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Arizona softball’s freshmen thriving in first postseason

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Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

This postseason is the last chance for Arizona’s storied senior class to chase a national championship. It’s also the first chance for the freshmen to show that the pursuit will continue long after the upperclassmen are gone.

Redshirt freshmen Sharlize Palacios and Janelle Meoño and true freshman Carlie Scupin were instrumental for the Wildcats in the regular season. Now they are showing out in the NCAA Tournament, too.

Palacios was red-hot in the Tucson Regional, collecting eight hits and 10 RBI in the three wins. She blasted a three-run homer in the 7-0 victory over UMBC and a game-breaking grand slam against Ole Miss to propel Arizona into the regional final. There, she split the gap for a timely two-run double that broke open an eventual 12-6 comeback win over the Rebels.

Scupin, who has enough power to land homers on the Gittings building, had three hits including an RBI single in that game. Those two have combined for 89 RBI and 26 homers this season. Palacios’ 17 long balls are second-most on the team. Both are hitting well above .300.

As for Meoño, well, what doesn’t she do? After winning the Pac-12 batting title, she has six hits in three postseason games, including a line-drive RBI double against Ole Miss that sailed over the left fielder’s head, showing she’s not just your typical singles-hitting slapper.

The Pac-12 Freshman of the Year was bumped into the leadoff spot in February and should remain there for the next three years. She might be even better defensively. In the rematch with the Rebels, the speedy Meoño stretched to make a snowcone catch in the left field corner to save at least two runs.

The week before, she robbed a home run (her second of the season) and made a diving catch in foul territory against No. 2 UCLA.

“She’s an absolute star,” said senior third baseman Malia Martinez. “I can’t wait to see all the growth she’s going to do throughout her time here.”

Recruiting isn’t a perfect science, but these freshmen are making it look like one. Their emergence ensures the Wildcats will have a strong core next season regardless of how the rest of their class pans out.

Scupin has been a day-one starter at first base, Meoño will supplant sixth-year senior Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza in center field, and Palacios will take the catching duties full-time from Dejah Mulipola. Redshirt freshman Bella Dayton, who had two hits and an RBI in the regional final, could start in the corner outfield.

“That’s what you hope,” said head coach Mike Candrea. “Sometimes in the recruiting process it doesn’t quite work that way because when you have a Dejah behind a plate, it’s kind of hard to get a top-line catcher.”

As for that growth Martinez was referring to, Candrea has already seen it in the mental side of the game. That more or less boils down to being able to slow the game down and trust your skill set.

For instance: Palacios went hitless in the final eight games of the regular season, then changed her mindset and saw it pay off in a big way in the Tucson Regional.

“I know how I’m a good hitter and I was trying to be a different type of hitter when I wasn’t doing well,” she said. “I was trying to take things too big. I don’t try to hit home runs; it just kind of happens for me. That’s weird to say, but I go for base hits up the middle and that’s my approach and I just had to keep that approach.”

The freshmen will face new adversity this weekend when Arizona travels to Arkansas for Super Regionals. It will be their first time playing in front of a hostile crowd in a postseason environment. If they fare anything like they did in front of the capacity crowd at Hillenbrand Stadium, they should be just fine.

“I think that we’re able to be successful in those moments because we prepare so hard,” Meoño said. “And when it comes game time, we’re just ready, we’re just playing our game, having fun. It’s really nothing too big that we can’t handle.”

Besides, that’s why they committed to the Wildcats—to be immersed in those pressure-packed moments. Meoño and Palacios said they grew up watching postseason softball, yearning to be a part of it one day. The coronavirus pandemic made them wait an extra year to experience it, but it’s been worth it.

“It’s such a dream come true,” Meoño said.

Palacios found herself in one of those dream-like scenarios on Saturday when Ole Miss intentionally walked Mulipola to load the bases with two outs.

“I was like, they want me? I’m going to show them what I have,” Palacios said.

She dug out a 3-2 pitch and punished it well beyond the center field fence.

“Right now we’re still playing with the seniors, so I’m still excited for that,” Meoño said, “but we’ve proved that we can play and we can keep up with top programs.”