Arizona softball loaded for 2014

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If one moment could sum up Arizona softball’s disappointing 2013 season, it would be senior day with the Wildcats trailing ASU by a run, with two on and two out in the bottom of the seventh inning.

In the crucial scoring opportunity, head coach Mike Candrea looked for someone to pinch hit.

He settled on Arizona freshman pitcher Nancy Bowling, who batted an underwhelming .209 during the season.

Bowling did her job, though, drawing a walk to load the bases for junior Alex Lavine. However, Lavine fell short as she watched strike three cross the plate, handing Arizona a 7-6 defeat.

“I really felt that there were times this year when we played well enough to compete with anyone and we just couldn’t sustain it,” Candrea said.

The Wildcats, who had their worst postseason performance since 1987, lose one senior but add five freshmen. The UA also has two experienced stars joining after they both redshirted this past season.

The lone loss, senior shortstop Brigette Del Ponte, was eighth on the team in batting, with a .241 average.

“It’s unfortunate losing Brigette, for sure, because she is a huge key player in our program,” junior catcher/first baseman Kelsey Rodriguez said. “But we have more freshmen coming in. Next year is going to be different, that’s what it comes down to. We’re not going to have a repeat of this, we’re going to go all the way.”

Despite the senior day defeat, Arizona ended the regular season strong before being bounced by Baylor University in the College Station Regional. The Wildcats took two of three against then-No. 5 ASU and at then-No. 13 Stanford.

“That’s where we should be and that’s where we are capable of being and that’s where we will be next year,” Rodriguez said.

Arizona will have five pitchers next season, instead of three like this year, which will give Candrea more options in addition to more competition. Junior pitcher Estela Piñon, who had the most success in the NCAA tournament after becoming a reliever, said she will be a closer again next season.

Fowler returns, Fox joins

One of the biggest additions will be the return of All-American Kenzie Fowler, who missed the entire season while recovering from back surgery. Fowler went 15-9 in 2012 with a 2.85 ERA as she dealt with the back injury all season, down from a combined 61-18 record and 2.23 ERA in her first two seasons.

“She’s healthy right now and that’s a big part,” Candrea said.

Still, Fowler’s 2012 stats would compare well to the 2013 pitching staff. Piñon had Arizona’s best ERA (3.53) in 2013 and the pitching staff combined for a 3.90 ERA.

Candrea said he is excited to see Fowler bat again.

In 22 at-bats in 2010, Fowler hit .364 with six RBI and two home runs. As a sophomore and junior though, Fowler did not play on offense.

“Hopefully we can utilize her a lot more on both sides of the plate,” Candrea said.

Shortstop Kellie Fox will be eligible to play again next season, after transferring from UCLA. Since Arizona’s last Women’s College World Series appearance in 2010, the Wildcats have had a different starter at shortstop each season.

Candrea said that Fox is “very good defensive player” and praised her for her “quick” hands.

“Kellie is definitely going to provide some stability for us up the middle,” Candrea said. “And she can provide some punch for us offensively, so that will be another bat in the middle of our line up that will be very good.”

Some new faces

The Wildcats also add five freshmen — four position players and one pitcher.

Alexis “Mo” Mercado, whose uncle Richard Mercado played baseball for Arizona from 2002 to 2005, is another middle infielder.

Katiyana Mauga is a third baseman, a spot occupied in 2012 by USA Junior National team player Lauren Young, though Young can play any position besides pitcher. Candrea said he was excited about Mauga’s power.

Speedy outfielder Eva Watson will come to Tucson from Virginia. Candrea said that Watson is “probably the quickest kid we’ve had since Caitlin Lowe.” Lowe holds the school record for the most career steals with 156 and was also a four-time All-American.

Six-foot-three-inch pitcher Michelle Floyd, who Candrea said has a lot of upside, also has had a high pedigree of coaching. Former UA star Susie Parra, the 1994 National Player of the Year, worked with Floyd.

First baseman Lauren Johnson rounds out the 2014 recruiting class. Johnson is a Phoenix native who played at Xavier College Prep.

Even if the freshmen don’t make any immediate impact on the field, Candrea said he is glad that the UA will have more competition in practice.

“I think if you look at all of the teams playing [in the Women’s College World Series], you’ve got to be solid one through nine,” Candrea said. “We just need a deeper line up more than anything.”


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