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Taking stock: How Arizona softball is looking under coach Caitlin Lowe

arizona-softball-salvages-game-3-win-california-skaggs-pacho-palacios Photo by Mike Mattina / Arizona Athletics

The offseason is here, with all of Arizona’s sports done for 2021-22 and the 2022-23 campaigns still a little ways away.

Which makes this a great time to step back and see how all of the Wildcats’ programs are doing.

Over the past few weeks, we have taken a look at each of the UA’s 19 men’s and women’s programs to see what shape they’re in and what prospects they have for the near future. We break down each team and evaluate how it is performing under its current coaching staff, looking at the state of the program before he/she arrived and comparing it to now while also looking at this season and beyond.

Next up: Caitlin Lowe’s softball team.

How it looked before

From 1986 through June of 2021, Arizona softball was synonymous with one name: Mike Candrea. After the 2021 season, the legendary coach finally retired, although he stayed with the Arizona athletic department as a “special advisor.”

For 34 years, the Wildcats went to the NCAA postseason without fail. They won eight titles. They produced all-conference and All-American players by the dozen.

It had become difficult to reach that ultimate plateau of the Women’s College World Series lately, though. Arizona finally returned to the final eight in 2019 after an eight-year absence. They even won a game, but they have not been a real threat to win a title since 2017 when they were knocked out in Super Regionals while seeded No. 2 in the country.

Candrea had been grooming Lowe to be his successor for several years. When he stepped down, Arizona fulfilled his wish that his protege take over. She walked into a team that consisted largely of freshmen and sophomores, although several were redshirt sophomores. It was young, it was largely inexperienced, but it was her team finally.

Where things stand now

The softball program might have had the wildest ups and downs of any program on campus in 2022. Both the performances of individual players and the performance of the team as a whole went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows over the course of the season.

Arizona played top competition very early in the season, losing to No. 2 Alabama in just the second game out. It also faced eventual national champion Oklahoma. From the beginning, the team showed that it could compete with middle-of-the-road teams, it could dominate lower-level teams, but it could not threaten elite teams.

That led to the Wildcats finally dropping out of the last poll in early May and winding up tied with California for last in the Pac-12 shortly after. They were thrown a lifeline when the NCAA committee placed them in their 35th straight postseason—and they took full advantage of the opportunity.

Arizona’s pitching was vastly improved in the postseason, and they made a run all the way to the Women’s College World Series. They even won a game while there. It seemed like they were set for next season, albeit with some needs to be met via transfer.

While several players who didn’t get much playing time transferred immediately after the season, it looked like Arizona’s top 10 players would be back. They would need pitching help from the transfer portal, but it was a promising group.

Then, both catcher Sharlize Palacios and centerfielder Janelle Meoño entered their names in the portal at the end of June. There had been rumors that Meoño was unhappy and would transfer stretching back to her original freshman season in 2020, but they always appeared to be just that: rumors and gossip. This time, they weren’t.

That makes a total of seven players from all over the diamond who have transferred out after last season. The catching position is not a huge hole. Izzy Pacho, who finished the season as a first-team All-West Region selection after a phenomenal year at third base, is originally a catcher and prefers the position. The Wildcats will also welcome in highly-regarded freshman catcher Oliva DiNardo from the Bay Area.

In the outfield, the Wildcats return third-team All-West Region selections Jasmine Perezchica and Paige Dimler. Perezchica was very effective as the leadoff hitter when Meoño was injured. They also bring in Dakota Kennedy, a player who Extra Inning Softball considers to be the best centerfielder in the class.

The Wildcats return Allie Skaggs, their lone All-American selection this season, as well. Both Skaggs and Pacho stepped up like the leaders they have been all season to reassure their teammates and fans after the transfer announcements this week.

One big question

There’s one and only one question about Arizona right now: can the coaches get quality players out of the portal? The Wildcats are down to just 13 players on next year’s roster, including just two pitchers. As one top player after another has committed to other programs, Arizona has yet to address any of its needs via transfer. Having two players drop a portal bomb on them at the end of June didn’t help matters.

The Wildcats have struggled to bring in top pitching for years. The recruiting services have generally been unreliable, with all of them varying wildly in the estimation of various players. What has been clear once they arrived on campus, though, is that those pitchers who are able to come in and make an immediate impact as freshmen are either not choosing Arizona or not being recruited by Arizona.

The top transfers Arizona has welcomed in the circle over the past decade were Danielle O’Toole, Alyssa Denham, and Mariah Lopez. The only one of the three who came in and presented as a legitimate Pac-12 ace was O’Toole. Denham was a very solid No. 2 pitcher. Lopez didn’t live up to the expectations of being a dominant ace once she got that opportunity at Arizona.

The Wildcats have very good options at catcher, although they probably need a third catcher for depth. They have very good outfielders, and that is a position that isn’t as difficult to come by anyway. They will never return to the winners’ circle unless they have dominant pitching, though.