With Arizona softball on the bubble for a top-8 national seed, head coach Mike Candrea isn’t downplaying the significance of this weekend’s series at No. 12 Oregon.
“If you’re a competitor, you know right now that we need to go there, we need to play well, we need to win,” he said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts.”
The No. 7-ranked Wildcats probably need to go something like 4-4 over their final eight regular-season games to earn a top-8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would mean the right to host Regionals and Super Regionals, the easiest path to the Women’s College World Series.
And this weekend is actually the easy part of the equation. After a four-game set at Oregon, Arizona will host four games against No. 2 UCLA, the reigning national champions.
“The one thing I do like is that we’re in control of our own destiny,” Candrea said. “And I think we’ve talked a lot about just playing the game and relaxing and having fun.”
That’s because Arizona has often let the moment get too big for them this season. They are 2-8 against ranked teams, averaging just 2.8 runs in those games, 4.2 fewer than their season average.
Clutch hits have been hard to come by.
“I think we’ve made some strides in that area and tried to take some pressure off them,” Candrea said. “They’re pleasers and they want to please everyone, and especially I think the senior class was feeling some pressure because they feel like it’s on them and they have to do more than what they’re capable of doing.”
They don’t. Not when this team is healthy like it (finally) is now. Arizona has only been at full strength one time against a ranked team—a 4-3 loss at ASU that saw Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza twist her knee on the final play. The star center fielder wound up missing the next three games of the series.
Earlier in the season, star second baseman Reyna Carranco missed games against UCF, Florida State and Washington due to a broken thumb, robbing the Wildcats of one of their steadiest hitters. She has 16 hits in 12 games since returning, combining with Janelle Meoño to form one of the best top-of-the-lineups in the country.
With those two leading the way, the Wildcats swept Utah and Cal the last two weeks, compiling a 55-8 run differential in six wins.
“I feel good right now where we’re at,” Candrea said. “It’s good to have everyone back and to have everyone healthy and and be able to put a full lineup out there. So I’m hoping that this weekend will be that weekend. I think every season has a defining moment, we’ve been talking about it for a while, and I think this could be it.”
A successful series would also prove that Arizona can beat quality teams on the road. They are 24-0 at Hillenbrand Stadium but 9-8 away from it.
“I don’t understand the challenges on the road,” Candrea said. “I don’t understand how a team can be 30-0 at home and struggle on the road, but if I had the answers I could make a million dollars. It’s a comfort thing, so we need to be able to try to find a way to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable. And that’s kind of the challenge that we’ve had on the road, and it’ll be good to have everyone back and put our best foot forward. I’m looking forward to getting there, hopefully have some good weather, and have a good weekend.”
Arizona (33-8, 11-5) is better than Oregon (31-13, 9-9) in every facet of the game—on paper, at least—but the Ducks are 17-5 at home and their ace, Brooke Yanez, could be a difficult matchup, even though she—and Oregon as a whole—has been struggling lately.
The Ducks have lost four straight series and five of their last seven games, dropping into sixth place in the nine-team Pac-12.
“They have a lefty that can cause some complications when you have a left-handed dominant lineup, but I think right now we’re getting them at a good time,” Candrea said. “I think they’re struggling a little bit offensively but their pitching has really been the key for them throughout the entire year—and some timely hitting. I think they’re a team that feeds off the momentum. And they’re a team that when they’re feeling good and they’re hot, they can probably swing the bats with a little more confidence.”
Just like Arizona.
“I think the past two weekends at home have really helped us and we’ve been able to find a groove,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “So I think it’s just continuing that going into Oregon, and I think we’ll be OK.”
- Friday — 4 p.m. PT, ESPN2
- Saturday — 2 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks
- Saturday — 4:30 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks*
- Sunday — 12 p.m. PT, Pac-12 Networks