacios (freshman), Izzy Pacho (sophomore)

The outlook here is the same as it was in 2020, only this time Pacho and Palacios will have some experience behind the plate. Palacios shined as a true freshman, hitting .324 with a homer in 13 games, though she missed time with a broken thumb and neck injury.

Pacho hit .250 and flashed a ton of power to all fields, but is a bit rawer as a backstop and has been inconsistent at the plate.

As for Mulipola, the Olympics were pushed back to 2021, so she will probably miss another year of college softball assuming she remains on Team USA’s roster and the Americans go on tour next spring like they did in 2020.

Before the coronavirus, Mulipola was planning to return as a fifth-year senior in 2021, but returning as a sixth-year senior in 2022 probably isn’t as much of a lock. That’s a long time to be away from the team.

If for some reason she does play college ball in 2021, Mulipola would be one of, if not the, best catcher in the country, offering impeccable defense and 20-homer power.

Corner infielders

  • Malia Martinez (senior), Ivy Davis (junior), Carlie Scupin (true freshman), Giulia Koutsoyanopulos (true freshman), Aris Carroll (true freshman)

Martinez, a solid two-way player, will be the starter at third, assuming she returns instead of pursuing a PhD program at NAU like she planned.

There will be a fascinating competition at first base. Davis emerged as the starter in 2020 by hitting a solid .305 with three homers, but it will likely take more than that to keep that spot in 2021.

That’s because the powerful Carile Scupin, another Tucson recruit, has “definitely the highest bat speed” longtime coach Mike Candrea has seen. Scupin walloped 41 homers in three full seasons at Tucson High, including 17 as a junior when she posted an OPS of, wait for it, 2.513.

Adding a power hitter like that alongside two of the best in Jessie Harper and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza could be something special, even for a program that has always had a wealth of power hitters.

If Martinez does not return, Davis would be a strong candidate to replace her at the hot corner (she’s used to playing on that side of the infield anyway), as would Carroll.

Middle infielders

  • Jessie Harper (senior), Reyna Carranco (senior), Alayna Hicks (freshman), Allie Skaggs (true freshman), Sophia Carroll (true freshman)

Not much to say here. If they return, Harper and Carranco will start at shortstop and second, respectively. They are two of the best hitters in the country, and Harper, who’s led the NCAA in homers the last two years, will likely break the all-time home-run record, needing 20 more to do it. (She hit 29 in in 2019, her last full season.)

Carroll, Aris’ twin, is a top-15 recruit with tremendous power, so perhaps she can make her way into the lineup as the designated player. Same with Skaggs, a former Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year who is now attending Tucson’s Ironwood Ridge High School.

Outfielders

  • Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza (senior), Peanut Martinez (junior), Bella Dayton (freshman), Janelle Meono (freshman), Jasmine Perezchica (true freshman), Jenna Kean (junior), Riley Kuderca (sophomore), Carli Campbell (junior)

An All-American, Palomino-Cardoza will be one of the best players in the country in her sixth/”great grandma” year at Arizona. Not just because of her bat, but because she has never made an error in center field. Yes, that’s a real stat.

There will be tremendous competition in the corner outfield, but not for a lack of talent. Martinez and Dayton, two speedy lefties with some power, started to catch some fire before the 2020 season was canceled, and Kean and Campbell have played at a high level before, while Meono was actually the highest-ranked recruit in the 2019 class.

Meanwhile, Perezchica, the daughter of Diamondbacks third base coach Tony Perezchica, is a top-10 recruit according to Extra Inning Softball. She profiles as “your typical leadoff hitter,” per Candrea, which is a pretty good way to describe all of Arizona’s outfielders, save for Palomino-Cardoza.

It is also possible that some of the players we listed at other positions decide to give outfield a go, knowing it is their best path to immediate playing time.

And, yeah, there will probably be a transfer or two. If there is a downside to having a roster as loaded as this one it’s that not everyone can play as much as they’d like.

There might not be enough scholarship money to keep everyone around, either. Due to the unique circumstances, the NCAA amended its financial aid rules to allow softball programs to exceed the 12-scholarship limit so that they can accommodate their seniors, but that doesn’t mean they will. That can get expensive.


One starting lineup projection

  • C: Sharlize Palacios
  • 1B: Carlie Scupin
  • 2B: Reyna Carranco
  • 3B: Malia Martinez
  • SS: Jessie Harper
  • LF: Peanut Martinez
  • CF: Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza
  • RF: Bella Dayton
  • DP: Ivy Davis

Verdict

The Wildcats should again be a top-10 team in the country, and even that is probably underselling them. Two areas they could have been better in 2020—first base, pitching depth—could become strengths.

For now, the biggest question marks are the corner outfield and finding a reliable bat to slot at designated player. Of course, timely hitting is always a challenge for every team and more holes could emerge if some of the seniors decide to move on, though most, if not all, are expected to return.

Harper was already planning to return as a graduate assistant, Lopez wasn’t going to graduate until the fall, and Palomino-Cardoza and Carranco have hinted on social media that they will be back.

Denham and Malia Martinez are the two to watch closely, as both had plans lined up after this semester, a reason Denham is taking 20+ units to graduate in May.