OKLAHOMA CITY — For the fifth time this postseason, the Arizona Wildcats (39-21, 8-16 Pac-12) will face another unseeded team when they take the field at the Women’s College World Series on Sunday. Texas (44-20-1, 12-6 Big 12) dropped into the losers’ bracket with a 7-2 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday, setting up a matchup against Arizona.
The Longhorns and the Wildcats have some ties that will make for interesting storylines. Until June 2018, Texas head coach Mike White was building a powerhouse at Oregon. When Texas came calling with a raise, the Ducks did not make the kind of offer needed to keep him in Eugene. White left and many of his players followed him to Austin, but he has a considerable history of coaching against Pac-12 teams.
The former Oregon players who went to Texas are mostly gone now, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be familiar faces on the field. Former Arizona outfielder Bella Dayton left even later in the year than her coach did four years ago. The redshirt sophomore waited until after fall ball to put her name in the transfer portal this academic year, making the decision to leave the Wildcats in Nov. 2021. She eventually landed closer to her Wiley, Tex. home and has started 53 games for the Longhorns this year.
“I do have a lot of respect for (Arizona) and I love seeing my old teammates because I was super close with them,” Dayton said. “But I’m excited to play with the team I’m on now. I know they have my back with everything that we do. We’re just pumped to keep moving forward.”
Dayton is hitting .271 this year with five home runs. One of those home runs helped send UCLA to the losers’ bracket when the Longhorns defeated the Bruins 7-2 in their opening WCWS game. Dayton also had a home run in game two of the Seattle Regional where the unseeded Longhorns sent Washington home for the season.
She was an important transfer for Texas, but she wasn’t the most important addition from the portal. That would be fifth-year senior pitcher Hailey Dolcini, who joined the Longhorns from Fresno State.
The 2021 Mountain West Pitcher of the Year has carried a big load for Texas this season, pitching 202 innings over the course of the year. No one else on the Longhorns has pitched more than 86.1 innings. With their season on the line, it’s likely that Dolcini will take the circle for the Longhorns.
Dolcini is a strikeout pitcher who has put up K’s against 212 batters this season. That’s an average of 1.05 per inning.
That would have been a bigger concern for the Wildcats earlier in the season. However, they showed that they can score runs against a high-strikeout pitcher when they faced Oklahoma State’s Kelly Maxwell in their first game of the WCWS.
Arizona has a solid chance of scoring runs against Dolcini, as well. Despite her strikeout numbers and a 0.95 WHIP this season, she is allowing 2.18 earned runs per seven innings. She will be facing a team that averages six runs per game.
The Wildcats are hitting .261 as a team in the postseason. That is well above the .175 batting average against that Dolcini’s opponents have hit against her this season. Arizona’s batters have also drawn 17 walks in seven games.
Perhaps most importantly, the Wildcats are still finding a way to launch the ball out of the park despite not playing in the desert climate of Tucson. Arizona has hit 10 home runs combined in Columbia, Starkville, and Oklahoma City. The only game they failed to hit at least one home run was the win over Oregon State on Friday night.
White has held Dolcini out of games this postseason, though. If he should make that choice again on Sunday, the Wildcats would likely face Sophia Simpson. Simpson has a 3.63 ERA and 1.53 WHIP this season. The Longhorns’ other option is Estelle Czech who sports a 3.41 ERA and 1.44 WHIP.
Arizona’s pitchers have come into their own since the postseason began. They are no longer presenting a reason for observers to say that Arizona can score but is unable to keep opponents from scoring. It is the reason the Wildcats are playing their third game in Oklahoma City.
“A lot of work has gone into our relationship, both in the bullpen and off the field,” Devyn Netz said about fellow starter Hanah Bowen. “It’s something we’ve had to work on because we faced a lot of adversity during conference play. When we came here, we knew we had a clean slate. Knowing that is pretty fun. It’s been fun playing with you, Bow.”
Even when Bowen was not pitching as much early in the season, her presence was always with Netz. When Netz was asked about how she was handling the increased workload her sophomore season, Bowen was the first person she credited with helping her.
“It’s fun and, you know, 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,” Netz said after Arizona defeated Yale on Mar. 11, 2022.
The Wildcats are looking to continue putting their names in the Arizona books as the most unlikely achievers in program history. They also are enjoying the ride with Caitlin Lowe, their first-year head coach.
“It’s super fun to play for Cait,” Netz said. “It’s super, I’d say, laid back, knowing she trusts all of us to do our job. I think that’s what she brings to the game...and to our team, is that quiet confidence, that calm confidence that we can do it. Just knowing she trusts in us is pretty awesome.”
The Wildcats and Longhorns are scheduled to play at 4 p.m. MST on Sunday, June 5. The game will air on ESPN2.