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What’s next for Arizona softball?

arizona-wildcats-softball-in-state-chandler-hamilton-kate-vance-2024-commit Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

Arizona softball ended the season at 29-25 and as one of the first four out of the NCAA tournament according to the selection committee chair Kelly Gatwood. It is the first time in 35 seasons spanning 36 years that the Wildcats aren’t in the NCAA postseason field. What’s next for Caitlin Lowe and her program?

Who’s gone?

At this point, none of Arizona’s players are known to be in the transfer portal. Players from some teams, including multiple players from both Oregon State and ASU, have started entering their names into the pot of potential transfers, but there are no reports of Wildcats leaving as of now. Arizona does have a few roster spots opening due to players either moving on with their lives or exhausting their eligibility, though, and the team had a very short roster this season. The team needs to add more players than it loses if it is to avoid some of the challenges that occurred this season.

The biggest loss is fifth-year catcher Izzy Pacho. Pacho was a team leader and Arizona’s primary catcher this season. She was one of just three players listed as a senior or redshirt senior on the Arizona roster and the only one of the three who wasn’t in her first season with the Wildcats. With her pandemic-related extra year now used, she is done with her college career.

Pacho has made it known multiple times over the course of the season that she would love to be on the staff in some capacity next season. Whether that is as a graduate manager, in the open recruiting coordinator position, or as the third paid coach that can be hired after June 30 is unknown. Pacho graduated with a degree in education last year, but she has been working on her graduate degree this season.

“I want to finish school, too,” Pacho said before senior day. “Obviously want to be a part of this program for as long as I can be, so if something comes up and I’m able to be a part of it, then I will.”

Transfer pitcher Breezy Hardy was also listed as a senior. She went through senior day activities, but she was not one of the two players who actually graduated this year. The only two who took part in graduation ceremonies at Arizona were outfielder Ali Ashner, who was listed as a junior but has indicated that she is moving on from softball, and pitcher Ali Blanchard, who was listed as a senior but has a pandemic-related extra year left to play. Blanchard could return to Arizona or play her final year as a graduate transfer somewhere else.

“I think after the season, this summer I’m just gonna take time to myself and see what life has to offer me,” Ashner said. “It’s gonna be weird just having a summer and doing nothing.”

Who is set to return as of now?

Arizona will have its most experienced team in the Lowe era next year if everyone returns. In 2022, Arizona had a graduate transfer and two fifth-year seniors on the roster. This was the second straight year it had only three seniors with at least one being a first-year Wildcat.

The advantage Lowe has going into the transfer season is that her most experienced players all have strong Southern Arizona ties. Senior-to-be Allie Skaggs is the daughter of two native Tucsonans who graduated from UA. The family returned to Tucson for Skaggs’ senior year in high school and her family is primarily in Southern Arizona. Fellow rising senior Devyn Netz finished her high school career in Tucson and her family relocated to be near Netz and her brother Dawson, who plays for Arizona baseball.

Their classmate Carlie Scupin played her prep career at Tucson High Magnet School just across the street from the University. She also played her travel ball for the Oro Valley Suncats.

Centerfielder Jasmine Perezchica is from California, but her father has been a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ coaching staff for years. Her ties to the state are stronger than some of her out-of-state teammates and she has been a starter for the past two years.

When her best friend Janelle Meoño transferred to UCLA after the 2021-22 school year, Perezchica said she was pulled into the fold by her teammates. Perezchica and her teammates said that there had been some disconnect between different cliques on the team prior to that. It was enough to keep her happy at Arizona at the time.

Third baseman Blaise Biringer hasn’t been at Arizona as long as her fellow 2022-23 junior class, but she transferred in from Ole Miss as a sophomore and has been in the Arizona line-up for the past two seasons. She grew up in Nogales, Ariz. and played high school softball at Cienega High School just southeast of Tucson in Vail, Ariz.

Even some of those who aren’t juniors are tied to Tucson. Promising freshman pitcher Aissa Silva was born in Sierra Vista, Ariz. and spent most of her younger years in Tucson. Her first three years of high school ball were played in the Sacramento, Calif. area, but she returned to Tucson to complete high school and enroll early at Arizona. Her family relocated back to Tucson to enable the then-17-year-old to fulfill her dream of being a Wildcat.

Freshman Tayler Biehl is also from the Sacramento area, but her family has ties to UA going back decades. Not only did her aunt Janae Leles play for Arizona softball, but her grandfather John Leles played tennis for the Wildcats. Her brother Ryan also attends the University. Biehl got playing time all over the field as a freshman, playing shortstop, right field, and first base.

Another local product, Logan Cole, got more playing time as the season wore on. Both her development as a hitter and Arizona’s needs as injuries and absences piled up made Cole an important part of the line-up during the latter part of Pac-12 play. The native of Marana, Ariz. on the northwest outskirts of Tucson played her prep ball at Salpointe Catholic in Tucson and her club ball in the Phoenix area.

There are important freshmen who don’t have the same Southern Arizona ties. It will be important for Lowe and her staff to keep budding stars like Dakota Kennedy and Olivia DiNardo in the fold. Both come from Northern California with Kennedy hailing from the Sacramento area and DiNardo originating from the Bay Area.

Kennedy was a star outfielder who made First Team All-Pac-12 while DiNardo was one of the top hitters and Arizona’s current heir apparent at catcher. DiNardo made Second Team All-Pac-12 as well as joining both Kennedy and Biehl on the All-Freshman team.

Freshman pitcher Sydney Somerndike also showed promise for the future. While she didn’t pitch quite as many innings as fellow freshman Silva, Somerndike had a better ERA, a better WHIP, more strikeouts, fewer walks, and a better win-loss record than her classmate. Somerndike’s ERA and WHIP were second-best on the team behind Netz, although she gave up more extra-base hits per 7 innings than Silva.

The freshman hurler is from Southern California, so she does not have the same ties to Southern Arizona that many of her teammates do. However, she and her family seemed pleased with her time in Tucson during the season. The improved culture and comradery on the team will be what Lowe and her staff has to sell to the players, but in the day and age of NIL deals and the transfer portal, there’s always a question whether that will be enough.

Freshman outfielder Kaiah Altmeyer was injured for a big chunk of the season, but she got some starting time in centerfield when she was healthy and fellow outfielder Perezchica suffered an injury. Altmeyer showed promise in the line-up with both power and speed. She ended with a .382 batting average and .918 on-base plus slugging. Had she had enough plate appearances to qualify, the average would have tied DiNardo for the team high and the OPS would have been sixth on the team.

The Wildcats were almost entirely made up of juniors and freshmen this season. In addition to the three seniors, they had one sophomore in Paige Dimler. Dimler showed promise as a freshman when she hit 10 home runs and regularly patrolled right field, but she began to lose time to freshmen Biehl and Cole this season. Dimler was one of the players most vocal about her commitment to Arizona when several transferred out last year, but how that loss of playing time weighs into her calculations this season will certainly be a topic of offseason speculation until she puts it to bed one way or the other.

Who’s arriving?

Arizona has another strong recruiting class coming in. The player most will be focused on is pitcher Ryan Maddox simply because of how the team performed in the circle this season. She will give the Wildcats a second left-hander to pair with Silva.

She will be joined by Brooke Mannon, who pitches and plays some outfield. Arizona also brings in utility player Regan Shockey, local outfielder Zaedi Tagalog, and catcher/utility Emily Schepp, who signed in February.

What’s needed?

There are already promising players in the portal, and that will only increase as teams are eliminated from the postseason. Last year, Arizona struck out on most of its targets and that will need to change in Lowe’s third portal season. The team needs depth at almost every position after completing a year with just 17 players on the roster.

Because of how the team performed this season, most people look at the circle as the biggest place of need. However, at this point, four pitchers are scheduled to return and two freshmen are set to arrive. That can change with the portal, but it’s how things stack up now.

Those pitchers need someone to throw to, so the battery as a whole should be a focus. In November, highly rated catcher Emma Kavanagh will sign, but she won’t be on the field until the 2025 season. Arizona had expected Sharlize Palacios to be in her 5th year next season, but she defected to UCLA and left the position short-handed for the 2024 season.

Currently, DiNardo and Schepp will be the only catchers on next season’s roster. Pacho’s two-week absence showed how difficult that can be to overcome, as Biehl was forced to train as an emergency catcher when they dropped to just DiNardo being available. Any injury could drop the team back to a single catcher.

What happens with the coaching staff?

A very vocal part of the fanbase blames the coaching staff for Arizona’s lack of success this season and the end of the postseason run. It’s highly unlikely that this results in changes at the top, though. A head coach who is in her second season, has dealt with youth and injuries in both years, and made a run to the Women’s College World Series last year is almost certainly going to get more than two seasons to prove she’s the right person. That’s especially true when that coach is one of the most decorated players to ever wear an Arizona uniform.

Arizona will have additions to the coaching staff, though. The third paid assistant can be hired beginning July 1. The Wildcats also went without a recruiting coordinator this year after the retirement of Stacey Iveson just before the season started. Part of Iveson’s role was filled by Lowe’s husband Paul Nagy, who took over as the director of operations. The other role was left to address after the season, though.

After Iveson retired, Lowe said she had people in mind for the open positions, including the third paid assistant. She didn’t share those at the time, but there are some possibilities.

Pacho has made it clear that she would like to join the staff. Whether that is in a paid position or as a grad manager is open to question, but it would not be a surprise to see her on staff next season.

Current grad manager Greg McQuillin is also looking to begin his life as a college coach. McQuillin has been with the program since his sister Taylor’s senior season. The former catcher spends a lot of time catching bullpens and working with the pitchers and catchers, but he has done a little bit of everything including coaching first base during games this season.

If Arizona stays within the Wildcat playing family, there are others out there who could be targets for the third assistant job. Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza has been on the Oregon staff as a volunteer assistant since her playing days at Arizona ended. Danielle O’Toole has been the volunteer assistant pitching coach at Cal State Fullerton since February 2021. Before that, O’Toole was the pitching coach at San Diego. Jessie Harper is at Clemson as the volunteer assistant this season after being a graduate assistant at Arizona the year before. Oregon, Fullerton, and Clemson all made the postseason this year as at-large teams.

Lowe doesn’t have to stay within the Arizona family, though. As she showed when she hired Lauren Lappin, it’s not a requirement. It may even be a good thing to bring in ideas from outside the Wildcat circle to fill the third assistant position.

The question becomes what to focus on when making those decisions. Arizona is still one of the top offensive teams in the country. The team’s 6.87 runs per game was third in Division I behind Oklahoma and Tennessee. The .329 team batting average was seventh in the country. It finished 22nd with 1.20 home runs per game even with Scupin out for six weeks with a broken arm. It was ninth in on-base percentage at .416. Its .520 slugging percentage was 16th in the country and second in the Pac-12. The idea of bringing in coach whose focus is hitting seems superfluous; offense did not keep Arizona out of the postseason.

Defense was stellar for the Wildcats, too. They had the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in Skaggs, and she was not alone in performing well behind Arizona’s pitchers. The team’s .985 fielding percentage was second in the country behind Oklahoma. The Sooners sit at .988. The Wildcats committed just 20 errors this season, which is six fewer than No. 3 Wichita State despite playing one more game than the Shockers. They don’t need another defensive-oriented coach.

What kept Arizona from winning more games comes down to the most important aspect of the game: pitching. Retired head coach Mike Candrea regularly talked about how everything begins in the circle, and that hasn’t changed in the two years since he retired.

While Netz did everything she could—in the circle, at first base, and in the batter’s box—having the best ERA on the team be 3.80 is not going to make it in the Pac-12 or against the better teams outside the conference. The staff ERA of 4.26 landed dead last in the conference.

The Wildcats gave up a lot of walks. The staff’s strikeout-to-walk ratio was fifth in the Pac-12 at 2.30, but it was well behind the top four. UCLA sits at 5.10, Stanford at 5.03, Washington at 3.18, and Oregon at 3.01.

The staff was also prone to giving up the long ball. Arizona pitchers gave up 67 home runs. That’s 26 more than Utah, which was next-to-last in the league when it comes to preventing home runs. The environment can’t be blamed entirely, either, as ASU pitchers gave up just 27 home runs despite playing in a similar desert climate. That was the third-best mark in the Pac-12, although the Sun Devils played the second-fewest games of any team in the conference.

UPDATED to add information about Emily Schepp, who was a late addition to the 2023 class.