Before the season started, Arizona softball head coach Caitlin Lowe was asked about a pitching staff that lost most of its experience after last year.
“We’re just going to have to be able to match them up with their strengths and play defense behind them,” Lowe said in February. “I think as long as our pitchers take that to heart and feel like they have a solid group behind them, then they don’t feel like they have everything on their shoulders.”
Heading into Pac-12 play in early March, Lowe was still talking about how they would go with matchups and the ball would go to whoever “gets hot.” Now almost halfway through Pac-12 play, things are still in flux.
“We’re still kind of trying to scrap our way and figure out who we are as a staff rather than who we are as individual pitchers,” said pitching coach Taryne Mowatt-McKinney.
Part of that is on the youth of the team, but that’s not the totality of the issues facing the pitching staff that has given up the most home runs in the Pac-12. They have also missed time from the fifth-year senior who came in as the leader of the staff.
Hanah Bowen, who pitched game one of the Super Regionals and the Women’s College World Series last year, has been in and out of the lineup this year. She first missed time with what she referred to as “a personal issue back home,” then she was in a minor car accident that left her on the sidelines again. She’s trying to get back to where she was in the latter half of last season.
“She’s run into a little bit of bad luck, some tough times with some injuries and some stuff that she can’t control,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “But I think this last two weeks, she’s been in a really good mindset of, ‘So, what? So, what if this happens, so what if I don’t have my best stuff? I’m gonna find a way,’ and I think this weekend, she found a way on Sunday. She gives up the solo shot home run and the feeling on the field—and that starts in the circle— was like, ‘Okay, next batter, come on.’ Like, we have a lead. It wasn’t like the weight of the world was on her.”
Bowen has still been an important source of support for the younger pitchers even when she hasn’t been able to take the field. Sophomore Devyn Netz and freshman Madi Elish have taken on a lot more innings than they might have expected with Bowen being unavailable at times, but the fifth-year senior has still been there for them.
“I’ve been working with Bow a lot and I’ve been learning from her, so I have to give her a lot of credit, as well, and working with Coach T,” Netz said last month. “It’s tough and it’s definitely something that takes a lot of work. And I think it’s a great opportunity to have, but I couldn’t be here without the people who’ve helped me.”
The opportunity to mature while also getting real on-the-field experience will help Elish, Netz, and Jessie Fontes next year, but Arizona also has a freshman coming in who Mowatt-McKinney is excited to get on campus. Incoming right-hander Sydney Somerndike is something that the Wildcats don’t have right now.
“She is a strikeout pitcher,” Mowatt-McKinney said.
She’s also unique in another way. Somerndike is one of the first Arizona pitchers whose recruitment Mowatt-McKinney was actually involved in.
Although the rules changed in 2018, most of Arizona’s current pitchers committed under the old rules that allowed them to choose a school while as young as 13 or 14. Mowatt-McKinney returned to Arizona in October 2017 when the current pitchers were either already deep into their recruitments or already on the team.
Somerndike will bring a “chip on her shoulder,” Mowatt-McKinney said. The Villa Park (CA) senior only recently began getting accolades that her future pitching coach felt were overdue, including being named the 2020 California Gatorade Player of the Year.
Mowatt-McKinney believes that Somerndike will come in with the expectation that she will be the ace, and that’s a good thing.
“You want that from every freshman that comes in,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “It doesn’t mean they’re always going to start, but you want them to come in with the expectation of ‘I’m going to take somebody’s job or I’m going to be a starter.’ If I’m not, I’m going to fill my role the best that I can, but I’m never going to stop trying to get better and be that starter. And I always tell our freshman, my freshman year one of the things that I would change is I would come in and try to be that starter. Even though Alicia (Hollowell)...holds all the records here and was amazing, I’m still going to work to try to be that starter because it helps me get better, but it helps her get better too.”
Until next year, though, the job will fall on the current staff and their coaches to help each other get better. They also need to decide who has the “hot hand” and when. That question arose last weekend in Corvallis when Elish cruised through 4.2 innings on Saturday, then ran into trouble that led to the loss.
“The thing that we’ve gotten into trouble with a little bit this year is things have been going great, and then when they go south, they go south quickly,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “And it’s like, boom, boom, boom. We’ll get the first two outs of the inning and then a couple hits in a row and it just sometimes gets a little fast on us as a team. And I think a lot of that is being young and the maturity and the speed of the game. We can come out to practice and try to emulate the speed of the game as much as possible, but until you’re in that moment, you don’t really know how fast it can get.”
While those things are still a work in progress for Arizona’s pitchers and coaches, there’s still time to learn.
“I do see a lot of progress,” Mowatt-McKinney said. “I think a lot of it is maybe not showing in the games quite yet...but I think what we’re doing in the bullpen has been great. I think we’ve made progress and we’ve really worked on things that are going to help us in the long run. And the good thing is as long as we have games, we have the opportunity to get better.”