So how do you overcome losing all but one of your offensive weapons from the previous season?
University of Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea seems to have found at least a temporary solution.
Candrea took one of his pitchers from last season and, instead of putting her on the mound for the 2016 season opener, he put her at first base – which then became the launching pad for a long home run to center field to help ignite the Wildcat attack en route to a 10-2 mercy-rule victory over visiting Southern Utah.
Nancy Bowling, who took a redshirt year in 2015 to deal with a medical issue, parked the homer in her first at-bat of the season. It turned out to be the only long ball of the game for the Cats, which illustrates the adjustment being made to the kind of ‘small ball’ game the team will be playing more this year after losing four of its top five hitters to graduation.
The one player returning is All-American Katiyana Mauga, who had collected 46 career home runs in her first two seasons in Tucson, which ties her for third all-time in the NCAA record books. The junior third baseman contributed two runs batted in during the Southern Utah game, Thursday’s opening contest in the Hillenbrand Invitational at UofA, and then came back yesterday and added five more: two in a re-match with Southern Utah and three more RBIs to help the Cats to a 9-1 win over North Texas to run the record to 3-0.
Arizona also used yesterday’s games to show there’s still some power elsewhere in the line-up. Mo Mercado and Robyn Porter, the sophomore catcher from Tucson’s Ironwood Ridge High School, each cleared the fences in the 10-0 victory over Southern Utah. And Mauga, Mandie Perez, and Lauren Young all cranked out homers against North Texas in a game that lasted just six innings.
Taylor McQuillin made her collegiate debut in the circle in yesterday’s first game, throwing all five innings and posting a four-hit shutout. Bowling took the mound for the North Texas game, combining with Michelle Floyd to hold the Mean Green to three hits. Floyd worked the first two innings, while Bowling retired 13 of the final 14 batters to earn the win.
Through the first three games of the tournament, Arizona has piled up 34 hits. But it’s important to keep in mind that this annual event is set up to provide a gradual slide into each new season. It’s little more than some advanced batting practice and a chance to take a look at the new kids on the pitching staff.
This is the 20th year for the event. Out of the 102 games played since it began, the Wildcats have won all but three.
That aside, Arizona is entering its third decade under Candrea and is ranked No. 13 in the nation as another season begins. He has won 80 percent of his games and made 21 trips to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS).
It has been five years since the Wildcats have been to the WCWS, but this team has the potential to punch its ticket to Oklahoma City in search of a ninth national title under Candrea. The four-time national Coach of the Year feels he has what it takes to get back into the title hunt.
In a word: pitching.
“I think the strength of this team this year is going to be pitching, which is something that has been a little bit weaker in the last couple of years,” Candrea explains. Last year’s combined team ERA was 4.34, the worse mark during Candrea’s reign.
“I am very excited about a couple of left-handers. Lefties tend to be awfully difficult on softball hitters because there’s not a lot of them around the country, and we happen to have two now.”
So last year’s ace, Floyd, will be joined this season by southpaws McQuillin and Danielle O’Toole. McQuillin is a freshman who was the 2014 National Gatorade Player of the Year. O’Toole sat out last season after transferring in from San Diego State, where she was the 2014 Mountain West Pitcher of the Year.
Freshman Tamara Statman, a high school All-American from Horizon High in Scottsdale, rounds out the staff of five that Candrea hopes will pitch the Cats back to the WCWS.
The four-day, 16-team invitational continues today as Arizona prepares to take on Purdue at 5 p.m.
(Photo: UA Athletics)