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Relationships help build Arizona softball’s first class under Caitlin Lowe

The Wildcats bring in the No. 6 class according to Extra Inning Softball

arizona-wildcats-softball-caitlin-lowe-mike-candrea-wcws-2021-hiring-hillenbrand Ryan Kelapire, Arizona Desert Swarm

Relationships are what make a great recruiter. To bring in Extra Inning Softball’s sixth-ranked class, head coach Caitlin Lowe made use of all the relationships she had built over the years and started some new ones.

Lowe’s first class as head coach of Arizona softball required her to confirm those relationships as soon as she got the job. The five players who signed their letters of intent on Wednesday had all committed under retired head coach Mike Candrea. It helped that she had already been a big part of their relationships with Arizona under Candrea.

“I had conversations with them immediately after the announcement (of Candrea’s retirement),” Lowe said. “So that was first and foremost on my mind right away to make sure they felt comfortable. Recruiting has kind of been my baby here, and I take great pride in that. And so does Taryne (Mowatt-McKinney). So all of these ladies, we’ve had great relationships with from the moment that we were able to talk to them until currently, so we’ve developed and fostered those relationships. So that wasn’t a hard conversation for us.”

The five players are all ranked in the top 25.* Not only are their rankings high, but they give the Wildcats depth around the diamond. They come from a variety of travel teams, one of which had never sent a player to Tucson. The relationships with the coaches who run those teams were especially important for this class, which was recruited during the period in the pandemic when so many recruiting limits were in place.

“It’s probably the most important relationship that you can have,” Lowe said. “And I’ll say it got even more important in COVID because we didn’t get to watch them play live, so you do throw a lot of trust into their opinions. I think the coolest thing for me, the very first time I went recruiting as an assistant, I went out to SoCal and I show up and I’m like, these are all the same people that were here when I was a player. They were. A lot of them are still around. They love the game. They’re diehards. They know how to develop youth talent, and they’re still there. So for me, I don’t want to say it wasn’t easier but I did know everyone so when I went to go talk to them, it was catching up. It wasn’t building new relationships.”

That doesn’t mean a coach can rest on her laurels and just deal with the same people all the time. New relationships are important, especially as new teams are formed.

“We’re continuing to build across the country because I think you’re seeing now talent’s coming from everywhere,” Lowe said. “And it’s not just in one spot.”

The Lady Magic out of Sacramento, Calif. is one of those travel teams that is new on the Arizona radar. The program went from never having produced a Wildcat recruit to having two sign on Wednesday. One of those players is the highest-ranked recruit in the class.

“They mash the ball, one through nine,” Lowe said. “They just scored so many runs all the time, and they just fed off each other. And I just knew it was a team I had to get to know. And Lindsay Ziegenhirt (Munoz), who coaches them along with her husband, she’s from the Pac-12. Went to Cal. Knows what it takes to play at this level. I think that’s very important.”

Lady Magic outfielder Dakota Kennedy is the No. 4 ranked player and top-ranked centerfielder in the class. She landed on the MaxPreps All-America second team and was an NFCA High School All-American first-teamer as a junior in 2021.

“(She is) really just an athlete,” Lowe said. “I mean all around, she brings speed, she brings power. She’s gonna steal bases, she’s gonna track balls down in the outfield. And comes from a very athletic family. And really, I think most impressively is when I go to watch her play, not only does she impress me with her own play, but she really raises the level of or raises the level of energy, of passion within her team. So she’s a catalyst power hitter. Going to hit in the middle of the lineup.”

Fellow Lady Magic product Tayler Biehl has ties to Lowe that go back even further. Biehl is the niece of former Wildcat Janae Leles, who played for Arizona from 2006-09. Leles, Lowe, and Mowatt-McKinney were teammates on Arizona’s final two national championship teams.

Biehl is ranked fifteenth overall and is the ninth-ranked middle infielder, but the fact that Lowe had known her since she was “yea big” didn’t get her the automatic nod.

“She feels like she’s been family for a long time,” Lowe said. “And, you know, you’re always hesitant, right? When someone you know says, ‘I have this player for you.’ And it was never the case with Tayler. She just she carried herself so well all the time.”

On the field, Biehl has something in common with several other members of Lowe’s first class.

“Left-handed hitter,”’ Lowe said. “You’ll see a little bit of a trend with me. And they’re not slappers. I promise they’re not all slappers. But a left-handed hitting infielder. What impresses me most about her she’s always on base anytime I go watch her play. Truly a table-setter catalyst for her team.”

Along with the rest of the class, Lowe said that both Biehl and Kennedy continued improving even after they committed.

That is certainly true of pitcher Sydney Somerndike. Somerndike went from being relatively unknown to winning the 2021 California Gatorade Player of the Year as a junior. She was also a first-team Extra Inning Softball All-American and a second-team MaxPreps All-American last year.

Somerndike is currently ranked No. 13 overall and is the fifth-ranked pitcher/utility player, but she had to work to get there. Relationships once again helped her get noticed by Arizona, but she had to continue to work in the circle to end up with a spot in Tucson.

“Late bloomer completely,” Lowe said. “If I didn’t have that connection, I probably would not have heard of her until this year. And I think a lot of people are hearing about her for the first time.”

Without the relationships, Somerndike might never have gotten the chance to prove herself. They didn’t guarantee anything, though.

“She had come to camp,” Lowe said. “My high school coach had told me about her, actually. I watched her play for Locomotion, which is the club team he coached, and she had a great rise ball, but that was it. She had a great rise ball and she got swings and misses, but I’m like, ‘she needs something else. Just give me something more.’ We had that conversation after September 1 (of her junior year). I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to keep watching you. I’m going to watch all of your games and keep following and see how you develop.’ And she added a curveball and now she’s working to areas to both sides of the plate. And now I’m like, ‘Okay, we can make this work.’ And then she adds a third pitch and with her spin when she masters a pitch she becomes really dangerous.”

Lowe is already planning for the next pitch when Somerndike arrives to work with Mowatt-McKinney.

“I think an off-speed for her would be the perfect complement to everything she has,” Lowe said. “And we all know Taryne is the best at that.”

The Wildcats bring in a player on the other side of the battery who “made [Lowe] work really hard” to get the commitment. Olivia DiNardo will come to Tucson from San Mateo, Calif. where she plays for Aragon High School and the West Bay Warriors travel team.

The No. 7 overall player and No. 2 catcher won the 2021 Alliance Fastpitch National Championship with the Warriors. On the team’s way to the title, DiNardo played her way to the 2021 Alliance Fastpitch Most Outstanding Player honor.

When she gets to Arizona, she will add depth at catcher and first base, as well as provide possibilities at designated player.

“Really just a pure hitter,” Lowe said. “Very excited about her offensive capabilities. I’m just so impressed for someone her age to step in the box in all situations and just have a calm presence. Very excited about that because, as you know with our 3,000 people in the stands, it gets a little crazy in games and you know for her she steps in and I think she gets better in those situations.”

The final member of the class will move less than two miles down Mountain Avenue to join the Wildcats. Salpointe Catholic’s Logan Cole is an effective infielder who has helped her team to titles. Cole and Salpointe won the Arizona Class 4A State Championship in both 2018 and 2021.

It was enough to get Cole named to the Extra Inning Softball All-America first team and the MaxPreps All-America second team in 2021. She comes in as the No. 23 recruit and fifteenth-ranked middle infielder. She also comes in with a bit of deception related to her size.

“You’re going to look at her size and stature and be like, ‘Slapper all day,’” Lowe said. “She’s not. She’s a hitter. Singles, doubles, gap to gap. Hits for average with occasional pop which is surprising for her stature. So very excited about her. Smooth-handed infielder plays for the Suncats, which we have a couple of people currently. (Carlie) Scupin and Izzy Pacho, our transfer Blaise Biringer all come from the Suncats.”

When the 2022 class was being recruited, Lowe said that they did not know what would happen with transfers into and out of the program. It was at the time that the seven seniors were preparing for their super senior season. It was important to prepare for all possibilities. It was also wise since Arizona lost the majority of what would now be the junior and senior classes.

“It was important to add a little bit of depth everywhere,” Lowe said. “And then just getting athletes that want to compete for Arizona, that are passionate about it. I’m very proud to say that this group is going to step in and bring it from day one.”

*All rankings come from Extra Inning Softball.