Arizona softball looked very different as the Arizona Fall Invitational kicked off. The coach who had been in the third-base box for 36 years was sitting in the private suite above the field. The centerfielder who had worn a Wildcat uniform for six years is in Eugene, Ore. these days. The entire infield had different faces.
The nostalgia for Mike Candrea, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Dejah Mulipola, Reyna Carranco, Malia Martinez, Jessie Harper, Alyssa Denham, and Mariah Lopez may hover over this season, but Tucson’s love for Arizona softball doesn’t wane regardless of who wears the uniform. The fans turned up just like they always have to watch the Wildcats get some fall work in against several Arizona junior college teams.
The score didn’t matter. The level of competition isn’t what the Wildcats will face when spring rolls around, but it did give all those young players a chance to put the uniform on, have their names announced as starters, and play against another team.
“It was exciting,” said Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe. “I think we came out super hyped, a lot of energy on Friday. I think we challenged them a little bit today because the energy was pretty low. So a lot of good things. And I think a lot of things that we have to work on. So it was nice to finally get on the field against someone else and see our team play together, really see what that looks like. So now it’s back to work next week.”
What did it look like and what is there to work on?
The pitching staff
Senior Hanah Bowen will lead the staff this season. She pitched nine innings over the first two days then rested on the final day of competition. Over those two days, she gave up two hits, including a solo home run, and one walk while striking out 10.
“I think Bo’s definitely the leader in the bullpen,” Lowe said. “I think not just with her stuff, but the leadership that she brings to that group. She’s a no-nonsense kid that just gets it done, and I think that’s a great person to follow.”
Arizona’s number two starter in the clubhouse is sophomore Devyn Netz. She pitched seven innings as the starter of the second games on Friday and Saturday. She also gave up two hits and a walk while striking out 11.
“My rise ball, my changeup, I’d say it was really coming full circle from last season,” Netz said. “That’s what I’ve been working on mostly from last season to this season was the spin on that and making it deceptive.”
She believes that following in the footsteps of Denham and Lopez only helps them.
“Those pitchers that we lost, those were senior pictures that taught us a lot about what we need to do, where we need to be, where our spins need to be,” Netz said. “Just kind of like how Arizona softball works with their pitchers.”
Every position except first base is played by someone who didn’t have that position last season. Sophomore Carlie Scupin played first most of the time, just as she did as a freshman. Every other spot has been vacated by a departed super senior.
While she played third base a few times last season, Peanut Martinez has primarily been an outfielder at Arizona. At least for fall, third base was her spot.
“She brings so many tools to that position,” Lowe said. “A quick release just as well as her strong arm. And I think it’s nice also to have a little bit of leadership at third base because we are so young and she’s been there before. She’s played the position before and she actually came in as a third baseman.”
Allie Skaggs and Sophia Carroll patrolled the middle infield with Skaggs at second and Carroll at shortstop. Skaggs is one of the players Lowe mentioned as a leader, while she said that Carroll is starting to come out of her shell. Along with catcher Sharlize Palacios, Skaggs and Scupin are stepping into those leadership roles easily according to their coach.
The fall lineup won’t necessarily hold into the spring. Tucson native Blaise Biringer transferred to Arizona this fall, but it was too late to be able to play with the team during the fall season. When she is able to play in the spring, she will be vying for time at third, second, or shortstop, Lowe said.
“We need depth in the infield,” Lowe said. “And I think that’ll be great for her to fill in wherever. She’s gonna bring a bat to the lineup, so I think that’s important, and just being able to see what the best matchups look like.”
The outfield is not as dramatically different as the infield. Aside from Palomino-Cardoza, many of the outfielders from last year are still in the program. While Martinez moved into third during the fall season, there’s always a chance that Biringer takes over there and Martinez moves back to the outfield.
Roaming centerfield now is Janelle Meono who showed her ability to get on base all weekend as the leadoff hitter. Not only was she able to draw walks, but she showed her speed by turning bunts into base hits.
Behind Meono in the lineup most of the weekend was Jasmine Perezchica, who showed similar speed and an ability to get the slap hit over the head of the infielders.
Arizona showed a lot of speed at the top of the order with Meono and Perezchica, followed by Palacious in the three hole. Palacios made pitchers pay, hitting four home runs over two games on Friday evening.
When not in the circle, Netz was the designated player all weekend. She showed some power, as well. In her first at-bat, she launched a ball just foul on top of the Lapan Family Center in left field. The next day, she got the home run by moving the ball inside the foul pole in the same part of the park.
“I need to work oppo,” the right-handed Netz said. “Obviously, I’d say that I can fill that role pretty well. And for me, it’s just a matter of being able to separate the pitching from hitting, like when I’m on the field and pitching and when I’m in the batter’s box and hitting.”
Arizona brought in a small freshman class this year because last year’s large class was supposed to replace the seven seniors who stayed an extra year. All four saw their time on the field.
Right-handed pitcher Madi Elish saw time in the circle in relief on both Friday and Saturday. She gave up two hits in five innings without issuing a walk. She struck out four. Like sophomore Jessie Fontes, Lowe said Elish will need to get ready to pitch meaningful innings when the spring comes.
Amber Toven played some at third base and as a pinch runner, Allie Enright saw time as a designated player and in left field, while fellow freshman Paige Dimler saw time in right field and at designated player. Dimler had two hits including a three-run home run over the first two days.
“It was really exciting,” Dimler said. “So I finally get out here. Obviously, it’s something I’ve dreamed of for so long. Been waiting for the day to come for years now being committed here for so long. It was such a great experience to be able to get out here with my teammates and have them like firing me up all weekend long, and having my first home run and seeing them be so happy for me. It really made it super exciting to finally be a Wildcat.”
In February, they will all finally see what it means to be a Wildcat in games that matter. For now, they have the experience of it finally being their time to step into the spotlight on the field of Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium.
“They act like they’re meant to be there,” Lowe said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing is they walk on the field, and that’s their spot, and they feel like it’s their spot, and they’re taking ownership of that. Mistakes or great plays they really are taking ownership of it.”