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Young pitchers show their strengths as Arizona softball winds up fall schedule

Arizona softball outfielder Dakota Kennedy is welcomed at home plate by her teammates after hitting a home run on Nov. 3, 2023
Arizona softball outfielder Dakota Kennedy is welcomed at home plate by her teammates after hitting a home run on Nov. 3, 2023
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

When Brooke Mannon and Ryan Maddox committed to Arizona softball, they had very different descriptions of their strengths and styles. Mannon spoke about her velocity. Maddox called herself a “finesse pitcher.” This fall, they showed how those contrasting styles can both be effective.

Mannon pitched 9.2 innings over the course of the fall schedule including 2.0 during Friday’s doubleheader against Arizona Western and Chandler-Gilbert. Five of the six batters Mannon faced on Friday struck out. That raised her fall strikeouts to 15, putting her at 10.85 Ks per seven innings.

“She’s learning how to pitch right now, and I think that’s the biggest thing,” said Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe. “Like learning the ins and outs of the game and why we call certain pitches in certain instances, why she matches up with people as far as our pitching staff goes better than other people.”

One of those people Lowe thinks Mannon matches up well with is Maddox, who has a very different style.

“She reminds me a lot of Hanah Bowen in the sense that she does a great job of reading hitters and their barrel paths,” Lowe said. “So, to me, it’s like more of a cat and mouse game with her. She has great bite on her down stuff and when you compare that with a higher velo rise ball, it’s good stuff.”

Mannon ended her fall with a WHIP of 0.21. Maddox finished up with a 0.55. The challenge when spring comes is adapting to the jump in competition to keep those numbers below 1.00.

As it has most years, Arizona’s fall schedule consisted entirely of junior college teams. That not only means teams at a lower level of competition but also teams that consist entirely of freshmen and sophomores. When asked if she would consider increasing the competition level that the Wildcats face in fall ball by playing NAIA or even Division I teams, Lowe said that she tried. Arizona State was able to arrange a game against Grand Canyon, but she could not get the Lopes to make the same deal with the Wildcats.

“Maybe he’ll see this article,” Lowe joked. “No, I absolutely [would like to improve the competition]. One thing that Florida State did this year that I really liked was they intrasquaded before their fall games, too. So I think there’s a bunch of different ways we could get creative about it. The biggest thing is how much of the travel budget we would have in the fall to go somewhere or getting people to come here. So, that’s really logistically what it comes down to. But I think our intrasquads right now are super competitive, and we get to come put the uniform on and test it out against some good junior college teams.”

Regardless of the competition level, the games allowed her to get a look at what her freshmen could do. One surprise was freshman Regan Shockey rather than senior Jasmine Perezchica playing almost the entire fall in center field as well as batting leadoff.

“The great thing about [Perezchica] right now is she can play anywhere in the outfield,” Lowe said. “So it’s kind of where our best fit is amongst the three. And sometimes, honestly, it’s going to be where we see the ball getting hit and who’s going to make the best play on it. So it’s been nice to have the flexibility with everybody kind of being able to play every position out there.”

Shockey was impressive. She went 17 for 21 with two walks in six games. The speedy outfielder had one stolen base in the doubleheader to increase her fall total to seven. She was caught stealing just once.

“You never know when freshman year comes around, but she’s just steady,” Lowe said. “And she shows up that way in practice every day so...I had high expectations for her to come in and perform but also just be a steady force for us in the lineup. I wasn’t sure where yet, and she’s handled the top of the lineup really well. She has great composure. The game doesn’t get too fast, and she does a great job of commanding the field defensively. So, I’ve been very impressed.”

As for the speed, it’s something that new assistant coach Josh Bloomer has at the top of his agenda for the Wildcats. Bloomer said that he wants to break the program’s record for steals in a season. Shockey may be doing most of the running right now, but catcher Olivia DiNardo doesn’t want anyone to forget about her.

“Liv swears she’s going to break my school record,” Lowe said with a laugh. “I think we’re definitely going to run but I think more than that, the bat control right now and just being able to move the ball in different ways while we’re running is another bonus. So, I hope they buy into it. I think they’ve kind of got more and more into the style of play.”

While the freshmen were showing off their skills, some of the returners had to sit back. Neither Devyn Netz nor Sydney Somerndike pitched during the fall due to injury. Netz has a slight back injury that Lowe expects to be healed by the time the regular season rolls around in February. Somerndike’s injury is a bit more serious.

“Syd had surgery over the summer,” Lowe said. “She is coming back from that. She’s in rehab. She has an appointment on Monday where we’ll know more. Planning to play and just build towards February. I believe [the surgery] was in July, so she’s getting herself ready.”

While it probably would have been preferable to have Somerndike healthy for the fall, Lowe saw positives in Netz getting some extra rest. With seven pitchers on the roster, there might not have been time to get the new arms on the field if last year’s leader in innings pitched was available.

“She’s doing stuff in the bullpen right now and not worried about it,” Lowe said. “She’ll be ready. It was actually kind of nice to get everybody else in.”

One of Lowe’s themes was the advantages of being able to put players in multiple positions or mix and match pitchers.

“I think we’re versatile,” Lowe said. “I think that we have a lot of people that can do a lot of different things at many different positions. I thought the infield really held it down all fall...that’s where our experience lies right now. But we got stronger in the outfield, which is nice and a little bit more versatile with our speed throughout the lineup. So, people that can run and just make things happen. And I think we just have a bunch of competitors on our team right now, so it’s nice to see the fire and swagger in the circle that kind of matches that. So, it’s been good, and now it’s our job in November to kind of put our heads down and get to work because we know what’s coming.”