It’s not how many hits you get; it’s when you get them.
Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea says it all the time and it rang true Saturday as the Wildcats punched their ticket to their 24th Women’s College World Series.
Arkansas starter Autumn Storms was carrying a perfect game in the fifth inning when Sharlize Palacios snuck a one-out single through the left side. One pitch later, the Wildcats had the lead.
Sixth-year senior Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, celebrating her 24th birthday, lifted a two-run homer to left, the decisive blow in a 4-1 win over the Razorbacks in the Fayetteville Super Regional.
“I just told myself to breathe and to take it one pitch at a time,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “My previous at-bat, I hit a back door (curve to the wall) and Cait (Lowe) told me to stay on it. And that’s what I got first pitch and...I took a hack and it felt good off the bat.”
The Wildcats added two more runs in the sixth when freshman Carlie Scupin lined a two-run single to right, the first hit of that inning. Two errors and a walk had loaded the bases.
The victory clinches Arizona’s second straight trip to the WCWS after an eight-year drought. It also marks Arizona’s first time winning a road Super Regional since 2009.
And, yet, playing away from home was only a minor obstacle compared to what else Arizona overcame to earn this trip to Oklahoma City.
First, it was the 2020 season getting cancelled by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. Then it was the fight to get their seven seniors another year of eligibility, followed by the longest layoff in the sport’s history, and a season that was characterized by COVID-19 protocols, injuries and plenty of ups and downs on the diamond.
“This is a moment in my life that I’ll never forget because of what we’ve had to go through,” Candrea said. “For the senior class and for everyone just be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor all year and have it work out and culminate into a victory and another trip to Oklahoma City is pretty fun for me.
“For a long time I took these moments for granted. ... I don’t think people understand how tough it is just to get there, so I’m enjoying this moment. Very much so.”
It was fitting that Palomino-Cardoza, who’s overcome two torn ACLs, delivered the big hit.
“She’s had a career that has been very challenging, and for most kids it probably would have been easy to throw in the towel but she’s not one of those types,” Candrea said. “She’s competitive, she’s a great teammate. And when you see good things happen to good people, it makes you excited.”
Candrea felt the same way about Alyssa Denham, who battled through some dicey moments to beat Storms in a duel of drop ball pitchers.
The Razorbacks put the leadoff runner on base in three of the first five innings and finally broke through for a run in the fifth.
An error by third baseman Malia Martinez and hit by pitch put two on with nobody out for the meat of the order. Star shortstop Braxton Burnside laced a hard grounder through the middle that rolled all the way to the wall but only plated one run.
Denham managed to limit the damage by fanning Hannah Gammill with a changeup before getting Linnie Malkin to fly out to strand the bases loaded. She then retired seven of the last eight batters she faced, allowing just four hits in a complete-game effort.
Denham was dogpiled by her teammates after Gammill lined out to left for the final out.
“Alyssa has had her ups and downs but...I told her before the game, ‘this is your moment’ and she went out and threw a hell of a ballgame against a really good team,” Candrea said. “I’m happy for her and you want all of your players to feel confident going into Oklahoma City and I think right now this was a big boost for her.”
The Wildcats will open the Women’s College World Series on Thursday against Alabama and their all-world ace Montana Fouts, the same team that eliminated them in 2019.
The Wildcats appeared well-equipped for the challenge. They are averaging 9.4 runs over their last four games, all against SEC opponents. Candrea believes it’s the best softball they’ve played all season.
And while winning a national championship remains the goal, just getting to this point has already taught him what he needs to know about his team.
“From here on out, whatever happens is going to happen,” he said. “But you know what? They’ve proven to me that they’re going to be great people the rest of their life, and to me that’s important...so I’m very proud of this group. A lot of hard work, a lot of dedication to maintain our bubble and be able to even get on the field this year.”
"Arizona, for the 24th time, is on its way to the Women's College World Series!" pic.twitter.com/u2sxmgSJnI— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) May 29, 2021