In a year full of adversity, it was only fitting that Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza had the hit that punched Arizona softball’s ticket to the Women’s College World Series.
She’s been through the wringer during her Wildcat career, overcoming enough hardship in six years that some athletes never incur in a lifetime.
First, the injuries: Palomino-Cardoza tore her right ACL on the first day of fall practice of her freshman season. She tore the left one in a practice right before the postseason of her redshirt freshman season.
Then came the unprecedented: the coronavirus pandemic canceling her redshirt senior season and, for a while there, putting her career in jeopardy.
At least a couple of things had to fall into place for Palomino-Cardoza to return for the 2021 season—the NCAA granting seniors an extra year of eligibility and Arizona being willing to shoulder the financial burden to bring them back.
Palomino-Cardoza went 2 for 2 in that regard, leaving it up to her to decide if she could handle the physical and emotional toll of another season. It was an “instant yes.”
“And a lot of people have asked why because of [my] body, and I’ve talked to other people who are in my position with knee injuries and it is hard,” she acknowledged last April.
A year later, APC has no regrets about returning for her “great grandma” season. It’s hard to find anyone who loves Arizona softball more than her.
“We just didn’t want it to end that way, so it was pretty easy for us to come back and play for the man (Mike Candrea) that has grown us as a person and grown us as athletes,” a tearful Palomino-Cardoza said on May 3. “And coming back and getting to play with Dejah (Mulipola) and the rest of our senior class just made that decision even easier, you know? We wanted to go out in our own way to make our impact in our own way and I think that’s what we’re doing.”
That is, leading Arizona and Candrea back to the Women’s College World Series. They did it in 2019 to end an eight-year drought and get to do it again after sweeping Arkansas in Super Regionals.
This appearance is even sweeter.
“He took a chance to bring us all back when we knew he didn’t have to, and I think that shows that he respected us enough and wanted us to come back and wanted us to play for him again,” Palomino-Cardoza said in May. “So going back to the World Series is something that we can pay him back with. ... It’ll mean everything to us to go out there and bring him back where he belongs.”
That’s not to say the 2021 season has been smooth sailing. It never is for Palomino-Cardoza. In April, on the final play of a heated rivalry game at ASU, her knee buckled when she lunged to try to beat out a throw to first base.
It looked serious, maybe even season-ending given her injury history. APC was on crutches the next day, but further testing revealed she avoided a major injury and she returned to her perch in center field a few games later, smiling as if nothing ever happened.
Still, it undoubtedly has impacted her performance. Heading into the Fayetteville Super Regional, Palomino-Cardoza’s batting average was down to .313, more than 40 points below her career average. She had just six hits in her last 29 at-bats, her power seemingly gone.
Palomino-Cardoza hit 16 or more homers in each of her first three full seasons. This year, she has seven.
And, yet, with the season hanging in the balance, she waited on a backdoor pitch and muscled it over the left field wall to lead Arizona past Arkansas.
It was her first homer in over a month.
“She’s one of those kids that you pull for,” Candrea said. “There’s ups and downs, but today she was a hero, and I think it’s well deserved and I’m just so happy for her because she has had a career that has been very challenging. For most kids it probably would have been easy to throw in the towel, but she’s not one of those types. She’s competitive, she’s a great teammate. And when you see good things happen to good people, it makes you excited.”
Palomino-Cardoza, who turned 24 that day, choked up when asked what that play meant to her.
“I’ve had to step away from a game that I’ve been playing for 20 years now and it just really humbles you,” she said. “And I think growing in that pain and then that hard work and dedication is really just pushed me into never taking anything for granted and always savoring every moment that I have because it can be taken away at any moment.”
Palomino-Cardoza has leaned on her faith throughout the highs and lows.
“I’ve probably been at my lowest points during those injuries,” she said in 2019. “It’s trusting in the plan that I’m supposed to have and the plan I’m on is the one I’m supposed to be on, something special is supposed to happen. That’s what I believe. So, trusting in that and having a relationship with Jesus has really helped.”
Palomino-Cardoza has credited her church community and members of the Arizona softball program for helping her strengthen her faith. For helping her realize that softball is what she does, not who she is.
“Alyssa has always been a great kid, and a very talented kid,” Candrea said, “I just think her ability to expand upon her life, I can’t say when she first came here that I thought she had the balance that she has today.”
Or as Mulipola put it: “She’s grown into a woman now and it’s cool to see who she’s become. She’s found her identity in Christ.”
Palomino-Cardoza often scribbles scripture on her softball gear and shares Bible verses on social media. In September 2016, roughly a year after her first ACL tear, she tweeted 2 Corinthians 5:17, which says that anyone in Christ is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.
Five years later, that’s the story of Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza.
“Being able to leave here as a completely new person is something special to me and I have a lot of people to thank for that,” she said. “Being at Arizona is something that I’ve always dreamed of and I’m just thankful that I had this opportunity. I’ve been able to grow into who I am.”