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What to know about Arizona softball as it chases a national championship in 2021

Malia Martinez and Jessie Harper
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona softball team opens their season Thursday at the Texas Classic in Austin. It will mark their first gameday since March when the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the remainder of the 2020 season.

The Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in both major preseason polls, their highest preseason ranking in 10 years. Head coach Mike Candrea enters his 36th season at Arizona as the NCAA all-time wins leader (1,633).

Here is what you need to know about the team as they chase their ninth national championship.

The super seniors will lead the way back to Oklahoma City

Arizona’s seven star seniors are getting another chance to lead the Wildcats to the Women’s College World Series. Thank goodness the NCAA granted spring athletes an extra year of eligibility because Candrea would have been bitter if their careers ended without a proper sendoff.

“Senior day is a pretty special day for each and every one of them, they remember it for their entire life, and not being able to do that and not be able to have the right closure with their careers really bothered me,” he said. “So I’m excited that they get a chance to come back and do it right.”

Five of Arizona’s seven seniors made Softball America’s preseason Top 100—shortstop Jessie Harper (3), catcher Dejah Mulipola (11), centerfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza (13), second baseman Reyna Carranco (73) and pitcher Mariah Lopez (76).

Don’t forget about fellow right-hander Alyssa Denham and third baseman Malia Martinez, who have earned all-Pac-12 honors before.

The only positions that aren’t occupied by seniors are first base and the corner outfield. Having that many proven elite players means Arizona’s floor and ceiling are incredibly high.

Mulipola, who returns after a year with Team USA, agreed that national championship or bust is a fair benchmark for this group, which will try to take things one game at a time.

“(They have to) keep their heads out of the newspapers and social media because the game is gonna be played between the lines and you can’t look too far ahead,” Candrea said. “I think the makeup of our team with our seven super seniors will help that adventure because I think they understand that you can’t look too far down the road.”

Arizona also brought in the No. 1 recruiting class

As if Arizona wasn’t teeming with enough talent, it also has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country—eight freshmen who are capable of contributing this season but will mostly serve as the seniors’ understudies.

Palomino-Cardoza sees it as a great opportunity to show the freshmen the ropes like Katiyana Mauga and Mo Mercado did when she was entering the program.

“We only hope that we can lead this freshman class...and have that same culture and that same family-like process to where they understand what it’s like to be an Arizona Wildcat and to wear the A and to earn it,” Palomino-Cardoza said.

To this point, the freshmen have been eager to learn.

“I would say having the seniors in front of us is probably the best thing that could happen to us.” two-way player Devyn Netz said in November. “We get to look up to them, but they also have that role, since they’re leaders, to teach us. So it’s not only us learning from them but they’re learning how to speak to us and be leaders. I think it’s going to work both ways, and our team has such good chemistry this year it’s ridiculous. I love this team and I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team with such good chemistry.”

That’s not to say the freshmen won’t play at all. Netz, who throws in the upper 60s and hits with power, could be the No. 3 pitcher while also adding more oomph to the lineup.

Tucson’s own Carlie Scupin could start at first base or designated player and add yet another big bat to the middle of the order. Candrea has said she might have the best bat speed he has ever seen.

Twin infielders Sophia and Aris Carroll, who are almost 6-feet tall, are intimidating presences at the plate too. The versatile Allie Skaggs could see time all over the diamond and brings more power to the plate. Giulia Koutsoyanopulos is an ace defender at first base and provides some pop.

“Pretty much we’re stacked all around,” Mulipola said. “Infield, outfield, bullpen, you name it.”

That depth will be more important than ever this season since players are bound to miss games due to COVID-19 protocols and because the Pac-12 schedule features doubleheaders, which could lead to additional wear and tear during the conference season.

Candrea also has to make sure the freshmen get enough seasoning so that they can take over for the seniors next season without the program experiencing too much of a drop off. One downside of the seniors returning is that it caused several sophomores and juniors to leave the program in search of more playing time.

“I think you’re gonna see every kid on this team get an opportunity throughout this season, for the most part,” Candrea said. “I mean, the ones that I think are ready I will make sure that they get an opportunity. But at the end of the day, we’re going to put our best nine out there each and every day and compete to win a ballgame.”

Arizona will go with the hot bat in left and right field

The way Candrea described it in earlier this offseason, the starters in the corner outfield spots will be determined by whoever has the hot bat.

The four players in the running are redshirt freshman Bella Dayton, redshirt junior Peanut Martinez, redshirt freshman Janelle Meoño and freshman Jasmine Perezchica to pick from. All four are speedy left-handed hitters who cover a lot of ground in the outfield. Dayton and Martinez can go deep from time to time and Martinez has the edge in experience, having played in the Women’s College World Series in 2019.

“I think anybody can play anywhere,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “I think no spot right now is set in stone because we can all play and we can all hit, and I think that’s what makes that group so special, especially learning from Caitlin (Lowe). We’re able to be great out there because of the way that Cait pushes us and the way that we’re able to go out there and take balls from Coach and go gap to gap.”

Jessie Harper is chasing home run history

The senior shortstop is the NCAA’s active leader in home runs with 76, tied for 12th most in NCAA history. She is 16 shy of Arizona’s all-time record and 19 shy of the NCAA all-time record.

Harper will probably break both. She has hit 18 or more home runs in the three full seasons she has played. That includes a nation-leading 29 long balls as a junior in 2019, her last full season.

Some will argue that Harper’s name should be accompanied with an asterisk because she hit 10 homers in 25 free games in 2020. When asked about the home run chase in April, Harper was just grateful that she has another year at Arizona. She was saddened when the 2020 season was cancelled.

“My first [reaction] was I’ll never have the opportunity again to make my family proud on the softball field, that I will never be able to perform again for them on that stage. That’s what kind of hurt me the most,” Harper said. “The whole home run thing, I think that’s just an added thing that people want to talk about.”

Arizona is Home Run U

Harper is one of three Arizona players who have hit 19 or more homers in a season, the other two being Mulipola and Palomino-Cardoza. Malia Martinez hit 14 in 2019, so she might be capable of reaching that plateau too.

Throw in newcomers like Scupin, Netz, Skaggs and the Carroll twins and the Wildcats could top the nation in long balls this season. It helps that the ball has always carried well in the heat and high elevation at Hillenbrand Stadium.

Lopez and Denham will lead the pitching staff again, but will a No. 3 emerge?

We didn’t get a full season of Mariah Lopez and Alyssa Denham in 2020, but both right-handers were having solid years, posting ERAs of 1.38 and 1.92 respectively before the season was cancelled. Lopez’s high heat combined with Denham’s hard sink makes them a dangerous duo, certainly one of the best in the nation.

Ideally, a third pitcher will emerge this season to lighten their loads so they can be at their best in the postseason. They pitched over 90 percent of Arizona’s innings in 2020, way too many.

Netz, fellow freshman Jessie Fontes, and junior Hanah Bowen will be competing for innings behind them. Netz is a fiery flamethrower, while Fontes and Bowen are cerebral pitchers who rely more on command and/or change of speeds.

“I think the biggest strength is our experience in the circle and our maturity,” pitching coach Taryne Mowatt-McKinney said. “And then I think our diversity in the circle in terms of just different types of pitchers and what they bring to the table. But the biggest thing I would say is experience because you can’t teach that. We have pitchers that have been at the World Series and they know what it takes to get there.”

Mulipola will be a steadying presence for the pitching staff

The Wildcats are lucky to have an Olympian as their starting catcher. Not only does Mulipola have 20-homer power, she is also an elite defender. She has mastered the nuances of the position like blocking, framing, holding runners on and keeping her pitchers calm in stress-filled situations.

“Every game kind of has the highs and lows that you have to go through as a pitcher, and I think Dejah is really good right now of understanding that and knowing when to go out to the mound and talk to someone and slow them down, when to encourage them, when to be tough on them,” Candrea said. “It’s like having another coach out there right now with her experience level and her maturity, so I think she will help our pitching staff quite well.”

Mulipola is even more mature after spending the 2020 season on tour with Team USA, where she worked with legendary pitchers like Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman.

Mulipola plans to take what she learned catching them and use it to help Arizona’s staff, particularly the freshmen. She already has plenty of experience working with Denham and Lopez. (Mulipola and Lopez were travel teammates before Lopez transferred in from Oklahoma in 2020.)

“Every pitcher is different,” Mulipola said. “Pitchers are the princesses of the team, so it’s my job to make them look good. So obviously I have to pick their brains a little bit and make them feel comfortable on the mound because those are our big dogs ... I have to be like a sponge and soak it all in and understand what pitcher wants in what situation. It is a lot of brain work for me, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The schedule is tough like always

Pac-12 series will consist of four games in three days with a doubleheader instead of three games in three days like usual. Five of the conference’s nine teams are in the preseason Top 25—and two others are receiving votes—so it should be an extremely competitive slate.

On top of that, Arizona’s non-conference schedule includes a season-opening road game at No. 6 Texas, a neutral site game vs. No. 8 Alabama, a three-game road series at No. 12 Florida State and a road game at No. 21 UCF.

That means 22 of UA’s 56 games are against ranked teams and all but four—a home series vs. No. 1 UCLA—are away from Hillenbrand Stadium.

But like Candrea said, the only way you’re going to be the best is to play the best.

“We’re just ready to come out hot and show people in college softball that Arizona softball is still dominant and we’re going to get to where we want to go,” Palomino-Cardoza said.

Weekends at Hillenbrand will hit differently

A Pac-12 mandate prevents Arizona from hosting fans at Hillenbrand Stadium for the foreseeable future, a big blow to a program that regularly draws 2,500+ a game and has led the nation in attendance in five of the last 13 seasons.

Candrea fought to get the seniors an extra year of eligibility and said his next venture is vouching for the Wildcat faithful to be allowed in the ballpark again.

“One of the special parts of our program is playing at Hillenbrand Stadium with a packed house,” he said.

Arizona players would love that, but at this point they are just relishing the chance to be on the field again.

“We have the best fans in the country, the best fans in the world, but Coach always says if you need extra motivation, this is the wrong sport for you,” Mulipola said. “So I feel like as long as the 22 girls in the dugout can fire each other up, we’ll be fine.”

Check out these links to our previous softball coverage!