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Young Arizona softball team needs to ‘grab on with both hands’

COLLEGE SOFTBALL: MAR 07 Boise State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Everyone who follows Arizona softball knows that a huge senior class just left. Even many people who don’t follow the team closely know that their legendary coach retired at the end of last season. But even that doesn’t cover all the changes around the program.

“Honestly, you have no idea the new staff how far that reaches, because we’re kind of new in every department,” first-year head coach Caitlin Lowe said. “We have a new assistant coach, we have new facilities (staff), we have a new strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainers. It’s all around. So everybody’s young and hungry and excited to see what this team looks like. So I think it’s honestly kind of the perfect situation because we’re stepping into this new and we also have a young and hungry team.”

Even those who have been around for a while, like redshirt sophomore Sharlize Palacios, feel the energy of a team that only has six players who have spent more than two seasons playing college softball.

“We’re a really young team,” Palacios said. “It’s really cool to see just because we’re building our own legacy now and we’re really playing for each other and just we got to put the pieces together.”

Fellow redshirt sophomore Janelle Meoño sees characteristics in the young players that have made previous generations of Wildcats tough on the diamond.

“They’re competitive,” Meoño said. “They want to win. They are gonna go out there and they’re gonna give everything they have, and I love that.”

But a lot of the success on the field will come down to those with a bit more experience, like Meoño, Palacios, and redshirt senior pitcher Hanah Bowen.

Meoño and Palacios both trained with USA Softball during tryouts for the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Ala. The duo was also named to the USA Softball Player of the Year Top 50 watch list. Softball America’s preseason All-Americans included both Meoño (second team) and Palacios (third team) along with true sophomore Carlie Scupin (first team).

For Bowen, who came in as a utility player and often played second base when Wildcat alumna Reyna Carranco was injured, it’s now time to lead a very young pitching staff. Behind her are sophomores Devyn Netz and Jessie Fontes, and freshman Madi Elish. The redshirt senior is already seeing growth in the staff from fall ball.

“The only thing that they’re missing is probably experience,” Bowen said. “And I’m excited about what they have to offer because they have so much talent and they have different types of pitches than what I have.”

As for Bowen’s preparations for her final season of college softball, she hasn’t focused on making mechanical changes in the circle. She believes that the mental part of pitching was what she needed to address.

“I did the same thing as I did last year, focus on my mental training,” Bowen said. “And I think that’s a big part of this whole game is the mental part. I feel like my pitching is there but I need the more mental part and to stay present each and every day.”

There aren’t many days left to tweak things, anyway. The Wildcats open play on Feb. 10 against Southern Utah. After a rematch with SUU on Feb. 11, they jump right into the deep end of the pool with a game against No. 2 Alabama on Feb. 12.

Outsiders have no idea what to expect from this young team and their new staff. The rankings show that. Arizona is ranked everywhere from No. 7 by Softball America to No. 15 by D1 Softball. In between are USA Today/NFCA (No. 9) and ESPN/USA Softball (No. 11).

“I was joking with someone I feel like there’s been so many rankings, they’re all over the place because nobody knows what to do with us,” Lowe said. “And I think until Thursday, until this weekend, we have to show out on the field. And until that happens, we don’t really know where we’re at. And I think our coaching staff talks about that as a good measuring stick. Let’s just see where we’re at.”

Lowe believes the Alabama game will tell them a lot about where they’re at, both physically and mentally. What does she hope to see when that moment comes?

“Just that the moment doesn’t get too big,” Lowe said. “Honestly, we’re gonna have 3,000 people here. Who can handle the moment? Who can’t handle the moment? And we’re gonna get a really early look at that because we do have a lot of young players that don’t have the big game experience yet. We have a handful, but we don’t have a lot. The majority has not been there. So it’ll just be interesting to see who relishes that and who kind of shies away from it. And I’m hoping they kind of grab on with both hands.”