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Freshmen expected to play big role in No. 17 Arizona softball’s Pac-12 opener at No. 22 ASU

The Wildcats will lean on their upperclassmen, but the freshmen have already shown their value.

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Arizona softball catcher/designated player Olivia DiNardo (26) scores a run against Cal State Bakersfield on Mar. 1, 2023 at Hillenbrand Stadium
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics

RPI is an inexact measure even at the end of the season. At the beginning, it’s even more open to error. Still, it reveals something about the strength of teams’ schedules relative to each other. Arizona softball goes into Pac-12 competition having played seven games against teams in the top 35 of the first RPI of the year.

“We’re ready to compete,” said junior second baseman Allie Skaggs. “I think Pac-12, once it happens, everyone rises to the occasion. So, I think that this is going to be another big test.”

The downside for the Wildcats is that they have gone 2-5 in the seven games against the top 35. On the other hand, they have been competitive in six of the seven, getting outscored by a total of five runs in those seven games. Much of that negative balance comes from a 10-3 loss to Nebraska, the biggest loss of the season and the most runs Arizona has allowed this year.

The real advantage comes simply from having played those games, especially since all but one of the games against the top 35 have come away from Hillenbrand Stadium. Once the Wildcats get into conference play, most of their toughest competition will come on the road.

“I think our team’s been very fortunate this season so far to already have faced so many great teams,” Skaggs said. “We’ve seen Virginia Tech, Florida State. You see all of these teams that give you a run for your money, and the Pac-12 is no easier than any of those games.”

The start of those challenging Pac-12 games will come in the rivalry series at No. 22 Arizona State on Friday, Mar. 10. The Sun Devils have been through a lot of changes with former head coach Trisha Ford being lured away by Texas A&M over the offseason. Still, they have dominated Arizona over the past two years.

Last season, ASU swept Arizona at Hillenbrand. It wasn’t just a series sweep, though. It was complete domination with two run-rule victories and a no-hitter thrown by former Wildcat Marissa Schuld. The year before that, the Sun Devils took the series three games to one during the pandemic-altered season. Since the two teams didn’t play in 2020, the Wildcats have to go back to 2019 to find a year when their typical dominance over ASU was in place.

“Arizona-Arizona State, you’re going to get a great game,” Skaggs said. “So I think our team, we want to start taking the power back a little bit. My last couple years, we haven’t been able to really dominate them yet. And so, I think this is the year that we’re going to try and flip that around.”

According to Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe, the key to doing that will be the Wildcats’ response to the Sun Devils’ runs.

“That’s still a very well-hitting team,” Lowe said about ASU. “I mean, they’ve got great numbers. They’ve played very well at home, which is not swaying too far from how ASU was in the past. And they’re hungry at the plate. And it’s really about they’re going to hit but we’re gonna make adjustments. And I think that’s the biggest thing...when something does happen, how we react and how quickly we respond to that offense. And then being able to get and keep momentum, which is when we have our strengths this season, is just holding on to that.”

In addition to the preparation of playing tough teams on the road or on neutral fields, Arizona also has several players rounding into form. Skaggs is chief among them.

Skaggs hit 24 home runs last season to tie for the Pac-12 lead. Going into the team’s 16th game of this season, she had yet to hit one out of the park. More concerning, her strikeout rate had climbed.

The home run drought came to an end on Feb. 28 when the Wildcats finally returned home from a two-week road trip. She hit one out to left center against Cal State Bakersfield. It opened the floodgates for the Arizona hitter. She ended the week with four, including a two-homer game against Texas A&M-Commerce. She’s now third on the team, trailing first baseman Carlie Scupin (7) and pitcher Devyn Netz (6).

More importantly for Skaggs, her strikeouts dissipated. She had no strikeouts in the six games played over the week while walking five times and going 7 for 14 at the plate.

“I’m just finding my rhythm and being comfortable being my own self,” Skaggs said. “It’s very easy to get very quick in this game and you’ll see that when I’m anxious or stressed. I speed up very quickly in the box, on defense, everything. Everyone does. That’s just what happens.”

Heading into last week’s games, Lowe said that they were working on some tracking and other offensive drills. Skaggs said that she found it helpful in keeping her from chasing.

“I like to get excited when I hit, so I want to go get things,” Skaggs said. “Our team did a lot of off-center front toss, which is basically you’re throwing front toss from a different angle. So, you have to see the ball deeper and try to hit it to right field or left field as a lefty. Hitting balls to right field, I think that that’s something that our team does very well. You want to hit oppo. I am a big pull hitter, but there’s times where I need to train my eyes to see the ball really deep and try to hit something off of the right center, right center gap, right center wall. And then the machine too. We set up the machine quite a bit. We put it up to like 70 and just try to hit it to right field. I think it’s just training our eyes to get back to the center versus always seeing the ball out in front wanting to go get it. Letting it come to us.”

It’s not just the upperclassmen who are finding their way. Freshman catcher/designated player Olivia DiNardo had a monster week that earned her Pac-12 Player of the Week, Pac-12 Freshman of the Week, and NFCA National Player of the Week.

DiNardo is the second straight Wildcat to win Pac-12 Player of the Week after Netz took home the award the week before.

“Awards come when you do things the right way—on a daily basis, on a weekly basis—and you just go about your business,” Lowe said.

DiNardo is second on the team—trailing only leadoff hitter Jasmine Perezchica—with a .510 batting average and first among those who meet the minimum requirements of two plate appearances per game and 75 percent of games played. Perezchica missed several games with a concussion.

DiNardo’s 1.328 on-base plus slugging and .583 on-base percentage both lead the team while her .745 slugging percentage trails only Scupin and Netz. She has drawn eight walks but only struck out four times in 51 at-bats.

The Wildcats have also seen the rapid development of freshman pitchers Aissa Silva and Sydney Somerndike. Netz is undeniably the staff ace at 57.1 innings pitched with a 2.08 ERA. Junior Ali Blanchard and the two freshmen have gotten considerable innings at different points in the season, but Somerndike (22.2 IP) and Silva (19.0 IP) are the two with the most innings behind Netz.

Along with Netz, the two freshmen have a WHIP under 1.00 and an ERA below 2.50. The trio strikes out at least 0.74 batters per inning with Netz leading at 0.78 per inning. Somerndike walks just 0.13 batters per inning while Netz is at 0.19 and Silva issues 0.26. Blanchard has pitched fewer innings as her walks have increased. She is issuing 0.52 per inning in 17.1 IP.

“I’m excited for the young ones,” Skaggs said. “I want to see Liv. I want to see Dakota [Kennedy]. I want to see these people that go and show up [in] the big-time games against the Pac-12. And it’s rivalry weekend, so it’s always a big one.”

No. 17 Arizona Wildcats (15-6) @ No. 22 Arizona State Sun Devils (15-3)

When: Game 1 is on Friday, Mar. 10 at 7 p.m. MST. Game 2 on Saturday, Mar. 11 at 5 p.m. MST. Game 3 is on Sunday, Mar. 12 at 2 p.m. MST.

Where: Farrington Stadium in Tempe, Ariz.

TV: Games 1 and 2 will be aired on Pac-12 Arizona. Game 3 will air on Pac-12 Network and Pac-12 Arizona.

Streaming: Streaming is available via the Pac-12 Now app or online. Both options require a subscription via a TV provider. Streaming is also available with a subscription to a TV package that includes the Pac-12 Network via Sling, Fubo, or Vidgo.

Rankings: Arizona is ranked No. 17 in the NFCA/USA Today poll, No. 20 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll, No. 19 by Softball America, and No. 42 in the RPI.

ASU is No. 22 in the NFCA/USA Today poll, tied for No. 24 in the ESPN/USA Softball poll, and No. 53 in the RPI. The Sun Devils are not ranked by Softball America.

This site uses the NFCA/USA Today poll as the official poll.

How to follow along: Follow us on Twitter @AZDesertSwarm for all things Arizona Wildcats. For live tweets of softball and news throughout the week, follow our deputy editor @KimDoss71.