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7 burning questions facing Arizona softball as NCAA Tournament begins

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Photo by Ryan Kelapire

The Arizona softball team will be making its NCAA-record 34th straight NCAA Tournament appearance this weekend when it welcomes UMBC, Ole Miss and Villanova for the Tucson Regional.

The 11th-seeded Wildcats will open against UMBC on Friday at 5:30 p.m. PT.

Here are some burning questions facing Arizona as they begin the road to the Women’s College World Series. (Go HERE for a preview of their opponents.)

Will Harper break any home run records?

I don’t like asking Jessie Harper about the home run race. She doesn’t like talking about it. But it has to be brought up because she’s on the precipice of history.

The senior shortstop enters the postseason with 89 career homers, the most among active players and fourth-most in NCAA history. The three sluggers in front of her?

  1. Lauren Chamberlain (Oklahoma) — 95
  2. Katiyana Mauga (Arizona) — 92
  3. Stacey Nuveman (UCLA) — 90

That leaves Harper three homers shy of Arizona’s all-time record and six shy of the NCAA record. How likely is it that she will become college softball’s new Home Run Queen?

Well...she has 13 homers in 49 games this season, approximately one long ball every four games. That’s actually the lowest home-run rate of her career. Her career home run rate is one long ball approximately every three games.

If we use that metric, Harper would need 12 games to pass Mauga and 21 to usurp Chamberlain. At most, Arizona will play 12 more games this season—four in Regionals, three in Super Regionals and five in the Women’s College Series. Most of them will feature pristine pitching. Even Arizona’s weakest regional opponent, UMBC, brings an elite arm to the circle.

Long story short: the odds aren’t in Harper’s favor. She will have to get hot in a hurry to claim the throne.

“Right now, I’m not worried about breaking the record,” she said. “I’m worried about beating the first team that walks in here. We’re trying to get as far as we possibly can.”

Will Arizona get timely hits?

Perhaps the most striking stat of the season is that, despite having one of the best lineups in the country, Arizona only has 17 hits in 115 at-bats (a .148 average) with runners in scoring position against ranked teams.

It explains why they are 5-13 against ranked top-25 opponents, why 10 of those 13 losses have come by two runs or less, and what they need to do to make a deep run in NCAA Tournament: get those timely hits.

“That’s something we’ve struggled with, but it’s not over yet and we’re not done,” said No. 9 hitter Peanut Martinez. “We’re going to see a lot of good pitchers and if it’s not us hitting the long ball, it’s going to be us getting on base, doing little things right. ... We’re gonna have to work on getting people over, especially when we have less than two outs.”

Arizona will ride the hot hand in the circle, but who is that?

Head coach Mike Candrea wasn’t willing to reveal who will start in the circle in Friday’s Tucson Regional opener vs. UMBC but he said he feels good about Hanah Bowen and Alyssa Denham as starters and Mariah Lopez and Devyn Netz as options out of the bullpen.

The Wildcats used all four of them in the regular-season finale vs. UCLA and will roll with the “hot hand” moving forward. Who, exactly, is that?

“We’re gonna find out,” Candrea said.

Though Arizona enters the postseason with a solid 2.33 ERA, the 30th-best mark in the country, it has been hard to decipher who their top pitcher is. All of them have had some very promising moments but also some tough ones, too.

Bowen (1.99 ERA) was serving as the No. 1 starter in the second half of the conference season but Denham (1.72) got the nod in the UCLA series and is having the best season from a statistical standpoint. Lopez (2.60) finished the regular season on a high note after throwing 4.2 scoreless innings against UCLA. Plus, she has a long track record of performing in the postseason.

Every Arizona pitcher brings a unique skillset to the table and finding the best way to mix and match them is going to require some difficult decisions and, yes, some luck.

“If you win and you throw three pitchers, everyone thinks it’s great to pitch by committee, but unfortunately sometimes that doesn’t quite work that way,” Candrea said. “It’s not an exact science. What stats will tell you today may not be accurate with what’s going to happen tomorrow. And so we’re gonna do our best, do whatever our gut feels is the right thing to help us win.”

How will the freshmen fare in a packed house?

Hillenbrand Stadium will be filled to the brim for the postseason after operating at 30 percent capacity in the regular-season finale. A jam-packed Rita produces one of the most vibrant atmospheres in college softball and that could be a big boost to an Arizona team that is 25-3 at home.

Especially for the freshmen, who have never played in front of a full-capacity crowd.

“I think that’s a big deal,” said senior catcher Dejah Mulipola. “When you get to the World Series, you have thousands and thousands of fans out there cheering. So when you hear the noise that’s going to be here this weekend at Hillenbrand, it’s going to prepare you for what you’re going to hear in the World Series and even on the road. Fortunately for us, they’re all our fans.”

How motivated will Arizona be to prove the selection committee wrong?

Surprisingly, only one Pac-12 team—No. 2 UCLA—received a top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament even though Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Arizona State all hovered in, or around, the top 8 of the NFCA Coaches Poll all season.

To make matters worse, Washington was dropped all the way to the 16-seed and Oregon was bounced even further than that, being sent to Texas as the No. 2 team in the Austin Regional. Candrea and UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez were vocal about their disappointment in the seedings. Arizona players feel slighted too.

“I know we have really good teams in our conference,” Bowen said, “so we just got to come out and prove it.”

Can Arizona win big games away from Hillenbrand?

By not securing one of those top-8 seeds, Arizona will likely be on the road against No. 6 Arkansas for Super Regionals next weekend. The Wildcats went 4-10 on the road against ranked teams and will need to find a way to flip the script if they want to return to the Women’s College World Series. Easier said than done.

“I don’t know why it’s so different (on the road), especially in a season with no fans,” Candrea said. “There’s really no answer for it, we just did not perform as well on the road as we did at home, but we know that’s got to change.”

How will the seniors handle the pressure?

Arizona’s senior class has accomplished pretty much all there is to accomplish. In 2017, they led Arizona to their first Pac-12 title in a decade. In 2019, they brought the Wildcats back to the WCWS, ending an eight-year drought. They have collected countless accolades along the way.

The only thing left to do is win a national championship. It’s why the hype train immediately chugged into gear when Arizona announced in a joint press release that they were returning for the 2021 season.

But with all that hoopla comes heightened expectations, and that pressure may be one reason why some of the upperclassmen have seen their stats decline in their final season.

“When they were built up as the super seniors...I’m sure it did put a little pressure on them,” Candrea said. “If you ask me if Harper’s had pressure on her? Yes. Does she verbalize it to me every day? No. Does she tried to hide it? Sure. And I think all of these kids, I really don’t know how much pressure they put on themselves, but I do know that it’s very common.”

Mulipola, who’s had the best year of her career, insists there is no pressure—”it’s cool to be hyped up”—but added that “at the end of the day, we still have to perform.”

“This group has done a really good job of handling things and I think they’re in a good place right now,” Candrea said. “I want them to go out and compete. I want them to have fun, enjoy the game. Whatever happens is going to happen.”