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What Dejah Mulipola’s return means for Arizona softball

Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona softball team got some fantastic news Thursday when it was announced that senior catcher Dejah Mulipola will play college ball in 2021 instead of spending another year training with Team USA.

That means Mulipola will get the best of both worlds next year: to compete for a national championship at Arizona in the spring, then star for Team USA in the Olympics next July.

Here’s what her return means for the Wildcats.

The best catcher in college softball is back

That’s the simplest way to explain this, right? And don’t just take my word for it. Mulipola was a first-team All-American and won the Johnny Bench Award in 2019.

That year, she hit .311 with 23 homers, the fourth-most in the NCAA. It was easily her best offensive season of her career after she hit a combined 24 homers in her freshman and sophomore seasons.

And, yet, her bat still isn’t as good as her glove.

Mulipola is excellent at framing strikes, preventing wild pitches, and just being an overall calming force for her pitchers. That was the No. 1 thing that impressed Team USA veterans like Cat Osterman when we talked to them in Tucson.

Mulipola also controls the running game with an arm (and footwork) that most teams wouldn’t dare test.

Some stats to consider:

  • From 2017 to 2019, Mulipola’s freshman year to junior year, the Wildcats threw 35 wild pitches. Their opponents threw 106.
  • During that same span, Arizona’s opponents stole 46 bases on 69 attempts, a 67 percent success rate. That is far lower than the Pac-12 average—84 percent.
  • Without Mulipola in 2020, Arizona’s opponents had an 86 percent stolen base rate (granted it was a small sample size but still).

The point being: Every run, every base counts in the Women’s College World Series and simply having a catcher like Mulipola can help the Wildcats shave a run or two off their pitchers’ ledgers. Her bat—and speed—just so happen to be a huge bonus.

Even more Women’s College World Series experience

The thing that makes this Arizona team so destined for greatness is that it’s talented and experienced. Mulipola became the seventh Arizona senior to announce her return, as the other six took advantage of the NCAA granting spring student-athletes an extra year of eligibility.

All seven seniors are stars and all seven have started in the Women’s College World Series. Oklahoma transfer Mariah Lopez—one of UA’s two senior pitchers—has even won a national championship. And do we even need to mention that Coach Candrea has eight of them?

So when it comes time to play under the bright lights at Hall of Fame Stadium, the Wildcats should be able to handle the spotlight, to keep their composure in those games that will inevitably be decided by the slimmest of margins.

Mulipola did just that in 2019 when she blasted the game-winning homer in Arizona’s extra-inning win over Washington in its WCWS opener.

It’s still a three-team race (at least) for the Pac-12 title

Let’s be clear: Arizona is still not the favorite to win the Pac-12. UCLA is.

The reigning national champions were ranked No. 1 in the country when the 2020 season was canceled and will return two Olympians in Rachel Garcia, a two-time National Player of the Year, as well as All-American utility Bubba Nickles. Like Mulipola, they were touring with Team USA in 2020.

Washington will continue to be a force as well. The Huskies were the No. 2 team in 2020 and should return all their seniors plus an ace in Gabbie Plain, who’s a member of the Australian national team.

Oregon, ranked No. 9 in 2020, cannot be overlooked either.

One thing to watch for is how the Pac-12 schedule lays out. In 2020, Arizona was supposed to host UCLA but face Washington, Oregon, and Arizona State on the road. Will the Pac-12 roll that over to 2021 since those games weren’t played? Or will it just move on with the original 2021 conference schedule?

If it’s the latter, Arizona would host Washington, Oregon, and ASU but travel to UCLA in 2021—an easier road to a conference championship, in my opinion.

An interesting situation for Sharlize Palacios

Freshman Sharlize Palacios was doing an admirable job filling in for Mulipola in 2020, hitting .324 with a homer and seven RBI despite breaking her thumb before the season-opener.

But Mulipola’s return means Palacios will either have to be content with a backup role in 2021 or fight her way into the starting lineup as the designated player, a definite possibility.

The good news is Palacios will be a freshman again in 2021. So she can absorb what she can behind Mulipola for a year and then be Arizona’s starting catcher for three straight seasons starting as a sophomore in 2022.

Another player on the way out?

Mulipola’s return means Arizona now has 23 players on its 2021 roster. Candrea said in April that softball programs are “used to 18 to 21 kids” so it’s fair to wonder if another player will be on the way out.

The Wildcats already saw five players transfer out after the six non-Mulipola seniors announced their returns last month. Four of them — utility Ivy Davis, designated player Marissa Schuld and outfielders Jenna Kean and Carli Campbell—were starters at one point or another.

The expectations haven’t changed, but the probability has

The Wildcats expect to compete for a national championship every year and they aren’t shy about it. Their practice shirts this season literally had 6.3.2020 stamped on the back, the date of the Women’s College World Series championship game.

So Mulipola’s return doesn’t change much when it comes to this program’s expectations, but it certainly does improve its chances of making them a reality.

And for that, Mulipola’s return could be the best news of the offseason for Arizona Athletics, right there with women’s basketball’s Aari McDonald opting to return for her redshirt senior season.

Seriously, this team has an insane amount of talent

Here’s a look at what Arizona’s lineup might look like next February:

  • C: Dejah Mulipola, Sr.
  • 1B: Carlie Scupin, Fr.
  • 2B: Reyna Carranco, Sr.
  • 3B: Malia Martinez, Sr.
  • SS: Jessie Harper, Sr.
  • LF: Peanut Martinez, Jr.
  • CF: Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Sr.
  • RF: Bella Dayton, Fr.
  • DP: Sharlize Palacios/Hanah Bowen/Janelle Meono/Izzy Pacho/one of the many incoming freshmen
  • P: Mariah Lopez, Sr., Alyssa Denham, Sr.

In case you weren’t keeping track, Arizona’s roster has...

  • an All-American and Olympian catcher (Mulipola)
  • the 2019 NCAA home run leader (Harper)
  • the 2019 Pac-12 batting champion (Carranco)
  • an All-American center fielder (Palomino-Cardoza)
  • an all-conference third baseman (Malia Martinez)
  • two seniors who have pitched in the WCWS (Lopez and Denham)
  • the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class