It looks like the future of the University of Arizona softball program will soon rest in the hands of a partially blind, partially deaf teenager that hasn’t even finished high school yet.
Taylor McQuillin is blind in her left eye and has partial hearing loss in her left ear, a result of a medical condition called Duane Syndrome. It’s something she has dealt with since birth and is quick to point out that she doesn’t consider it a handicap and has learned to successfully live with it.
So successfully, in fact, that she has become one of the most dominant softball pitchers in the high-school game. After posting a 25-1 record and a breathtaking 0.69 ERA during her junior season, and leading her Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School team to its first-ever state championship and a No. 3 national ranking, she was just named the Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year.
And she has put her college career in the hands of the Wildcats’ head coach, Mike Candrea, who was given her verbal commitment last September after McQuillin was forced by family circumstances to de-commit from Oklahoma State, where she gave her verbal as a freshman. The decision to play in Tucson keeps her closer to her California home where her father is dealing with major medical issues.
Her recruitment helps to stave off recent criticisms of the 57-year-old Candrea, whose last few teams have not lived up to the lofty expectations of a school that has a storied tradition in women’s softball. Actually, after the 2013 season, his 28th as the program’s head coach, he admitted himself that the recruiting effort needed to improve.
The impact McQuillin could have on the UofA softball program might easily be compared to the success the Cats enjoyed during the Jennie Finch era more than a decade ago when she pitched Arizona to a national title as a junior, also the year she was selected as the best college softball player in the country. While at Arizona, she also she set an NCAA record by winning 60 consecutive games that spanned two seasons.
Finch became the face of UofA softball and is still readily identified with the Wildcat program, despite gaining post-college fame as a two-time Olympian and then as a professional player.
McQuillin has the potential to reach that kind of stature and is constantly improving. She lost six games as a freshman, two as a sophomore, and just one last year – piling up 862 strike-outs along the way. Barring injury, her senior season could be off the charts.
In 2010, Candrea snared another top pitcher who many thought might become “the next Jennie Finch.” Kenzie Fowler was a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year while at Canyon del Oro High School and led that school to three state championships. She was also named the NHSCA National Player of the Year after her senior season.
Fowler hit the Tucson campus with a bagfull of high-school records and proceeded to prove her ability to move up to the next level. As a freshman, she was the Cats’ ace on the mound as she compiled a 38-9 record that included four no-hitters and a perfect game and pitched Arizona into the finals of the Women’s College World Series, falling just short of the national title by losing to UCLA.
But as she moved through her college career, injuries played a big role in slowing her development and Arizona struggled along with her. She posted a 15-9 record in 2012 as the Cats closed out the season 38-19, the first time in 26 years an Arizona team finished with fewer that 40 wins. It got worse in 2013 as that squad finished 33-26, recording the most losses in a single season in program history.
Last season, Candrea pulled the program back into respectability with 44 wins, relying on five pitchers to get through the season as Fowler was able to contribute just eight wins in 14 starts and 25 appearances on the mound. They earned a No. 10 national ranking going into the playoffs, but the season ended in embarrassing fashion when they were eliminated in the super regionals in two straight losses to Louisiana-Lafayette.
Three of those five pitchers – the top three – have graduated, leaving Candrea a little thin on the mound. But the returning duo of Nancy Bowling and Michelle Floyd did pick up some seasoning. Bowling, who will be a junior in the coming season, made 30 appearances and finished 7-0, while Floyd saw action in nine games and posted a 1.27 ERA and 4-0 record.
But Candrea may have to swap out his baseball cap and take on an engineer’s role because he has a bridge to build that will take his program to the 2016 season, when his national player of the year arrives on campus. He needs to re-create a squad that resembles the 2014 model that featured one of the most potent offenses in the country, the one that led all Division I programs in home runs, scoring per game, and slugging percentage – and was second in team batting average.
And then turn the ball over to McQuillin the following year.
The 5’8″ left-hander can throw the heat and already has an array of seven different pitches that begins with her bread-and-butter, an incredibly effective riser, and includes pitches like the more exotic drop curve – and she’s still a junior in high school. Add to that the kind of radar-like control that enabled her to limit walks to just 18 in the 173 innings she pitched last year. Think about that for a minute.
McQuillen, whose batting average last season was .323 (remember, she is blind in one eye), was selected for the Gatorade from a field of 360,000 high school softball players nationwide. Not just pitchers, but players.
“You’re going to start seeing an influx of athletes coming into this program that I think will help us get back to where we want to get,” Candrea said in an Arizona Daily Star article after the disastrous 2013 season, answering criticism at the time about his perceived lack of recruiting success.
“I think we’ve done our homework,” he added, “and you’re going to see the next two or three classes coming in are very talented and will help us get back to where we need to get.”
Adding the national player of the year to his roster will certainly go a long way toward keeping that promise.