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Arizona hopes to use tough conference season as motivation in inaugural Pac-12 softball tournament

NCAA Softball: Women’s College World Series Oregon St vs Arizona Brett Rojo-USA TODAY Sports

After 35 years of going to the NCAA postseason, Arizona softball likely has to have a good showing in the inaugural Pac-12 softball tournament if not win outright to extend that streak to 36. How are Wildcat head coach Caitlin Lowe and her team facing that prospect?

“We’ve been built into this team that we are currently,” Lowe said. “We’ve been tested like crazy. We’ve seen it all, and what are we going to do with it? How are we going to respond?”

The Wildcats (28-24, 6-18) have some things going for them. They are playing the tournament at home in a stadium that was still packed with fans for a team hovering around .500 at the end of the regular season despite facing Oregon State and California. Both of those teams are in the bottom half of the standings along with Arizona.

Hillenbrand Stadium will be expanding to standing room only capacity as it usually does for regional and super regional action, establishing a postseason feel right out of the gate. And if there’s anything else to motivate both team and fan base, Arizona will face in-state rival Arizona State (22-25, 6-18) in game one on Wednesday. If the Wildcats win, they will play historic rival UCLA in game four on Thursday.

“I think it’s exciting,” said freshman catcher Olivia DiNardo. “Who else would we rather be playing in the tournament right now than a rivalry team, especially being here in Tucson with our fans, our home base, everybody knows each other?”

The Wildcats won two of three games against the Sun Devils in the first series of Pac-12 play back in February. They outscored ASU 23-4 at Farrington Stadium, aided by numerous Sun Devil errors on defense. Both UA wins were shutouts, the only shutouts Arizona pitchers threw during conference play.

No. 2 UCLA manhandled UA at Hillenbrand last month. The Bruins outscored the Wildcats 30-9 and won by run rule in the final game.

Unlike the Pac-12 baseball tournament, the conference’s softball teams are not guaranteed more than one game. One loss means it’s over, and that will likely mean that the season is over for Arizona for the first time since early in the tenure of former head coach Mike Candrea.

“I don’t know that there’s advantages or disadvantages [to single elimination],” Lowe said. “I think it’s a cool feeling to see how people perform with that kind of pressure on, and it’s exciting. It’s a win or go home type of tournament and the girls are used to playing in this all growing up throughout travel ball, but this is a whole other level. And I think the coolest part is everybody has no record coming into this tournament, and it’s about playing your best softball that day, and who’s going to execute in the moments. And that’s the exciting part about postseason.”

Beginning with the semifinals, the tournament will give Pac-12 teams the opportunity to be seen by the softball world outside the West Coast with games aired on ESPN networks. In the past, the conference felt that it was hurt by still being in the regular season while other leagues already had a postseason atmosphere going on.

“The committee sits and watches a bunch of tournaments happening, and it’s an exciting atmosphere,” Lowe said. “And usually, we’re in a three-game series and it kind of depends on who you’re playing...So, I think it’s important for the energy. And when talking with other coaches and other conferences, it feels like the postseason feel.”

On the field, Arizona will have a lot of youth in the lineup. Local Salpointe Catholic product Logan Cole has become the primary starting shortstop since junior Sophia Carroll left the team. Cole has had a few bobbles in the field as she’s been thrown into the fire and speed of Pac-12 softball, but she has come on offensively as her opportunities increased and she settled into her role.

Cole started getting regular at-bats in game two of the Oregon series three weeks ago. Since then, she is 7 for 16 at the plate and has 4 RBIs.

“I kind of realized throughout the year that whatever position or whatever spot they’re asking me to do, just try and be where my feet are, trying to take that position and be the best at it,” Cole said. “If that means I have to be the biggest cheerleader to help her team win, that’s what I’ll do. If I have to go in the seventh inning to pinch runner, that’s what I’ll do. And I think I kind of took advantage of that. And just whenever I got the opportunity, to try make the most out of it try and earn that spot wherever it is—right field, shortstop, anywhere.”

Fellow freshmen DiNardo, Dakota Kennedy and Tayler Biehl have started almost every game this season. Biehl has proven to be a Swiss Army knife in the field, coming into the program as a middle infielder but playing shortstop, right field, and first base regularly. Biehl even trained as the backup catcher when fifth-year senior Izzy Pacho was away from the team for two weeks.

Kennedy is a mainstay in left field and at the plate. With junior Jasmine Perezchica out with a leg injury, Extra Inning Softball’s top-ranked centerfielder in last year’s recruiting class took over the leadoff role the final weekend of the regular season. Her three-run home run and four RBIs helped break the final game open in Arizona’s win over California.

Kennedy hit .357 with 10 home runs in the regular season. She has also been a danger to throw down the bunt to get herself on base, never letting the defense get comfortable with how to play her.

DiNardo ended the regular season with a .388 batting average. That placed her ninth overall in the Pac-12 and third among conference freshmen. It was 85th overall in Division I and 12th among DI freshmen.

They are led by a core of upperclassmen who are strong if small in number. The return of junior Carlie Scupin from a broken forearm that kept her out for six weeks has been huge for the team the last two weeks.

“Take her bat and glove away, and just her presence has been—just I can’t say enough about it,” Lowe said. “I mean, the whole team lifts up when she’s on the field, when she’s in the lineup. She was a rock star for the entire time she was out, but it felt like a whole jolt of energy when she came back and it helps that she can produce offensively and produces on the field too. But more than anything, you can just see she’s a leader when she’s out there and she makes everybody better.”

Last week, Scupin got her first two extra-base hits since returning. She hit a double in game two and a home run in game three against Cal. She has four hits and six walks in 22 plate appearances since her return.

Juniors Allie Skaggs, Blaise Biringer, and Devyn Netz have been the mainstays among the upperclassmen for the Wildcats, though. The trio has been both healthy and steady on the field, giving the Wildcats some semblance of continuity in a season that was lacking in it.

Netz has played almost every game since Scupin was injured on Mar. 15. She often played both first base and pitched in the same game and is a regular designated player when she does not pitch. She tied Skaggs for the team lead with 13 home runs. Her 3.80 ERA in the circle is by far the best on the team. Her 160.1 innings pitched are more than three times as many as freshman Aissa Silva, who emerged as Arizona’s No. 2 pitcher during the regular season.

Biringer has been steady in the batter’s box and in her first season at third base. She hit .358 in the regular season, placing her fourth on the team overall and third among players who have played in at least 75 percent of games with at least two plate appearances per game.

Skaggs tied for the conference lead with 24 home runs last season. This year she hit just 13 home runs in the regular season but led the conference outright in RBIs with 59. She also led the league in walks with 36. Her 1.136 on-base plus slugging is second on the team behind Scupin and first among those who have enough appearances to qualify for rankings.

Most importantly for Skaggs was that she had a perfect fielding percentage during the regular season. She did not make an error in 162 chances. Lowe is often lauded for not making errors in her Arizona career, but she said it was nothing like what’s asked of Skaggs.

“I will tell you one thing, it’s way harder as a second baseman to do that than it is as a centerfielder,” Lowe said. “And, especially, I think Alicia Hollowell struck out a whole lot of people, so I didn’t have to touch the ball a lot. As a second baseman, as a middle infielder, as an infielder, in general, that is a rockstar statistic right there.”

It was a goal for Skaggs after last season when she had some miscues in the field.

“I struggled mentally on defense a lot last year,” Skaggs said. “I was very anxious and nervous out there sometimes...I wasn’t comfortable at all....The one thing I vividly remember telling my dad, after we got eliminated, I told him I want to make the Pac-12 defensive team next year. Who knows if that’s gonna happen. I’m hoping so, but that was my goal.”

The goal for the team is to take all of the available parts, put them with the lessons learned, and use them for a run like they had last season. This year, it must start sooner if they hope to make a 36th straight postseason appearance and a fourth straight Women’s College World Series.

“I know that postseason is Arizona softball,” Skaggs said. “That’s what you do. But I don’t want to disregard the entire year that we’ve had. Yes, I understand that our record may not be where we want it to be, but we’ve competed every single game. I think that the best thing I’ve taken from this year is we may be down, but the fans are still doing the “U of A” chant for us, and that’s something that I didn’t feel last year, honestly. We would get down and I felt like people would get up and leave, and now, no matter what happens going on, this team has given Tucson a reason to be proud of us. And I think that that’s something that we’re going to continue to carry on with this culture. Postseason, obviously we would love to make it. I mean, that’s what we prepare the whole season for, and so we want to continue it. But I think we have to also recognize the process that it took to get to where we are right now. And we start 0-0 right now, so our goal is to get back to OKC.”