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Flexibility is key for Arizona softball’s young players

arizona-wildcats-softball-flexibility-position-biehl-netz-cole-altmeyer-scupin Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

The flexibility of junior pitcher Devyn Netz is well-documented. Arizona’s top pitcher is also the starting first baseman when she doesn’t pitch and one of Arizona’s best hitters. That has been a key to Arizona softball’s success and improved competitiveness this season.

“Everyone’s a great asset on this team,” Netz said. “We have a lot of utilities...I’m just out here...filling in any way that I can to help my team to stay in the game, and playing first base is fun. I love being an athlete.”

As Netz implied, she is not the only one whose flexibility is proving to be so vital to the Wildcats this season. The team is leaning heavily on freshmen Tayler Biehl and Logan Cole to fill in the holes on the field since the injuries to starting first baseman Carlie Scupin and utility Kaiah Altmeyer.

Scupin has a broken arm that will keep her out for at least three more weeks. Altmeyer has been dealing with back issues for the past three weeks that have at times kept her from “doing really anything,” in the words of head coach Caitlin Lowe. While Altmeyer is working with associate athletic trainer Tracy Oshiro to get back into the game, she has not played since Mar. 10 at Arizona State.

Scupin’s absence has required Lowe to rethink her entire lineup on both offense and defense. Scupin was hitting .347 and had nine home runs when she was hit by a pitch against New Mexico State on Mar. 15. She had moved back up into the three hole after spending time lower in the order.

All that changed with one pitch in the second game of a midweek doubleheader. That fractured her left arm. As a true leftie, she will have to get enough strength back to both hit and throw the ball once she recovers from the surgical process that implanted a metal plate in her arm to aid healing.

On offense, that initially meant having Allie Skaggs move back into the three spot. She was getting little to hit, though.

Since Scupin went out, Skaggs has gone 5 for 11, walked 11 times, and been hit by one pitch in six games. Those automatic numbers caused Lowe to move her to leadoff in the final game at Washington last weekend, putting Netz with her nine home runs and freshman designated player Olivia DiNardo with her .448 average behind Skaggs. That dropped usual leadoff Jasmine Perezchica to the nine hole in a secondary leadoff role that comes into play later in games.

DiNardo isn’t the only freshman who finds her role shifting. Biehl and Cole both came to Arizona as shortstops. Biehl played shortstop during fall ball and at times early in the year. With Sophia Carroll holding down that spot, Biehl was getting fewer opportunities to get on the field. Her ability to adapt has created new opportunities since Scupin’s injury.

“She’s fantastic,” Lowe said about Biehl. “She had never played first base before. When Scup got hurt and couldn’t go back in, I looked at her, ‘First base?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah, cool.’ I just think that’s so great for someone to respond like that. There was not a moment of her feeling uncomfortable. It’s just what the team needs. She’s an athlete...Just a great mentality along with the athleticism is what helps her out a lot, and it helps us out a lot, too.”

Biehl has taken over for sophomore outfielder Paige Dimler as the starting right fielder most of the time. It’s a tradeoff that Biehl wins because of that defensive versatility. Dimler has slightly better offensive numbers than her fellow underclassman, but Biehl has both the ability to move around the field and the mentality to want to do it.

With Netz at first base to start the game, Biehl can come in and cover the position if Netz is called upon to go into the circle in relief. That allows Lowe to preserve her precious reserves on the bench. In those situations, Cole comes in to play right field so Dimler can be retained for later in case she’s needed as a pinch hitter or runner.

“It’s an adjustment but it’s I feel like just being an athlete, anybody can do anything if we practice,” Biehl said. “So, I was never a true outfielder. I was never a true first baseman. In travel, I always played the middle infield and I never really was moved around, but in the fall I feel like I got a lot of experience playing the corner, playing third base, and then transitioning that to first base wasn’t too big of a deal.”

There were some challenges, though.

“The thing that took me a little bit it’s like being able to find the base,” Biehl said with a smile. “Which is the most important part of first base.”

The absence of Altmeyer affects both first base and situational offense. Altmeyer played primarily in the outfield when healthy, but she was also one of the primary pinch runners and one of the backups at first base earlier in the season. With the freshman utility player sidelined, Lowe is forced to be even more creative. In pinch-running situations, she often turns to pitchers Ali Blanchard and Aissa Silva. That provides her some options, especially when one of them is already in the game to pitch.

“Trust me, I don’t want to run my bullpen,” Lowe said with a laugh. “I will say that Aissa and AB are very quick. So, if we can have them in the 10 spot and bring them up to run, that’s really valuable for us because we don’t have to use someone off the bench when they’re pitching.”

The Wildcats’ versatility will be on display again as they host the Bear Down Fiesta Friday, Mar. 31 and Saturday, Apr. 1. Arizona will play two doubleheaders.

On Friday, the Wildcats first face Georgetown at 4 p.m. MST. At 6 p.m. MST, they are scheduled to play San Diego. On Saturday, Arizona plays the Toreros at 1 p.m. MST and the Hoyas at 3 p.m. MST. All of the games will be streamed on Arizona Live Stream-2.

The Toreros have the reigning WCC Player of the Week JoJo Roberts and Pitcher of the Week Emma Giaime. Roberts hits .292 and has a team-high 21 RBIs. She is tied for the team lead with three home runs.

Giaime is a freshman hurler. While she has a 4.94 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP overall in her first collegiate season, she has gone 4-0 with a 0.81 ERA in 26 innings over her last six appearances. She has eight appearances in her career.

The Hoyas are led in the circle by fifth-year pitcher Brooke Plonka, who has a 4.18 ERA in 79.2 innings. Outfielder Cameron Kondo leads the team offensively with a .284 average and eight home runs. Four of the 10 players who meet NCAA criteria for at-bats and appearances hit below .200.

The Wildcats want to work on things that will help them when they return to Pac-12 play next week and beyond.

“This week specifically, we’re working on a lot of situational stuff,” Skaggs said. “It’s that one hit, right? I mean, it’s the team that gets that clutch hit.”