Spending time with those you care about is what most people do on their birthdays. Izzy Pacho is no different. This year, Arizona softball’s starter at third base spent her birthday with 17 of her closest friends defeating the Missouri Tigers on the way to sweeping the Columbia Regional.
“It was great,” Pacho said. “I mean, no better birthday gifts than a win. It was good but my birthday always falls when I’m playing my whole life, so pretty used to it. No place I’d rather be.”
Whether she would get to spend that time on the field with her teammates this year was open to question. Would they still be playing when her birthday rolled around this time?
The team had what they all refer to as “ups and downs” in head coach Caitlin Lowe’s first season. It culminated in what has been a special run because it was not a foregone conclusion that they would get to the postseason this year. This week, there’s no place they’d rather be than living in a hotel together in Starkville, Miss.
The togetherness is a big part of what got them to the Starkville Super Regional. The team has had to pull through a number of challenges this season. Several injuries took players off the field for stretches.
Last year’s Pac-12 batting champion, Janelle Meoño, was out for an extended period with a stress fracture. Shortstop Sophia Carroll had a concussion. Sophomore pitcher Devyn Netz was wearing a boot in recent weaks. But in a sport where it all starts in the circle, the periodic absence of fifth-year senior Hanah Bowen might have been the most difficult to overcome.
Bowen, their most experienced pitcher, has been unavailable several times this year. Injuries, a minor car accident, and what she referred to as “personal issues back home” have all cropped up at various times. As her college career winds to a close, though, she is living in the moment, pushing through the nagging hip injury that has been bothering her since at least the Utah series in late April.
“I just think at this moment, this is the ending, so I might as well,” Bowen told PJ Brown of the Arizona Daily Star. “I have to give it my all, especially for this team.”
Doing it for and with each other was a theme that the players and Lowe returned to repeatedly this week as they were asked about their unexpected run to the super regionals. After wrapping things up in Columbia, Missouri, they did not return to Tucson. As soon as the NCAA announced that the series between unseeded Mississippi State and unseeded Arizona would be hosted by the Bulldogs, the Wildcats were on their way to Starkville for the week.
“We played a lot of home games at the beginning of the year,” Lowe said. “We didn’t get to bond as a team and now it’s like we’re playing catch up and we’re getting to hang out together. They’re going to a movie tonight and getting to hang out away from the softball field. School’s over. They’re just worried about softball and hanging out with each other and it’s become fun. I think if we traveled back to Tucson, they’d all separate and then just come back to the field. It’s kind of nice. We’re getting to have meals together and see different cities together and it’s just bringing us closer.”
In addition to spending more time bonding, they are also getting to practice in the environment where they will play. The humidity is especially significant. Historically, the knock on Arizona’s prolific home-run hitters has been that they play so many of their games in the dry air and relative elevation of the Tucson desert. Of the schools that play softball in the Pac-12, only Utah in Salt Lake City has a higher elevation than Arizona does in Tucson.
The Wildcats showed that they do okay with some moisture in the air and at lower elevations, too. They hit six home runs in three games last weekend in Missouri. Nine of the 11 runs they scored came via the long ball.
“From the hitter’s side, our biggest concern is focusing on hitting line drives and getting hard hits,” said sophomore Carlie Scupin. “So, if the ball’s flying out of the park, then that’s great, but we’re just wanting (hard hits).”
Stringing hits together is something Scupin and her teammates want to see more often. During regionals, they only managed that in the first game against Illinois. The Wildcats had a big third inning that included four straight two-out hits. Two of those went over the fence. They also put together a string of hits in the fifth.
That hitting didn’t carry over to either of their games against Missouri. In both of those games, it was a single pitch that made the difference, Lowe said.
Stringing hits together is something their opponent has found a way to do in the postseason. Mississippi State got baserunners on regularly in their two games against No. 2 Florida State. They got 11 hits in those two games, but the Bulldogs also put pressure on the Seminoles’ defense and pitching in other ways: walks (8) and errors (2).
Are the Bulldogs ready to produce two more games like that? Like Arizona, their regular season was not much to write home about. They finished below .500 in conference play and 11th out of 13 teams in the SEC standings.
They started to turn the corner in the SEC tournament, losing to Tennessee 1-0 in 13 innings in the second round. Before that, they had a resume that looked much like the Wildcats’ results. The two had multiple common opponents, and most of the results looked the same.
Losses to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Alabama, and UCLA stand out on both schedules. Wins over Missouri do, too. Loyola Marymount pushed Arizona in a 4-3 Wildcats victory and split two close ones against the Bulldogs. Are they still the same teams that they were back then, though?
Neither Mississippi State nor Arizona looks like the teams that were both run-ruled by Oklahoma early in the season. The Wildcats’ coach believes the new sense of togetherness is propelling her team forward.
“We stopped fighting our own battles solo if that makes sense,” Lowe said. “I think a lot of us wanted to perform so badly that we couldn’t even breathe and we were trying to do it all by ourselves and not realizing that we had each other to fall back on.”
Can it get them two more wins and an improbable place in the 2022 Women’s College World Series?
Arizona Wildcats (36-20, 8-16 Pac-12) @ Mississippi State Bulldogs (37-25, 10-14 SEC)
When, where, and how to watch:
All games will be held in Nusz Park in Starkville, Miss.
- Game one will be held on Friday, May 27 beginning at 9 a.m. MST. It will air on ESPNU.
- Game two will be held on Saturday, May 28 beginning at 1 p.m. MST. It will air on ESPNU.
- If necessary, game three will be held on Sunday, May 29. Time and television information are still to be determined.
This will be the fifth meeting between the two programs. Arizona has won the last three in a row to improve to 3-1 all-time against Mississippi State. They last met at the Tucson Regional on May 20, 2018, where the Wildcats took a 4-3 victory to eliminate the Bulldogs from the postseason.
Mississippi State last defeated Arizona on Feb. 9, 2002, by a score of 7-1.