Maybe the embarrassment it suffered at the hands of UCLA in the final series of the regular season was the impetus the University of Arizona softball team needed going into the post-season.
After getting blanked by the 12th-ranked Bruins in the first two games of the season-ending series – including an 0-8 loss that went just five innings in the opener – the No. 5 Wildcats stormed through last week’s NCAA Regional, holding their opponents scoreless while piling up a combined 25 runs for the three games.
Arizona (51-7), which hosted the regional at Hillenbrand Stadium, beat New Mexico State in the opener and then clinched its 28th regional championship by beating South Carolina twice. Now the Cats advance to their fourth straight Super Regional, which they will also host, as the second seeded against 15th-seeded Baylor.
They are within two wins in the best-of-three format of punching their ticket to the Women’s College World Series, a trip they haven’t made since 2010. However, it would mark the 23rd appearance in the WCWS for the tradition-rich program that hasn’t missed making it into the post-season in the last 31 years. Arizona owns eight national titles.
Getting to Oklahoma City seemed almost inevitable this season. The Cats entered the post-season with a pitching staff that has the sixth-best ERA in the nation, a line-up that ranks second in slugging percentage, and a team that is No. 3 in scoring and leads the nation in home runs with 89 over 58 games.
Arizona seldom has concerns about its hitting. This year is no exception. However, this year it also boasts one of the best pitching tandems in the country, led by its ace, Danielle O’Toole.
The redshirt senior was a gift from California that just kept on giving. She arrived in Tucson after spending her first two years of college at San Diego State and took over the pitching chores after sitting out a redshirt season in 2015.
That year, her 26 victories led the Pac-12, while she ranked third in ERA (.217) and strikeouts (192). This season she again led the conference in wins with 27, while also posting top marks in ERA (1.08) and strikeouts (191).
She is now Arizona’s winningest pitcher since Kenzie Fowler in 2010.
But everyone familiar with college softball knows it takes more than one strong arm to have a chance at a national title. And that’s where Taylor McQuillin, another gift from the Sunshine State, comes into the picture.
The sophomore, who was the Gatorade National Player of the Year as a junior and again in her senior year at Mission Viejo High School, has provided the 1-2 punch in the circle that is needed for the challenging journey through the post-season.
McQuillin, who is blind in her left eye, is 16-3 with a 1.72 ERA. Together, she and O’Toole have won 45 games and lost just seven.
If there’s any downside to the dynamic duo, it might be that they are both left-handers. That means head coach Mike Candrea, who is in his 32nd year at the helm and has accounted for all eight of the school’s national titles, has to go to his bull pen of Michelle Floyd or Nancy Bowling to find a righty.
Thanks to a stingy pitching staff and a defense that has committed fewer errors than any team in the Pac-12, the Cats have limited opponents to two or fewer runs per game.
One other good omen: Arizona’s No. 2 seeding at the super regional is the highest since 2007.
That was the year the Wildcats brought home their last national championship.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)