The start of every softball season breeds excitement for Taryne Mowatt-McKinney, but she is extra pumped to begin the 2021 campaign after waiting out the longest offseason ever.
“I would be lying if I said there weren’t a little bit of nerves because it has been so long since we’ve competed in a game,” she said. “I’m sure once we get on the field, it’ll all come back to us. And coaching wise, it’ll all come back to me and everything will flow smoothly. But it’s been a while. ... I think there’s always a little bit of nerves, but I think that’s a good thing. It’s when you let your nerves get the best of you that it becomes kind of a hindrance.”
Mowatt-McKinney, who pitched Arizona to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, is entering her fourth season as UA’s pitching coach. She leads a staff that should again be one of the best in the nation. The Wildcats had a 1.73 ERA in the shortened 2020 season, the 16th-best mark in the country.
Seniors Mariah Lopez (1.38 ERA) and Alyssa Denham (1.92) both return for their fifth seasons of college softball and will be complemented by junior Hanah Bowen (3.00) and freshmen Devyn Netz and Jessie Fontes, two highly-rated recruits.
I caught up with Mowatt-McKinney to talk about her pitching staff and see how it has prepared for this unique season, which begins Thursday at No. 6 Texas.
Ryan Kelapire: How has the pandemic affected the pitchers’ preparation this preseason and also this offseason?
Taryne Mowatt-McKinney: In the beginning, when we first started practicing, it was a little bit different because we had to practice in small groups and there was really no flexibility. That way there wasn’t as much contact between different groups of players. But then when we got into kind of our team practice, bullpens, at least for me, became the same as usual. I typically do bullpens one-on-one individually leading up to season just to get that extra work in with the pitchers and kind of get to know their personalities. A little less contact and touching (than normal) but there is still that instruction, that one-on-one with us. So things haven’t changed too much when it came to bullpens in terms of the offseason.
COVID-wise, I didn’t really give the pitchers an offseason workout. I think during the pandemic, the biggest thing for me with them was their mental health. It’s just making sure that they were OK and finding outlets to express themselves because everybody was quarantined or in an isolation type of situation. And I just wanted to make sure mentally they were OK because I knew physically they have all the skills, they have the talent, and I knew we would get that back once we got back on the field.
RK: What kinds of things did you do to boost their mental health?
TMM: I don’t know if there was one thing in particular. I know every couple weeks I would hold a one-on-one Zoom meeting with the pitchers, or even a group meeting with the pitchers just to see their faces. In that smaller-group setting, they speak up a little bit more, so that’s always good. Because when you get 25, 30 people on a Zoom meeting, people don’t really want to speak up. I know some of them really like doing puzzles. I like doing puzzles as well. So we would just talk about that as an outlet or reading or even writing or painting. Anything that they like to do, just to kind of keep some normalcy and to just enjoy their day.
RK: So how prepared do you think the pitchers are for the season?
TMM: I think we’re very prepared. I think we’re as prepared as normal, if not more. They came back a week earlier this January and so we’ve had a little bit more time together. And I think their focus every day in the bullpen has been a little bit more intense and a little bit more intentional. So I think they’ve really gotten a lot out of their preparation leading up to the season.
RK: OK, onto your pitchers. What do you see as key for Alyssa Denham to take the next step? I know in the offseason she said she walked too many batters last season and attributed that to still getting used to her increased velocity.
TMM: I think the next step for her is just getting ahead of batters and really going after them with her movement through the zone, rather than dancing around the zone. Because she does have really good movement. She just has to trust her stuff and go after hitters and really take care of the bottom of the lineup. Because when she gets in trouble, it’s when she doesn’t take care of the bottom of the lineup. And then the top of the lineup or the middle of the lineup comes up with runners on base. So if she can take care of the bottom of the lineup, and if she can attack hitters early in the count, she’ll be really tough.
RK: And what is Denham’s velocity at now? I know when she first got here it was like high 50s or low 60s and it’s risen quite a bit.
TMM: Yeah, it just depends on the pitch with her. But I would say her hard stuff, she’s mid to upper 60s. She’ll hang out around 65, 66. But I’ve seen her touch upper 60s.
RK: How would you evaluate the way Mariah pitched last season?
TMM: I thought Mariah did really well last year for us. She really came in in big situations and did what we needed from her. And I think her and Denham were a good complement to each other last year. And I expect the same this year with her, especially being a fifth-year senior. She has a tendency when she gets into a game to turn on a different gear. And so sometimes in practice, it’s hard to tell and I have to remind her that I want to be able to see what you’re going to look like in a game ahead of time. That way I know what your movement is going to look like. But there’s just some pitchers that just have a different gear when it comes to game time, that they just find a way.
RK: Has Mariah added anything new to her arsenal?
TMM: We didn’t add anything new. It’s really just been focusing on making her stuff that she has now better and knowing in which counts where to place the ball. But the same thing I said about Denham applies to Mariah. As long as she goes after hitters and throws her movement through the zone, yeah she’s going to give up some hits, but she’s also going to be a lot more successful if she just goes after hitters and trusts her movement and throws it through the zone. And she’s developed a changeup that is pretty reliable that she trusts, and she trusts a lot more now than she did last year, so I think that’ll play a factor into her season.
RK: Alyssa and Mariah pitched 151 of your 166 innings last year. How important will it be to establish a third pitcher? Not just to keep them fresh, but also so that you can present different looks in the circle.
TMM: I think it’s going to be crucial, especially now with the season that we’re having with COVID. I mean, who knows what could happen, who is going to be available, who’s not. With conference going to four games with a doubleheader on day two, we’re going to have to establish a third and fourth pitcher. And we have five quality pitchers and we’ve done a really good job of feeding off each other and kind of learning from each other and not trying to be the pitcher next to us, but being our type of pitchers. Like, I don’t want five of the same pitcher. I want every pitcher to have kind of their own tools and then we can figure out who complements who and how to pair them if we need to pitch by committee at some point. But I think we are in a good place right now. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up and takes over those extra games that we’re gonna have because it’s hard to face the same team four times in a three-day span. So we’re gonna need more than two weapons in the circle.
RK: Hanah Bowen has pitched really well at times. What have you seen from her so far and what does she need to do to take that next step?
TMM: She’s really had a good couple of weeks leading up to season. She has a tendency to overthink a little bit. I like that she has a game plan, and she understands how to pitch to hitters, but there’s times where she can try to pinpoint too much rather than just trusting and throwing her pitches. But she’s worked really hard to develop an off-speed and I think that’s going to be big for her. She’s a gamer, she wants the ball. And for me, she’s very reliable because I always know what I’m going to get with her when she’s on the mound, so that’s always a little peace of mind with Bo. But she’s really worked hard the last couple of weeks against our hitters, and it’s tough to get our hitters out. And she’s been able to find different ways to compete against our hitters in scrimmages. She’s not afraid to throw any pitch in any count right now, so that’s a really good sign for us.
RK: What can fans expect to see from Devyn Netz? I know when I was at one of your fall scrimmages she was throwing in the high 60s, which is impressive for a freshman.
TMM: Yeah, Devyn is a competitor. I mean, when she gets in that circle or in the box, she just wants to compete. It’s not always pretty, but she’s gonna find a way to go out there and give her best. She throws hard. She has all of her pitches. Right now, I think in scrimmages, she’s learning how to mix her spin and movement with the power of pitches. And I think she’s learning how to pitch to certain hitters with the college strike zone. That’s been kind of a fun little game with us to work on in scrimmages and in bullpens, is how do you have that power that she has but still have the finesse and the spin to get that late movement? And so we’ve been working on that and working on hitting all parts of the zone.
RK: And then Jessie Fontes, what does she bring to the table?
TMM: Jessie asks the most questions of all the pitchers. She wants to learn as much as she can to get better. We’ll be in the bullpen and she’s like, “Okay, why do we want to do it this way? Why do we want to throw this pitch in this situation?” She’s probably been the one pitcher in my coaching career that has asked the most questions up to this point because she just wants to learn everything there is about pitching. It’s really refreshing to work with a pitcher that is as young as she is that genuinely wants to study the game of softball and the art of pitching. And I think she’s gonna learn a lot her freshman year and she has some really good tools. She’s one that she can pinpoint a pitch where she wants it, and she knows how to inch her way. But she’s gonna have to learn how to do that against the elite hitters. So it’ll be fun to see how she does this year, especially just going through a season and trying to learn everything there is about pitching. So she I think she’s going to soak up all the information that she can and she is constantly trying to apply that information to her bullpens. And so I think she’s gonna learn a lot this year and I’m excited to see the growth with her.
RK: Jessie and Devyn are both freshmen, so down the road if they are your number one and number two pitchers, how do you see them working together?
TMM: They’re both pretty different to be honest, so I’m excited about that. Mostly they’re different in their demeanor in the circle. Devyn, she is all grit. She moves around a lot, she’s very energetic, whereas Jessie is very calm. She has this calm presence about her. She never looks rattled. She never looks too excited. So she has a very calming presence about her and I think if our infield and our outfield can get to know them as pitchers on the field and their different personalities on the field and kind of figure out how to feed off of what type of energy they have. Because I don’t want a pitcher to ever be something that she’s not. I want Devyn to stay energetic. I want Jessie to stay calm. And so it’ll be fun to watch them over the next couple of years and when they become upperclassmen, just see if they keep that same demeanor and the leadership role that a pitcher kind of has to take, and how they both approach that with their different personalities.
RK: How ready are they to pitch this season?
TMM: I think they’re ready to be honest. I think they both want the job, they want to be in the circle and I think they both know that they’re going to have their ups and downs, especially as freshmen. I mean, we have seniors that still have ups and downs. That’s just part of the game. But learning how to control your emotions when you’re going through those ups and downs is gonna be huge for them. So I think they’re ready to pitch at this level. But I’ll get back to you on that after this season. (laughs)
RK: How big of a deal is it for the pitching staff to have a catcher like Dejah Mulipola back behind the plate this season?
TMM: I think it’s huge, especially for our upperclassman pitchers because they’re used to her. I know Mariah didn’t get to pitch to her last year, but they have grown up together, so they’ve worked together. But I think just having that stability behind the plate and just having that trust that you can throw the ball in the dirt if you need to and she’s gonna block it or do her best to block it. Or if you do get a runner on, she has that opportunity of throwing them out if they try to steal. And really all three of our catchers are pretty phenomenal. I think we have a great catching staff that understands our pitchers and what we’re trying to do. So I feel very comfortable with any catcher behind there, but definitely Dejah. I mean, she’s on another level. She’s just so quiet back there in terms of how she receives the ball, but this quiet confidence that is reassuring as a pitcher.
RK: You mentioned Mariah and Dejah growing up together, how has that shown up on the field so far?
TMM: I’m excited to see what it looks like with those two in the game. I think when you’ve worked with somebody for a long time through the travel ball ranks, you get comfortable with them. And it doesn’t matter how much time you take off from working together, it all just kind of comes back to you kind of naturally.
RK: Coach Candrea always talks about how success starts in the circle and obviously you have to be an amazing pitching team to get to the Women’s College World Series and to win it. So when you look at your staff, what do you see as the biggest strength of it?
TMM: I think the biggest strength is our experience in the circle and our maturity. 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 and we have a pitching staff that has pitchers that have been at the World Series and they know what it takes to get there. And once you have been there, you kind of understand. But if you’ve never been there, it’s hard to explain to somebody the atmosphere of the World Series and the hard work and everything that goes into it leading up to getting the opportunity to go to the World Series.
RK: Oh, I also want to ask you about Taylor McQuillin, who is back in the program as a graduate manager. How important is it to have someone like her around?
TMM: Taylor brings a different set of eyes. She’s one that likes to talk about pitching. She likes to try new things. And she’s also preparing for the Olympics with Team Mexico, so she’s still pitching bullpens before practices and stuff. So she had a great college career, but she also is still playing and striving for a different level of going to the Olympics. And so she has a different mindset. I think that she’s kind of gained that knowledge through her college career, but is still trying to perfect her craft.
RK: How big of a resource is Taylor for the younger pitchers in particular?
TMM: There’s only so much she can do as a grad assistant in her role, but I think it’s just her having been in their position before. And I know I have been in their position before too, but I’m so far removed that it’s a lot different. She was recently in their shoes before, so I think just having that person that has been there, done that, gone through the ups and downs of a season, I think she’s just a good resource for questions if the freshmen have questions.