Loaded softball seeks to improve on disappointing 2013 this season
It was less than a year ago that Arizona softball sent in a pitcher to pinch-hit with two on and two out in the bottom of the last inning on senior day against then-No. 3 ASU — but those days are long gone.
The Wildcats return all their everyday players except Brigette Del Ponte, and add junior shortstop Kellie Fox. Fox transferred from UCLA, where she was first-team All-Pac-10 as a freshman, but she had to redshirt last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
The Wildcats also add senior pitcher Kenzie Fowler to the rotation. The two-time All-American took a medical redshirt last year because of a back injury.
“We have more talent than I’ve ever, ever seen on one team, and our starting nine is just unstoppable,” junior first baseman/outfielder Hallie Wilson said. “I just can’t wait for the season to get going.”
Last season Arizona went 33-26, 9-15 in the Pac-12 and 1-2 in the NCAA tournament, its worst season in years. The Wildcats used that early exit for motivation and have been working since July.
“I’ve been very pleased with the work ethic,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “I think they’re really excited for this weekend to get here and play someone, so I like what I see.”
The Wildcats will feature five pitchers. It wasn’t that long ago that the UA relied almost solely on Fowler.
“Five pitchers, that’s really cool; it’s going to be interesting how they utilize us all,” Fowler said. “I think there’s a lot of ways that you can kind of put us together, build off of each other, so we can be really creative and that’s going to be a good asset for us.”
Fowler’s freshman year she made 52 appearances, starting 47 of 66 games. Arizona lost to UCLA in the championship series and hasn’t been back to the Women’s College World Series since.
The pitching staff boosts two other seniors, Shelby Babcock and Estela Piñon, as well as freshman Michelle Floyd, who was first-team all-state in 2011, 2012 and 2013 in California.
Candrea said the pitching staff has different, complementary styles and that they can have a “quick hook” if someone struggles.
The infield returns two starters and adds in Fox at short and freshman Mo Mercado at second base. Mercado’s uncle Richard Mercado played baseball for Arizona from 2002 to 2004.
Candrea said that the infield is a strength for the team and that the players have “great experience,” and that Mercado has “great instincts” despite being a freshman.
“I think the biggest thing with the infield right now is that they’ve all got good softball instincts,” Candrea said.
In the outfield, the Wildcats return senior center fielder Alex Lavine and junior left fielder Chelsea Suitos. The Wildcats have seven other outfielders to fill the other spot, such as speedy freshman Eva Watson, who Candrea compared to former Wildcat player Caitlin Lowe,a four-time All-American and the school’s all-time steals leader, who is now a volunteer assistant coach for the team.
—Follow James Kelley @JamesKelley520