The Arizona-UCLA series is always one of the most anticipated events on the college softball calendar. The Pac-12 rivals are the winningest programs in the sport, producing 20 national championships and hundreds of All-Americans.
Add increased fan capacity, senior week emotions and postseason implications into the equation, and this year’s rendition—a four-game set in Tucson—should make for an exciting finish to the regular season.
“This is a big weekend for sure,” said Jessie Harper, one of Arizona’s seven seniors. “I always love playing UCLA. I mean, I grew up 30 minutes away from UCLA, so I would go to all their games. But dang that’s a big rivalry game and there’s a lot of tradition behind it, and I’m so excited. It’s senior weekend. I’m excited to finish on top with my teammates. We have a lot riding on this weekend.”
After splitting four games at No. 12 Oregon, Arizona (35-10, 12-7) remains on the bubble for a top-8 national seed. They rank No. 8 in the latest NFCA poll but fall just outside the top 8 in RPI and every other major poll. They likely need to win at least two games against the No. 2-ranked Bruins to host the Regional and Super Regional rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the easiest path to the Women’s College World Series.
If anyone can do it, it’s Arizona and their super senior class. In 2019, they took two of three from the Bruins in Westwood. The defending national champs haven’t lost a series since.
“Taking the field on senior weekend at Rita and having all our families in the stands, I think it’s going to be pretty emotional for all of us,” said senior pitcher Alyssa Denham. “It’s taken a lot of hard work, sweat, blood and tears to get to this point. Yesterday (at practice) I really realized that our time here is coming to an end.”
Arizona is 24-0 at Hillenbrand Stadium, which will double fan capacity to 30 percent this weekend. Is that record the product of a weak schedule or an obvious home-field advantage? We’re about to find out.
UCLA (38-3, 16-2) is the first ranked team to visit Tucson this season and they bring with them the best 1-2 punch in the country in Megan Faraimo (16-3, 1.10 ERA) and Rachel Garcia (12-0, 0.59). Garcia, like Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola, stars for the U.S. Olympic Team. Fairimo was last year’s Softball America Pitcher of the Year.
The Bruins have permitted two runs or less in all 12 games of their winning streak. Garcia hasn’t allowed more than one run in an outing since 2019.
“They’re elite pitchers,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. “They can move the ball on four different planes, their speeds are in the upper echelon, good command, good offspeed pitch. They have a little bit of everything that they need, but they’re hittable, too.”
The Wildcats are 4-10 against ranked foes this season, averaging less than three runs per game in those contests. The strikeouts have piled up against quality pitching. Candrea has noted the need for his players to see the ball deep and shorten their swings, but he sees their whiffs as a product of the sport more than anything.
Good pitching beats good hitting. Usually.
“It’s not how many, it’s when. That’s the motto from here on out,” Candrea said. “Strikeouts are gonna happen, (it’s not a) big deal. It’s not how many hits you’re gonna get, it’s when you get them.”
Arizona’s pitching staff, the second-best in the Pac-12, will have to be on the top of its game once again. It’s coming off a strong weekend at Oregon in which it only allowed six runs in four games. Denham and Hanah Bowen logged every inning of the series, keeping the Wildcats in games as the offense struggled to produce.
Candrea loved the resiliency of his team, which won the last two games of the series after dropping the first two. It’s that kind of mental fortitude that will take them to the Women’s College World Series.
“I think Denham refound her drop (ball) and when she has that pitch, she’s very tough to hit because she can do a great job of keep people off balance,” Candrea said. “Hanah Bowen has just been steady. I mean, she works her tail off. She’s passionate about the game. She’s got a very high softball IQ and she’s gotten better and better and better. And I think what you’re seeing right now is her reaping the benefits of some very hard work.”
Bowen will likely get the nod Thursday against a UCLA lineup that, like Arizona, is loaded with All-Americans. Despite U.S. Olympian Bubba Nickles (wrist) being out of the lineup since March 21, the Bruins lead the Pac-12 in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in conference play.
“We know that we’re going to have to match pitching pitch for pitch,” Candrea said. “Rachel Garcia and Denham or Bowen, or whoever we have in the circle. You have to have a great pitching performance, you got to play good defense, and yet you have to have some timely hits. The one thing that we struggled with, and continue to struggle with, on the road is just getting that timely hit.”
At home? It’s been a completely different story. Arizona is averaging 8.8 runs per game at Hillenbrand, where 14 of their 24 wins have come via the run-rule.
“With it being senior weekend, there’s a lot of emotions and hopefully those emotions will be helping us more than anything,” Candrea said. “I’m hoping that we come out and we can get comfortable early, that we can have a good plan and put the ball in play and not try to live and die off the home run. That’ll eat you up against good pitching.”
- Thursday — 7 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
- Friday — 4:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
- Friday — 7:30 p.m. PT, ESPNU*
- Saturday — 1 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks