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What to watch for when Arizona softball visits No. 15 Florida State

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The No. 2-ranked Arizona softball team has encountered several firsts during their two-week trip to Florida. Their first road game, their first game against a ranked team, their first loss, and now their first three-game series.

The Wildcats (14-1) will wrap their stay in the Sunshine State against No. 15 Florida State (11-4) starting Thursday in Tallahassee. It’s Arizona’s last test before Pac-12 play and could prove to be the perfect primer for a team that has mostly cruised through its non-conference schedule, save for Monday’s 2-0 loss at No. 22 UCF.

“We can get a lot out of it,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “I think one of the things I’ve found is you got to play the best to be the best. So it was an opportunity for us to play a quality opponent on the road, which, if you’re going to win a Pac-12 title or anything else, you’re going to have to do it on the road. And so it was really a good opportunity to put our kids in an uncomfortable situation and see how they react and learn from it.

“Florida State is formidable opponent. They’re very good ballclub and we’re gonna have to play as well as we’re gonna have to play from here on out when we walk into Seattle, or walk into L.A. or anywhere else. To me, it’s just a really good test. I mean, we could schedule where we walk into conference play and we’re undefeated, but it doesn’t help you. You’ve got to really realize what it’s going to take to play a quality opponent and see quality pitching, and I think this was a good opportunity for us.”

Here are some things to watch for as the Wildcats visit the Seminoles. Please note that all three games of this series will begin at 4 p.m. MST on ACC Network Extra.

Avoiding a slow start

The Wildcats had an unusual schedule leading up to their loss at UCF. They checked out of their hotel early in the morning, took COVID tests, and then had to kill time on campus before taking on the Knights at 3 p.m. local time.

It undoubtedly impacted their performance at the plate.

“We should have still been able to produce, but it is still hard being on the road and traveling and bussing and being prepared and being in that mindset to be able to produce runs,” said senior catcher Dejah Mulipola.

Arizona vows to be more conscientious of their pregame energy against Florida State.

“(At UCF) I think we weren’t really expecting them to come out as rowdy and ready for us, so I think especially coming into a team that’s higher ranked with Florida State and playing them multiple times, we’re going to need to come ready for the first pitch,” freshman second baseman Allie Skaggs said. “Even in warmups we’re going to need to come ready for stretching and everything like that. So I think our team definitely had a little bit of a switch after that UCF game and I think we’re definitely ready to compete and bring the energy that we want to bring and not sit back and wait to bring it.”

Denham’s emergence as the ace

Super seniors Alyssa Denham and Mariah Lopez were 1A and 1B in 2020 but the Wildcats are leaning more on Denham right now, and rightfully so. The right-hander is having the best year of her career, posting a 0.56 ERA in 37.2 innings, about 16 more innings than Lopez.

Not only are opponents only hitting .158 against Denham, but she has also cut back on the number of free passes she is issuing by reducing her walk and hit-by-pitch rates. Denham is at her best when she keeps her dropball down in the zone and she is doing that too, only allowing one (wind-aided) home run this season.

“I just think she’s comfortable, confident, keeps the game slow,” Candrea said. “I think she’s got a really good process that she’s into right now and has kind of learned how to handle all the distractions that come your way. And therefore I think that when she’s in the circle, she’s much more focused on the task at hand. And to me, that’s probably the most important thing for a pitcher.”

Will the underclassmen pitch?

Denham has gotten the nod against Arizona’s three toughest opponents so far—Oregon State, USF and UCF—so she may start two games against the Seminoles.

The bigger question is: will anyone other than Denham and Lopez actually pitch in this series? So far Hanah Bowen, Devyn Netz and Jessie Fontes have only seen action against weak teams.

But this is Arizona’s first three-game series, so for fatigue and strategic purposes it might make sense to expand the rotation a little bit. They also need to get a better idea of what the three underclassmen can do. With Pac-12 series having a Saturday doubleheader this season, the Wildcats will need to find spots to rest Lopez and Denham.

For what it’s worth, Arizona used three different starting pitchers when they hosted a three-game series against Florida State in 2019—Denham, Taylor McQuillin and Gina Snyder. The Wildcats dropped two of three, but FSU was the No. 1 team in the country at the time.

Lopez and the long ball

Walks and homers have plagued Lopez, who has a 1.64 ERA, the worst on the team. (That’s still a good mark, which shows you how dominant Arizona has been.)

Sunday’s start at USF was the first time Lopez did not allow a homer this season. The bad news is she could not make it out of the third inning because she walked six hitters and hit another.

Lopez has a long track record of success, so it’s too early to be concerned by her early-season struggles. The Seminoles are actually quite weak at the plate, hitting just .254 with 11 homers in 15 games, but shutting them down would be a nice confidence boost heading into the Pac-12.

Dejah’s impact

Florida State is 10th in the country in stolen bases (35) but swiping a bag is so daunting against Mulipola that most teams don’t even try it. Arizona’s opponents only have four stolen bases on six attempts this season.

Seriously, look at this footwork. Do you really want to run on that?

Mulipola has been Arizona’s best source of offense too, hitting .444 with a team-high seven homers and 23 RBI. The game just looks easy for her after spending a year with Team USA.

“I credit it more to my maturity to Team USA just because I take my bats a little bit more mature in that aspect where I’m having intentional breaths up to bat, I’m looking a little bit more selective at certain pitches and understanding what my role is, especially being in the number four spot with baserunners on,” she said.

Sydney Sherrill catching fire

The redshirt junior third baseman was a big part of Florida State’s 2018 national championship team and is regarded as one of the best players in the country, landing at No. 47 in Softball America’s Preseason Top 100. However, she is off to a slow start, hitting just .227 with no home runs.

She hit .405 with 16 homers in her last full season, so she is bound to heat up at some point. Arizona has to hope it’s not this weekend.

Which Arizona offense will we see?

Arizona is averaging 8.3 runs per game, but struggled against Oregon State and UCF, mustering a total of three runs in those games. FSU’s ERA (2.83) is worse than both, but they have two pitchers—Caylan Arnold and Kathryn Sandercock—who made Softball America’s Preseason Top 100. Sandercock throws in the upper 60s.

How will the Wildcats and their first- and second-year players like Skaggs, Janelle Meoño, Sharlize Palacios and Carlie Scupin fare against high-quality pitching? Hopefully better than they did at UCF.

“It’s a game of adjustments,” Candrea said. “The Central Florida game were were too slow making adjustments and just never really got it going. But truthfully, at the end of the day, that’s what that’s gonna be the true test down the road. From here on out playing good teams with good pitching, you have to be able to make adjustments, but I think at the very beginning of the game, you have to really go out and be ready to throw punches. You can’t wait for the first time around, feel someone out. I think you have to be ready when the bell rings, and I just thought we were kind of sitting back waiting for them to do something and then they did something and we just couldn’t get the key base hit.

Harper chasing history

Jessie Harper homered twice in Wednesday’s win at Florida A&M, the 79th and 80th long balls of her career, passing former Washington Husky Kristen Rivera for 11th in NCAA history.

Here’s where the UA shortstops stands on the all-time leaderboard:

  • 1. Lauren Chamberlain (Oklahoma) — 95
  • 2. Katiyana Mauga (Arizona) — 92
  • 3. Stacey Nuveman (UCLA) — 90
  • 4. Stacie Chambers (Arizona) — 87
  • T5. Leah Braatz (Arizona) — 85
  • T5. Laura Espinoza (Arizona) — 85
  • 7. Shelby Pendley* (Arizona & Oklahoma) — 84
  • T8. Danyele Gomez (Louisiana) — 83
  • T8. Jessica Warren (Florida State) — 83
  • 10. Sierra Romero (Oklahoma) — 82
  • 11. Jessie Harper (Arizona) — 80**

*finished career at Oklahoma

** active player