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NCAA Softball: Arizona defeats Mississippi State to move one win from another Women’s College World Series appearance

Arizona’s Janelle Meoño (6) jumps at the wall to rob Mississippi State’s Mia Davidson of a home run.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

Arizona has been to the Women’s College World Series 27 times if you count the four appearances under the AIAW in the early days of the sport. The 28th time was certain to come eventually, but it seemed unlikely that the 2022 Wildcat team would be the one to do it after a 0-8 start to the Pac-12 season.

That was then, though. Just over two months later, a 3-2 win over Mississippi State in eight innings has put Arizona one game away from making that trip to Oklahoma City a reality.

Hanah Bowen pitched her third complete game of the postseason and Arizona got home runs from Allie Skaggs and Izzy Pacho to defeat the Bulldogs in Starkville, Miss. on Friday morning.

Bowen did not give up a hit until the third inning, but she ran into problems with free passes early on. The fifth-year senior allowed seven hits and walked six in eight innings. She allowed two earned runs on home runs by Mia Davidson and Matalasi Faapito but was able to work around several jams with the help of her defense.

That defense came up huge right from the start. In the bottom of the first, Davidson hit what looked like her first home run of the day. Centerfielder Janelle Meoño used every bit of her 5-foot-4 frame to go up and get it at the wall, coming back with the ball snow-coned in her glove.

“She’s just amazing,” Bowen said. “Every time the ball goes out to Nelly, I expect her to catch it or give it her best effort. So it’s just very comforting to have her out in centerfield. I just trust her with all my heart.”

Both pitchers kept the runs off the board until the bottom of the fifth inning. It’s tough to keep a good hitter down, and Bowen wasn’t able to keep Davidson down her third time through the order. The Mississippi State catcher launched her 23rd home run of the season to give the Bulldogs the 1-0 lead.

Skaggs knows a thing or two about home runs, though. She responded for the Wildcats in the top of the sixth with her 24th home run of the season. The solo shot tied the game.

It was back and forth affair between the two teams. In the bottom of the inning came yet another long ball. Faapito again put the Bulldogs up by one with a solo home run.

“They were just throwing punches and we were throwing punches back,” Bowen said. “It was just the fact that it’s whoever is the last man standing. We knew that.”

Arizona had just three outs to work with. Blaise Biringer gave them a fighting chance with a leadoff walk in the top of the seventh.

Needing just one run to keep the game going, Sophia Carroll attempted to sacrifice Biringer to second. It turned out even better. The umpires went to the review and ruled that Davidson had interfered with Carroll after she put the bunt down. Carroll was awarded first base, giving Arizona two on with no outs.

“I saw Soph get bumped,” Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe said. “So I went out and asked him about it and the explanation was it was obstruction. The third baseman was the one that fielded the ball. The catcher didn’t field the ball so she obstructed was the explanation.”

Not content with just being a great defensive presence in this game, Meoño got her third hit of the day to load the bases with no outs. A sacrifice fly by Sharlize Palacios gave the Wildcats new life.

In the top of the eighth, it was time for Pacho. The redshirt junior deposited a 1-1 pitch over the left-field fence to give her team the lead. It was Pacho’s second hit of the day, both of which went for extra bases.

Was it the most important home run she had ever hit?

“One-hundred percent,” Pacho said.

It didn’t surprise her coach. Before the games started, ESPN asked Lowe to talk about something special that people didn’t know about her team.

“I said, ‘Well, the one that gets overlooked the most is Izzy Pacho,’” Lowe said. “She’s just been there every single day for this team showing us the way. And she’s a trailblazer that we follow and doesn’t get the respect that she deserves. And I just truly feel like she has been leading this team all year. So, not surprising and she was ready for her moment.”

Arizona needed to get three outs to take the 1-0 lead in the series. Bowen walked the leadoff hitter, but a strikeout and two outs in the air left Davidson standing on deck.

The visitors are now just one game from packing for Oklahoma City in Lowe’s first year at the helm. It would be the third straight WCWS appearance for the Wildcats after missing the final tournament eight straight years from 2011 through 2018.

The man who built the legacy of Arizona softball that Lowe is maintaining has not been at the ballpark during the postseason, but former coach Mike Candrea is never far away.

“I get text messages every day,” Lowe said. “He didn’t come to Super Regionals. He didn’t come to Regionals and he’s a very superstitious man, so he will be sitting probably in the same chair watching.”

The woman he picked to run the program and the players he left behind have to be making him very proud. One more win and he will have to decide if his superstition overrules his desire to be in Oklahoma City to watch them take the next step in person.