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Janelle Meoño sparking Arizona’s offense, hopes to be the center fielder of the future

Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Is Janelle Meoño Arizona’s center fielder of the future? Her coach and potential predecessor answered that question with conviction.

“Yes, she will be Arizona’s center fielder,” sixth-year senior Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza said.

“Janelle could do that today,” Mike Candrea quipped.

Meoño, in left field for now, is off to a scintillating start to the 2021 season, doing what every good No. 9 hitter is supposed to do—get on base. The redshirt freshman has five hits, a stolen base and a walk in seven plate appearances.

That’s already a marked improvement from the abbreviated 2020 campaign when Meoño had nine hits in 44 at-bats. Candrea and Palomino-Cardoza have both noticed a new maturity from Meoño, who says she has embraced the mindset of trusting her talent and letting the game come to her.

“She’s slowing the game down a lot more than she did last year and that’s usually the case,” Candrea said. “Your freshman year, your motor runs a little high and you can’t control it sometimes, and I think really right now what I saw was a young lady that was under control and she always has a pretty good plan at the plate. She’s got really good hand-eye coordination and good speed and can make things happen. And so if she can keep her mind clear and just play the game, I think she’ll be a really big force in that ninth spot.”

Which would be huge for an Arizona offense that has some of the best sluggers in the country like Palomino-Cardoza at the top of the lineup. Through five games, the Wildcats have plated 45 runs. Meoño has scored five of them.

“I’ve always been told that the ninth batter is basically like a second leadoff because you do have the job of flipping the lineup over and that’s just as important,” Meoño said. “I don’t see it as any less in the lineup, but I do see it as just as important and I like it.”

Sort of like the way she plays left field, like it’s an extension of center. The 5-foot-4 Meoño has a deceivingly strong arm—even stronger than Palomino-Cardoza’s, Candrea said—and great range.

“She’s just got an instinct of like, ‘I’m gonna go get the ball,’” Palomino-Cardoza said. “And I think that’s something that really helps our outfield. I know that if I can’t go get somewhere, she’s gonna be there.”

Meoño can fly. Her home-to-first-base time is 2.6 seconds, an elite mark. When she gets a bat on the ball, there’s a good chance it’s going to be a hit. Before joining the Wildcats, she was a career .652 hitter at Glen A. Wilson High School in Hacienda Heights, California.

Palomino-Cardoza joked that she wishes Meoño would take her spot as the leadoff hitter too.

“One thing she’s got to learn how to do is get better jumps to steal more bases,” Candrea said. “But as far as the short game is concerned, if she lays down a drag bunt, you’re gonna have to be pretty quick to get her out.

“If I go back to my history, I always think of Caitlin Lowe and Natasha Watley in my Olympic years. Those kids are 2.5 and it puts so much pressure on the defense when kids like that come up. But you still have to be able to put the ball in play and be able to show some deception at the plate. I think you can have great speed but if all you can do is slap, teams today are much better at defending the slap. So it all starts with the drag bunt. If you’re a good drag bunter, which she is, then it kind of opens up everything else for her.”

Meoño surprised Candrea (not in a good way) by striking out four times in her first three games last season. She had rarely whiffed during their preseason scrimmages despite facing high-level pitching.

Since then, Meoño has looked more and more like the top-40 recruit she was. She has cut back on the Ks, striking out just three times in her last 44 plate appearances. Only two of them were swinging strikeouts.

“I think the last little layer that she needs is to be able to keep people honest and swing away a little bit, but she’s very good at hard slapping,” Candrea said. “I mean, she’s very at good hitting line drives off the slap. So she’s got everything it takes.”

The only thing stopping Candrea from starting Meoño in center now is Palomino-Cardoza’s leadership. Meoño is much more reserved than her senior mentor. But Palomino-Cardoza, who even helped Meoño answer questions in her press conference, is confident that her understudy will find her voice one day.

Until then, Meoño is focused on complementing Palomino-Cardoza the best she can.

“Alyssa is there and I’m happy to play next to Alyssa,” she said. “But yeah I can see myself there in the future, for sure.”