Now more than ever, the college offseason is a revolving door. Who’s coming? Who’s leaving? The question is not really one of education now if it was ever about that. It’s about playing time, family ties, and winning. Arizona softball is certainly no stranger to the process.
The Wildcats ended last season expecting to lose some players. Players who hadn’t played much or didn’t have the role they wanted. Players who decided to move closer to home. Most of them were not a surprise. However, when the cutoff for being able to play immediately next year got closer, it looked like it had all settled.
Then came the late news that starters Janelle Meono and Sharlize Palacios were leaving the program. A few weeks later, they were announced as new additions to conference rival UCLA. From the reaction of some of the players on social media, it seemed like a bit of a surprise for them.
“I think this summer...it did feel like just an adjustment,” Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe said. “And I think once we got here in August, they moved on and we moved on, too. And I think the important thing is we’re just so all-in for this group and this season. Sometimes things happen for a reason and I think we have a great group with a great culture going on right now.”
The leaders of the team aren’t looking backward.
“If people want to leave, go for it,” said junior infielder Allie Skaggs. “I don’t want someone to be where they’re unhappy and be miserable. So the changes are great. Whenever you leave, it brings a great opportunity for new faces to come in. And I think that that’s what we’ve seen this fall and we’re really embracing it, all the new girls, and they’re doing the same to us.”
There are a lot of new faces. Arizona added six freshmen and three transfers to their core of eight returning starters. Some of those new faces will undoubtedly play big roles this spring when the regular season rolls around.
They will be led by players like Skaggs and fifth-year senior Izzy Pacho.
Skaggs is already an All-American on the field. Her leadership off the field might be even more important for this team, though.
“She always had the right things to say and it’s just being able to have the confidence and the voice to say it,” Lowe said. “I think she’s learning how to do that this year, and she knows it’s all coming from a great place. I know it’s all coming from a great place, and the biggest thing is her teammates know it’s coming from the right place. If I had my way, she’d speak even more, but she also has complementary leaders who are taking the reins in some categories, because she’s going to be the one to put her arm around you and someone else might be the one to put you in your place.”
Pacho had a breakout season last year. This year will be her first going into things knowing she has a secure place in the lineup and on the field.
“I think right now, it’s that sense of knowing that it’s her team and culture to take over,” Lowe said. “I think she’s always been fighting for the position, And now it’s like, how do I lead these people where I want them to go? I think that’s a really cool transition for her because she’s not scraping, scraping, scraping—and believe me, she is still kind of doing that—but just knowing that this is her team and how do we want it to look. I think she and Skaggs have done a great job of putting their stamp on it and people are starting to follow.”
The pitching staff will be led by junior Devyn Netz who made a huge leap during the postseason. She will be the most experienced high-major pitcher on a staff that includes freshman Sydney Somerndike, Princeton transfer Ali Blanchard, and Phoenix College transfer Brianna Hardy. The season could well turn on the changeup of Netz.
“She didn’t skip a beat,” Lowe said. “She looks better than she did in spring. She’s healthy...Right now her changeup is on point and one of her best pitches, which is what she was missing and she started to get in the postseason. It really just changed the game for her. It makes her hard stuff seem a bit harder. More velocity right now because she’s healthy. And I just think presence-wise, she’s gone to a whole other level. So, hope that continues and I think just really leadership-wise in the bullpen, too. It’s important for our newcomers to see that.”
As the fall and spring seasons unfold, the stories of the newcomers will be written. One of Lowe’s favorite stories so far is that of Ali Ashner, who just returned to the Wildcats after spending time on the junior college circuit.
Ashner left needing to rehab a knee injury. She returns as a junior college player of the year.
“She came in her freshman year and I think was overwhelmed by the competition level, and hurt herself early on and never could quite come back from it,” Lowe said. “The plan was always for her to...first get healthy and then play at a level she could compete, and all she’s done is go and get better. So I think you saw her stats in junior college. Right now, it’s just getting used to the really good pitching and she’s doing that day by day right now. And she has a good head on her shoulders and doesn’t get frustrated with one or two at-bats. She knows it’s upping it a level. So, just really excited for her progression and getting better defensively every day, but offensively she’s got some pop at the plate, so it’s nice to see.”
The fans will have their first chance to see what everyone brings to the table against Pima Community College at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 20. All fall exhibition games will be held at Hillenbrand Stadium.