Arizona softball was a young team last season with five freshmen taking on big roles and no seniors who had been in Wildcat uniforms for more than one season. While other teams had a number of “super seniors” playing their extra years, Arizona’s only fifth-year player was Izzy Pacho. All of the traditional seniors were transfers who arrived in Tucson for the 2022-23 school year.
The program was also almost completely devoid of sophomores with only outfielder Paige Dimler on the roster. That sets it up to be in a bind for senior leadership again in two years when that class will reach its fourth year in college.
What caused the imbalance? A rash of transfers at the end of the Mike Candrea years and the beginning of Caitlin Lowe’s tenure. Most were related to playing time, the large group of seven super seniors that returned for the 2021 season, or a desire to play closer to home.
After the 2020 season was abruptly halted due to the pandemic, Candrea was one of the coaches who lobbied the NCAA to allow the spring athletes to return the following season. Arizona had a group of seven that was supposed to leave. With such a large contingent expected to graduate, Candrea and his staff had commitments from eight incoming freshmen. Something had to give, and that meant some players either saw the writing on the wall themselves or were told they might not play much going forward.
Between the end of the shortened 2020 season and the beginning of the 2021 season, seven players transferred out or quit playing softball. They included juniors Ivy Davis (UT), Jenna Keane (OF), and Carli Campbell (OF), and sophomores Vanessa Foreman (LHP), and Marissa Schuld (RHP/OF). Sophomore Riley Kuderca (OF) and freshman Alayna Hicks (IF) also left the team, but both remained at the UA as students.
The next year saw the handoff of the program from Candrea to Lowe. Between the end of the 2021 season and the beginning of the 2022 season, the Wildcats lost just one player to transfer. After going through fall ball at Arizona in late 2021, sophomore Isabella Dayton transferred home to Texas. Aris Carroll (3B) also decided to stop playing softball in favor of just being a student.
Seven more left the next year. Freshmen Allie Enright (OF), Madi Elish (RHP), and Amber Toven (IF) were all gone. True sophomores Jessie Fontes (RHP) and Giulia Koutsoyanopulos (UT) left. The biggest surprises were redshirt sophomores Sharlize Palacios (C) and Janelle Meono (OF) going into the portal on the final day when they could enter and still be eligible to play the following season.
The Wildcats have so far been spared the pain this year. When the latest portal window for undergraduates closed on June 30, only Ali Ashner (OF) had put her name in. Ashner graduated from Arizona and was considering not playing at all next year but had a change of heart. Sophia Carroll (SS) followed her sister’s path and left the softball team before the season was over. There is another portal window for undergraduates from Dec. 1-15, but the remaining players seem resolute in their desire to stay together as of now.
With Ashner on her way to another school, it might be edifying to see how others who left during the transition from Candrea to Lowe have fared. Would the players who transferred out have helped Arizona this past season? While Davis, Campbell, and Kean completed their college eligibility in 2022, the rest could have played for the Wildcats last year. A look at how they have done at their new schools might provide a clue.
- Vanessa Foreman went with Kean to Louisiana. In her first season with the Ragin’ Cajuns, she pitched just 17.2 innings in 16 games, coming out of the bullpen in each outing. She pitched even less in 2022, taking the circle in just 13.1 innings. While Foreman was listed as a junior on the 2022 roster, she did not play for Louisiana in 2023. Her numbers in Lafayette were slight upticks from her time at Arizona, but that’s only because she pitched 9.1 innings as a freshman before not appearing at all as a sophomore.
- Marissa Schuld was open about the fact that she grew up as an Arizona State fan. She also often appeared unhappy during her time with Arizona. It made sense that she would return to the Phoenix area and join the Sun Devils when she left Tucson. She had to sit out 2021 due to in-conference transfer rules that existed at the time. Arizona could have released her but opted not to. (ASU did the same to a player who transferred to Oregon.) She didn’t have an especially large role in either 2022 or 2023, but she did have one big appearance. In her return to Hillenbrand in 2022, she no-hit the Wildcats. She has kept an acceptable ERA throughout her college career, but she pitched just 17.2 innings in two years at Arizona and is not one of ASU’s primary starters. She pitched 87 innings in 2022 and 51.2 in 2023 with a total of 15 starts in two seasons. Despite her relative lack of starting opportunities in Tempe, there’s no question that she would have helped Arizona the past two seasons as the Wildcats struggled in the circle. Her 2.09 ERA in 2022 was better than anyone on the Wildcats’ staff and her 3.93 ERA in 2023 was better than everyone but Devyn Netz. She will play her fifth season in 2024.
- Isabella Dayton appeared to be returning to Arizona after her redshirt freshman season. She stayed enrolled during the 2021 fall semester but entered her name in the portal just before Thanksgiving and left as soon as the semester ended. She landed at Texas, nearer her home in Wylie. She was part of the unseeded team that made a run to the championship series in Oklahoma City in 2022. Her Longhorns followed that up with a trip to the Knoxville Super Regional in 2023, where they lost in two games to Tennessee. At Arizona, she started 37 games in 64 appearances in the shortened 2020 season and 2021 seasons. She had a .221 AVG/.317 OBP/.333 SLG slash in two seasons. She made considerable improvements in Austin. In her two years there, she has hit .302 with a .440 slugging percentage and a .385 on-base percentage.
- Allie Enright left for Texas A&M after her freshman season. She played for former Arizona State coach Trisha Ford on an Aggies team that went 35-21 and was knocked out of the postseason by Texas in regionals. Enright didn’t get much playing time at Arizona. She had just 26 appearances, almost all as a pinch runner and none as a starter or on defense. That changed in College Station. She started 43 times for the Aggies, including their final 27 games. She hit just .210 with a .390 slugging percentage and a .282 on-base percentage in 52 games played. Her fielding percentage was .945.
- Amber Toven said she was a glove-first shortstop, but she actually hit fairly well for Arizona in limited appearances as a freshman. She had a .286 AVG/.389 OBP/.857 SLG/1.246 OPS slash in 47 appearances with seven starts. With Sophia Carroll winning the starting shortstop role and two shortstops coming in for 2023, Toven left for Baylor after the 2022 season. She started 56 of the Bears’ 58 games in a 40-18 season. She hit .291 with 14 doubles and four home runs. Considering that Carroll rarely hit for the Wildcats in 2023 and left the team before the season was over, Toven was definitely a player they could have used.
- Madi Elish had plenty of opportunities in the circle as a freshman at Arizona. However, she decided wanted to be closer to her home in Indiana, so she went to Purdue after the 2022 season. She had a fairly productive 2023 for the Boilermakers, albeit in a conference that doesn’t have the number of stacked lineups the Pac-12 does. She ended with a 3.31 ERA in 91 innings. She put together an 8-4 record on a team that went 23-30. The ERA was better than anyone on Arizona’s staff by a wide margin but it’s difficult to know if it would have translated to the Tucson climate and the Wildcats’ schedule.
- Jessie Fontes didn’t pitch much for Arizona in her two seasons as a Wildcat despite the praise she got from Candrea on signing day. That hasn’t changed much since she transferred to UNLV. She pitched just 29.2 innings for Arizona over the 2021 and 2022 seasons, ending with a career ERA of 2.83 in Tucson. In Vegas, she pitched 49.2 innings and had a 7.05 ERA her junior year. The Rebels went 23-27.
- Giulia Koutsoyanopulos appeared all over the field for Arizona, but her primary role was as a defensive replacement for Carlie Scupin at first base. Whether Scupin really needed a defensive replacement was open to question, especially since it isn’t the best way to encourage one of your top players and Scupin has a career fielding percentage of .990 compared to a marginally better .993 from her former defensive replacement. Koutsoyanopulos left for Tennessee after the 2022 season. It worked out well for her, but it turned out that Arizona really could have used her when Scupin’s arm was broken in 2023. The utility player ended up being the Vols’ catcher, which was another position Arizona could have used help at when Izzy Pacho left the team for two weeks in the middle of the season. At Arizona, Koutsoyanopulos was good for a .280 AVG/.329 OBP/.360 SLG/.689 OPS slash. At Tennessee, she contributed just a .230 average at the plate as a junior, but she had some clutch hits on a team that ended its season in Oklahoma City.
- Sharlize Palacios leaving was a big and unexpected blow to Arizona at the time she entered the portal. She started all 129 games she played in as a Wildcat either at catcher or designated player, hitting .335 with 39 home runs in three seasons. While she had a good series when she returned to Tucson with UCLA, her season ended the following week on April 22 against ASU. She hit .311 with 10 home runs (two against the Wildcats) for the Bruins as a junior. She has one more year to play.
- Janelle Meono was much easier to replace than Palacios, whom she accompanied to UCLA. After starting 102 games in three seasons at Arizona, she made 57 appearances with 42 starts for the Bruins. At Arizona, her career line was .354 AVG/.408 OBP/.400 SLG/.808 OPS. In her first season at UCLA, she ended with a .330 batting average and just one extra-base hit. In contrast, Arizona’s starting centerfielders were Jasmine Perezchica (.361 AVG/.443 OBP/.385 SLG/.828 OPS) and Kaiah Altmeyer (.382 AVG/.447 OBP/.471 SLG/.918 OPS), both of whom were more productive. The other position Meono played in Westwood was left field. Arizona’s left fielder Dakota Kennedy ended the season with a slash of .356 AVG/.453 OBP/.630 SLG/1.083 OPS. Kennedy had 10 home runs, six doubles, and two triples as a freshman. UCLA had a great regular season, spending most of the year ranked No. 2, but the Bruins were knocked out of the postseason on their home field with losses to Grand Canyon and Liberty in regionals. Including their final game in the Pac-12 Tournament, they finished the season with three straight losses.