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Roundtable: How would have Arizona softball fared in 2020?

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COLLEGE SOFTBALL: MAR 18 Utah at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If the 2020 season did not get canceled by the coronavirus, the Arizona softball team would probably be on its way to the Women’s College World Series right now in search of its ninth national championship.

The Wildcats were 22-3 and the No. 4 team in the country before everything went down. How would the season have gone if they did get to finish it out? Here is what the folks who cover the team think.

Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) : I think Arizona would have finished third to UCLA and Washington in the Pac-12, earned a top-8 seed, and advanced to the Final Four of the Women’s College World Series before falling to UCLA or Texas. That is a slightly better result than 2019 when Arizona also finished third in the Pac-12 but was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the WCWS.

I think the Wildcats would have been more comfortable in Oklahoma City this year—hence the additional win—but would have had trouble beating those elite pitchers multiple times. Before the season was canceled, Arizona was 33rd in the country in runs per game. Teams like Texas, Washington and UCLA were in the top 10.

The main reason I think Arizona would have finished third in the Pac-12 (and not higher) is scheduling. They would have played three of the conference’s top four teams—Washington, Oregon and Arizona State—on the road. And it would have been interesting to see how Mariah Lopez and Alyssa Denham held up late in the season since they logged 90 percent of Arizona’s innings.

As for Jessie Harper and the home run chase, I think she would have passed Katiyana Mauga (92) on Arizona’s all-time list but fallen short of Lauren Chamberlain’s NCAA record (95). Harper had hit 10 homers in 25 games, giving her 76 for her career.

Kim Doss (@KimDoss71): When Lopez transferred to Arizona, I thought the Wildcats were set. Even with the absence of Dejah Mulipola, I believed the team had the pitching and the hitting to challenge for a league title. With Rachel Garcia off pitching for Team USA instead of wearing a Bruins jersey, why not? Perhaps Arizona could even push their way into the WCWS championship series.

As the season developed, though, I began to lose that confidence primarily because the pitching was not living up to my high expectations. The major issue was the number of free passes being handed out.

As a sophomore, Denham allowed .25 walks per inning pitched. That increased considerably her junior season when her walks ballooned to .35 per frame. I had hopes that was an aberration and that she would cut her free passes her senior year. While she did reduce them a bit (to .31 per inning), she was still putting runners on base far too often.

Lopez was giving up an identical .31 walks per inning pitched when the season came to a halt. That was a big increase from the .23 per inning she gave up during her junior year at Oklahoma.

In fact, over her three-year career as a Sooner, Lopez gave up just .19 bases on balls per frame in 295 innings pitched. In her sophomore season, she walked only 10 batters all year. She had already walked 22 in just 71 innings as a Wildcat.

I believe the Wildcats had enough to host the Super Regionals and get back to Oklahoma City. I just have my doubts that they would have improved on last year’s result. The top teams were going to punish them for handing out free baserunners.

There’s nothing wrong with being one of the best eight teams in your sport, though.

Jacob Mennuti (@jacob_mennuti), The Daily Wildcat: This team certainly had the potential to make a serious run at a national championship. It’s unfortunate that the season ended at a time where Arizona was arguably playing at its best, riding an 11-game win streak entering conference play. What interested me the most about the rest of the season was the last half of the Wildcats’ schedule. Arizona was set to play UCLA, Utah, Oregon and Washington. The series against UCLA and Washington were going to be extremely close, too close in fact for me to predict the outcomes. But what I was most looking forward to was the series against Oregon and Utah.

Utah was trending towards having its first winning season since 2017 while the Ducks posted a 22-2 record after finishing last in the Pac-12 in 2019. I still saw the Wildcats having an advantage over both of these teams simply because Arizona was far more battle-tested than Utah and Oregon. The Utes opened up the year with a 14-4 record with a win over No. 14 Northwestern to start the year but fell flat on their faces at every other opportunity they had against a top-25 team, going 0-4 against Texas, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Ducks are a similar story as only one of their 22 wins came against a top-25 team. Arizona, on the other hand, did exactly what Mike Candrea had hoped for when he scheduled six non-conference games against top-25 teams. The Wildcats went 5-1 in those contests including a pair of road wins against No. 8 Alabama.

Arizona’s schedule had set themselves up to be prepared for high-level competition. This team would have certainly exceeded 40 wins and may not have stopped there as a 50-win season was not out of the realm of possibilities. The Wildcats would have undoubtedly hosted another regional stage and while it’s too hard to predict who they would have played in that regional stage, I still believe this team would have made it back to the Women’s College World Series and competed for a national championship.

Troy Hutchison (@THutch1995), AllSportsTucson.com: It seemed that the season came to an abrupt end just as Arizona was about to hit its stride, winning 11-straight games with two impressive wins over top-10 team Alabama on the road in John and Ann Rhoads Softball Stadium. With that momentum, I think Arizona was about to go on an incredible run.

However, with lineup depth issues and an offensive that struggled against elite pitching I think Arizona would have finished second to rival UCLA in the Pac-12, and just a game ahead of highly talented Washington thus earning a top-5 seed, giving the Wildcats the ability to host a Super Regional in Tucson.

Eventually, I think Arizona would have advanced to the Women’s College World Series for the second straight season and win multiple games to make the Final Four, but with the lineup depth issues would have been too much to overcome, and the Wildcats fall to either UCLA or Texas.

John McKelvey (@John_McKelvey), Arizona Daily Star: Arizona was ranked No. 4 with a 22-3 record when the season was called just before Pac-12 play. It makes you wonder how the season would have ended and how far in the postseason the Wildcats could have gone.

Here’s my prediction:

Arizona starts off Pac-12 with a sweep of Oregon State, but it gets stunned in Game 1 against Arizona State. It rebounds with a dominant 8-0 victory over the Sun Devils with Alyssa Denham throwing a one-hitter, but Cielo Meza throws a gem in the final game, leading ASU to a 3-2 win, as the bottom of the Arizona lineup just can’t deliver in the clutch spots.

The series loss spurs Arizona to new heights. Denham and Mariah Lopez look unstoppable as Arizona rolls off 22-straight wins, including a sweep over UCLA. Jessie Harper hits four home runs in the series against the Bruins, including two in the final game, one being a seventh-inning walk off. But Arizona comes up just short of the Pac-12 title, losing two games to Washington the next week.

Still, it’s enough for Arizona to secure both a home regional and home super regional as the No. 5 seed. They blow through their regional, winning both games against their toughest competition, James Madison, easily. Harper’s nearing the home run record, just three away from tying it. Reyna Carranco and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza are both hitting around .400 and now slowing down. Sharlize Palacios has caught fire lately and Izzy Pacho has turned into the go-to pinch hitter the Wildcats need off the bench.

Arizona has all the momentum heading into its series with No. 12 Oklahoma State, and rolls, winning 5-1, 6-0. Onto the Women’s College World Series.

At the WCWS, Arizona starts off by winning its first two games, beating LSU 4-0 behind a gem from Mariah Lopez, and getting home runs by Harper and Palomino-Cardoza to top Texas 2-1. Arizona plays Oklahoma in front of the largest WCWS crowd ever, over 9,000, with a shot to go to the WCWS Final.

The Wildcats lose the first game, as Denham lets up a solo shot to Jocelyn Alo and the Sooners squeeze across a run late on a squeeze bunt. But Arizona responds to the 2-0 loss with a first-inning barrage, five runs. That’s more than enough for Lopez against her former team, and Arizona moves on to its first WCWS final since 2010, against UCLA. Bruins ace Megan Faraimo dominates the first game.

All Arizona can muster is a lone solo shot by Harper, putting her one away from the all-time home run record, but it loses 3-1. When a reporter asks her how she feels about the record, she fires back: “That’s all you guys seem to care about. Not me. I came here to win, not hit home runs.”

The clip goes viral, and the next day, Harper gets her wish. She dribbles an eighth-inning RBI single through the middle of the infield to walk off a 7-6 Arizona win. UCLA has a rested Faraimo to go for Game 3, and Candrea turns to Denham, saying, “She got us here, we’re going to see if she’s got a little magic left.”

It’s 0-0 until Harper hits a bomb to straightaway center in the fifth, tying the record. But UCLA mounts a big rally that forces Denham from the game an inning later. Down 3-1, Arizona puts two on in the seventh, but a misplaced bunt leads to a double play. Harper, up with Palomino-Cardoza on third, hits a long fly ball to left that’s caught at the wall. Arizona’s season ends in heartbreaking fashion, but Candrea talks glowingly about the seniors an all they’ve contributed to the team.

With a tear in his eye, he stops in the middle of answering a question about Harper. He hugs her, leans back over the microphone and finishes with “I’m gonna miss her.”