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Q&A: Danielle O’Toole on returning to Hillenbrand Stadium, her Arizona career, Team Mexico, Athletes Unlimited, coaching and more

Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Former Arizona softball ace Danielle O’Toole returns to Tucson this weekend when Team Mexico faces the Wildcats (and New Mexico State) in the Bear Down Fiesta as they prepare for the Tokyo Olympics this July.

The left-hander pitched at the UA in 2016 and 2017, when she was an All-American, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and helped the Wildcats capture their first Pac-12 championship in a decade.

Nowadays, O’Toole pitches for Team Mexico and in Athletes Unlimited, the new player-centric pro league that launched last summer. The Upland, California native is also a volunteer pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton.

I caught up with Tooly this week to talk about all that and her chance to pitch in Hillenbrand Stadium for the first time since it was renovated. Here’s the Q&A, which has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Ryan Kelapire: So, how do you feel about the opportunity to pitch at the new Hillenbrand for the first time?

Danielle O’Toole: “Oh, I’m super excited. I never thought I’d play here again, so just having the opportunity is really awesome and I’m really lucky to experience the new Rita. My Cal State Fullerton girls, we were talking about it a couple days ago and they said that they were the first team to play in the new Rita when it opened. ... I think it’s cool that they got to experience my home, too.”

RK: When you first walked into the new Rita, what was your impression?

DO: “It’s huge. I mean, it’s humongous and I’m sure our fans really like having shade. I know that that was such a huge issue, especially with some of the older people when it would get late May and 110 plus (degrees). It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful.”

RK: Do you wish you had something like this when you played here?

DO: “No, I feel really blessed to play in the old stadium, so I don’t wish I had played in it. I mean, obviously it would have been cool, but it’s not something that I think about.”

RK: Other than the new Rita, what else are you looking forward to in your return to Tucson?

DO: “Honestly, we have practice today (Thursday) and I’m just excited to just be on the field again. It’s a very surreal feeling, knowing that I was born here. This is a place where I grew up as an adult and I became an individual, an independent individual, and I’m just honestly excited about practice and possibly throwing from the mound today to kind of get the feel again.”

RK: When you look back at your Arizona career now, what stands out to you? What are you the most proud of?

DO: “That’s a big question. I think a lot of it is just growing up. Not only with my teammates but as an individual. I really think that being away from home and having to figure things out on my own, I really grew up and I didn’t get to do that at my prior school. I’m also pretty excited to see all the girls like Malia (Martinez), Jessie (Harper), Dejah (Mulipola), everybody that was a freshman. God, it feels like so long ago when they were just freshmen, you know?”

RK: Yeah, what do you think about those seniors and what they’ve been able to accomplish here? A lot of them were key players on the 2017 team.

DO: “I think they’re great. Me and Sashel Palacios, and honestly the majority of our team, whenever Arizona is playing we have it on our phone somewhere. Because we want to support Shar (Palacios), but it’s fun just being able to watch them again. It was really hard for me to watch for the first couple years after I graduated, but now I love to watch, love and support. I loved watching Taylor (McQuillin), so it’s nice to be her teammate again.

(Editor’s note: Yes, former UA ace Taylor McQuillin also pitches for Team Mexico.)

RK: Was it hard to watch just because you missed it so much?

DO: “Oh yeah, 100 percent. It was really hard for me to think that I have my jersey hanging up somewhere and I’m not wearing it. It was really difficult but that was the only reason why I couldn’t.”

RK: What are some of your favorite memories? Like recording that final out at UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 title?

DO: “That was a big one. I remember that three-game series against UCLA was really hard for us because we got our butts kicked the first game and then I remember having a team meeting, and it kind of opened my eyes a little bit. And I came out game three and I remember Mo Mercado was so fired up for a lot of it and I remember that feeling and I remember Mo being that point person for me during that game.

“There’s a ton of games that I remember. I was just talking about our senior night against ASU. I gave up a hit to Nicole Chilson. I was just talking about this with my husband a couple days ago. I remember the Washington game where I threw a no-hitter. I remember Texas came one year and I gave up a giant home run. I remember moments that might not be great but they definitely shaped me as a player.”

RK: What was so special about the 2017 team? You won Arizona’s first Pac-12 title in a decade.

DO: “That 2017 team had all the individual pieces working. defense, hitting, leadership, our chemistry.... and we ran with it. I remember Alexis Dotson... she would walk out of the dugout and tell me to get moving. Get going. And when you have people like that... pushing you to win.... it was unreal. That year we had records broken, more games won, that year was coach’s 1500th win. We were successful because we were together always, and we were doing it for Coach.

“We set the standard, the new standard for the teams after us.”

RK: What is so special about playing for Coach Candrea?

DO: “Playing for Coach has to be one of the highlights of any our lives. I think that he is another father figure. He’s somebody that when you’re having a hard time you can call and he’ll talk you through it. He is so knowledgeable about our game, but he allows you to figure it out before he comes in, says like, ‘Hey, this is how it’s done.’ He’s taught a lot of women and he has some really good successors coming after him and I really think he is so special to play for.

“Recently I’ve called him more now, just to kind of work through some things of my own and he, right off the bat, started talking to me about my personality and who I am. The fact that he knows those things about me just tells you how much he cares for people as individuals more than players.”

RK: People always say the UA softball program is like a family and it seems so true because you have former players like Caitlin Lowe and Taryne Mowatt on staff, Coach has been there for so long, and then former players are always embraced when they come back. What is that dynamic like from your perspective now that you are a former player?

DO: “I look at some teams now and I think how heartbreaking it must be to have to play during a pandemic because you’re not around everybody constantly, you don’t get to experience life outside of practice, and I think that’s part of the reason why Arizona looks like a family is because we spend so much time together. It’s unreal. Like, you wake up before six o’clock, you get to weights at 6:15, weights are at 6:30, and then you have class at 8 a.m. and then you have another class and then you have practice until nighttime, and then you have dinner, and then you just do the whole thing all over again the next day. So you’re constantly with your teammates and I think that you just become really close.

“I remember that if anybody lives in the same area, you guys drive home for Thanksgiving together, you drive home for Christmas together. During COVID it’s got to be harder because I know that there are limits on how many people you can have in the field at once and then you have your trainers who are there all the time like Bruce (Johnston). He’s a fantastic trainer but he definitely cares about us like his own kids, and I think that also brings into that family aspect.”

RK: Switching gears a little bit, how do you feel about the Olympics only being a few months away now after you had to wait an extra year because of COVID?

DO: “It has been a long year. I’m excited. I’m really sad that they’re not allowing any fans. They’re not allowing anybody to travel into the country. My dad was planning on just going just to be there, he wasn’t going to be able to come in, but now he’s not going to go at all. It’s a little sad thinking about it. I don’t know when I’m planning to retire. I know that I wanted to after the Olympics, but then last season when [Athletes Unlimited] came around, they gave me a different life, it gave me a different reason to play, and I think maybe I got a couple more in me, but I don’t know. Maybe I don’t. I’m not really sure but my whole family’s coming to this Arizona trip, and this could possibly be the last time that any of them see me play, and that’s hard to swallow.”

RK: From a more positive sense, what are you most looking forward to at the Olympics?

DO: “Accomplishing something that I’ve been working for for a really long time. It wasn’t even a possibility until 2017, and now that it’s been in my life for a few years, I’m just excited to go, to get it done, to compete at like the highest level and against all these athletes. Every single one of working hard for the same thing and I actually think that is really cool. It’s a lifelong dream for a lot of people, and I’m just excited to give something back to our sport that we haven’t had in a long time, and I’m excited that we can do this during a pandemic when a lot of people are going through some hard times.”

RK: So you said you want to give back to the sport. What does your role with Fullerton entail and what are you hoping to get out of that?

DO: “I took the job as a way to train a little bit, get working on the field, do what I can. And I actually think that I didn’t know how much I needed that job until I got it. Those girls, my relationship with them isn’t very professional. It’s not very coach-like. Like, they don’t call me Coach Tooly. A couple of them do, but I give them what I think that they need and I make sure that they’re taken care of and that they’re gonna be successful as athletes but as people as well, and I learned that from Coach. I think that it’s cool that I can be around them and kind of influence them in their decisions and then they’re gonna go off and do it with somebody else. It’s a big tree. Coach (Candrea) is at the top, and all of us players we make sure that line continues.”

RK: So where do you see yourself in five years? As a coach?

DO: “I’m not sure. I would like to say mom, and I know Adia Barnes just said don’t be afraid of coaching and being a mom, and I thought that was really cool because I know that a lot of women feel like it’s a choice. Like, they need to pick one or the other. I’m not a mom yet, but I think that once my kid comes, I feel like I’ll know what I want to do. So in five years I’m hoping to have a kid and then make a career choice. She’s not the only mom who coaches. You’ve got Caitlin who’s got two kids and she’s coaching and her husband’s a coach. So it’s obviously very doable. I’m not just sure what I see in the future.”

RK: And you mentioned that Athletes Unlimited gave you a new perspective on how much longer you might want to keep playing. What did you enjoy so much about that experience?

DO: “We were treated as professional athletes. We weren’t babysat. We weren’t given the short end of the stick. A lot of the times I feel like as female athletes we’re seen as kind of the bottom of the barrel, nobody’s watching or the whole argument—and I’m so sick of it— of, ‘well, produce enough revenue and then you’ll get what you want.’ It’s like, people are watching us anyways and we’re still not getting it. So I think that Athletes Unlimited completely opened the door for women. Not only for our sport, but volleyball and lacrosse. And then outside of the female aspect, I think that they gave us the ability to be really independent with our choices and all the decisions that we were making. We were not babysat at all. They said, ‘OK, here’s what you’re doing and there’s your choice. You can do whatever you want, but there it is.’ It just gave all of us a sort of freedom that we never felt before.”

RK: And from a competitive aspect, how fun was it to be in an environment like that? Everyone is so good and you’re changing teams every week, so I’m sure you got to meet a lot of people that you didn’t know before.

DO: “Super fun but also super hard. I feel like there was never a way to take a break, like a mental break from whatever you’re doing. The way that I work is I have an on-and-off switch and when I need to turn it on, I’ll turn it on. And when I’m allowed to turn it off, I’ll turn it off. Playing in AU, there is no off switch because everybody is so freaking good. And I think that for the amount of games that we’ve packed in to the amount of time was also part of the reason why there was no off switch. Everybody that was there is so talented. Normally when you see a 1-through-9 lineup, 7-8-9, maybe 6-7-8-9 are not the easier outs but you don’t have to think as hard. That’s not true when it comes to AU. I remember with some captains they had a hard time going 1 through 9 because everybody at some point was a 1-through-4 hitter in their own lineup in college, or even on their professional team, or their international team.”

RK: So I guess I’ll wrap it up with this: Team Mexico, what do you think about your chances in the Olympics? You obviously have a ton of players who were really good in college.

DO: “I think we’re pretty freakin’ good. I’m not sure what lineup they’re taking to Tokyo but I think we have a good shot. We have so much great chemistry as a team and we have so much fun as a team with the women that are on our team. I think that it’s going to be really hard to beat us when we’re all clicking at the right time.”