St. John’s softball team is probably still on the psychological high that came with winning the Big East Conference Tournament for the first time in school history, as the Red Storm prepare to play the opening game of the Tucson Regional tonight against University of Arizona, which will be hosting a regional for the 22nd time.
The Wildcats, on the other hand, have just stepped off a roller-coaster ride and are undoubtedly wondering just what it’s going to take to earn another trip to the Women’s College World Series. Their last trip to Oklahoma City was back in 2010 when they made it all the way to the NCAA Championship game before falling to UCLA.
Arizona upset No. 1 Oregon in the last series of this season, becoming the first team in 15 games to beat the Ducks, by scoring five runs in the first inning and then holding the lead to a 6-4 victory. Oregon won the first game in the three-game series, so the win evened the series and gave Arizona high hopes of a series win against the top team in the country.
The Cats knocked five long balls out of the park in that final game on Saturday, off one of the best pitchers in the country – and still got beat by eight runs in a five-inning game shortened by the mercy rule. The 15-7 loss brought the Cats back from the heights of celebration to the depths of despair in just one day.
Oregon had its ace, Cheridan Hawkins, on the mound for the crucial rubber game. Hawkins came into the game with a 26-3 record and had allowed just 12 home runs in 161 innings. She hasn’t given up more than three in any one game this season.
But Arizona’s Kellie Fox and Katiyana Mauga each parked a couple, and Mo Mercado added the fifth round trip. The trio combined for an 8-for-8 outing, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
The Ducks hit three homers of their own, but made them count more. One was a grand slam, which accounted for four runs, and the other two each produced three more runs. All in all, Oregon collected 14 hits to overpower the Cats on their own field.
So if you can’t beat a team by hitting five home runs, what’s it going to take?
Well, fortunately for Arizona, St. John’s is not another Oregon. The Catholic school from New York City is an un-ranked opponent that finished their season 28-17 and is making its first-ever NCAA tournament appearance.
Arizona (38-17) and Minnesota (46-9) are the two teams in the four-team regional that are nationally ranked. The Wildcats will come in at No.16 in the coaches poll and No. 18 on ESPN’s rankings, while the Gophers are No. 11 with ESPN and No. 15 in the coaches poll. New Mexico State (46-14) rounds out the field. The Cats are the only national seed in the Tucson Regional, having been given a No. 12 seed among the 16 teams that were seeded for the tourney.
Arizona head coach Mike Candrea, who has taken Wildcat teams to 29 straight NCAA appearances during his 30 years running the program, is quick to point out that his team won’t be looking past St. John’s.
The Red Storm just posted their first season record above .500 and have been steadily improving over recent years, and are on a roll this season. They won the regular-season title in the Big East and then swept through the conference tournament, beating Seton Hall and Villanova. Both titles marked a first for the program.
Candrea knows that a team with that kind of momentum and confidence is always dangerous.
Much of the success St. John’s has enjoyed this season can be attributed to a seasoned pitching staff. Junior Tori Free was named the Big East Pitcher of the Year after posting a 0.90 ERA and a 7-1 conference record, and senior Francesca Carrulllo finished the conference schedule 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA. They led the team to 16 conference wins, a new school record.
The Wildcats counter with this season’s pitching tandem of Michelle Floyd and Trish Parks. Floyd, a towering 6’3″ sophomore from California, is 18-12 with a 3.51 ERA and Parks is a freshman righty that is 14-5 on the season, with a 4.60 ERA.
Last year Arizona made it to the Super Regional, but the road to Oklahoma City ended there in Lafayette, LA, after losing both games. This year, a win in the regional would send them to Baton Rouge, where they would likely meet up with LSU, which is seeded No. 5.
But Candrea is taking things one game at a time. The long, bumpy road road back to Oklahoma City begins tonight in the desert against a team from the Big Apple.
Another game with five home runs would be a nice way to start to the journey.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)