The Arizona Wildcats host their penultimate regular season series beginning Friday night. What are the storylines as the Oregon State Beavers come to Tucson?
Arizona went into the year as a young team, but the Wildcats expected to have consistent veteran leadership at key positions. Injuries and other issues have greatly reduced the number of innings that upperclassmen have spent on the field. Among the nine juniors, seniors, and fifth-year players on the team, only juniors Allie Skaggs and Blaise Biringer have appeared in (and started) all 46 of the team’s games. While that may have hurt the Wildcats in some ways, it has also given their incredibly talented freshmen time on the field.
Olivia DiNardo has led the way for the group. Earlier in the week, the freshman catcher and designated player was honored as the top female freshman athlete at Arizona during the Wildcats’ sports award celebration, the CATSYS. In her sport, she’s considered one of the best in the country.
DiNardo’s name was one of 25 on the NFCA Freshman of the Year list. It was announced on Friday morning, a fitting birthday present for one of Arizona’s steadiest players.
Top 25 Freshman List and it’s @OliviaDiNardo3’s birthday— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) April 28, 2023
What a way to celebrate! #BearDown pic.twitter.com/lrgaftjtQy
DiNardo is third in the Pac-12 overall and first among freshmen with a .408 batting average. That places her 46th in the country and sixth among all Division I freshmen.
Only six players in the Pac-12 are hitting .400 or better at this point in the season. DiNardo and Stanford freshman River Mahler are the only two who aren’t upperclassmen. DiNardo, Mahler, and UCLA’s Jordan Woolery are also the only three freshmen in the top 10 of the conference in hits. Mahler and Woolery are tied for fifth with 55 each and DiNardo (53) is tied for seventh.
DiNardo is joined in the upper echelon of Pac-12 freshmen by Dakota Kennedy and Tayler Biehl, the other two freshmen who have appeared in most of Arizona’s games this season. Kennedy has appeared in 45 of the team’s 46 games, starting in 41. Biehl has appeared in 41 games and has 34 starts.
Kennedy leads the freshmen with seven home runs, one more than DiNardo. Kennedy and Biehl are tied for the team lead with two triples each.
With the personal issues that caused former Wildcat Sophia Carroll to be in and out of the lineup before she finally called it a season, freshman shortstop Logan Cole began to see more time, as well. The local product out of Salpointe only has one hit this season, but she is impressing on defense in both her natural position of shortstop and in spot appearances in right field. Lowe said that some of the foul balls she has seen Cole run down are balls that Arizona hasn’t been able to get to in years.
The players are not thinking too much about what might happen. They are just trying to stay ready and use the skills they have gained since they were small to adapt to new situations.
“I personally didn’t expect to be playing first base and Logan didn’t expect to be playing right field...and Kaiah [Altmeyer], she didn’t expect to be hurt,” Biehl said. “So I feel like a lot of us...were thrown into situations and we’re just giving our best shot. We were made for these moments. This is what we’ve been preparing for all of the summer, all of these past years, was to kind of come into college and come ready and kind of do whatever they ask of us. Because as a freshman, they already have a starting lineup, and whenever you’re called, you kind of just do whatever you know how to do and you get the job done somehow.”
Women’s College World Series participants on the edge
Both Oregon State and Arizona were unexpected participants in Oklahoma City last year. For the Wildcats, it was their third straight WCWS appearance but probably the most unlikely one of the 25 NCAA world series appearances it has made. For the Beavers, it was just their second NCAA world series appearance in program history and the first since 2006.*
Last year, both teams were somewhat fortunate in how their postseasons unfolded. Both had to spend the entire postseason on the road. Both were sent to SEC stadiums for regionals, and both made it to OKC without a seed listed next to their name. Arizona easily handled two SEC hosts while the Beavs dismissed one SEC team and a fellow unseeded Pac-12 team.
Perhaps fittingly, the two teams met again in the losers’ bracket. Arizona defeated the Beavers to get its only win in Oklahoma City.
Arizona still has a shot at getting to its 36th NCAA postseason. It would need to committee to remember who it is and why that matters. With its RPI already at No. 44, a loss (or more) to No. 70 Oregon State could be the death blow.
*Both programs also took part in the WCWS during the 1970s when it was under the auspices of the AIAW, but those tournaments are not counted among the NCAA tournament appearances.
Arizona’s pitching struggles are well-known, but the Beavers are suffering similar issues this year after having a phenomenal year in the circle last year. OSU was second in the conference with a staff ERA of 1.88 last season. The Beavs were first in innings pitched, second in opposing bat average, strikeouts, and strikeouts looking.
This season, OSU has dropped to last in most pitching statistics. It allows 4.18 earned runs, exceeding even Arizona’s 4.01. The Beavs are also last in batting average (.275), innings pitched (241.1), and wins (11).
Can the Wildcats put it together and end their 13-game Pac-12 losing streak?