Oregon stands in Arizona's bid to host home regional
After coming up just short in their weekend series against the UCLA Bruins, the Wildcats find themselves in the ultimate make-or-break situation.
Heading to Eugene, Oregon, this weekend to square off with the No. 5 Ducks presents an opportunity for Arizona.
Currently sitting at No. 20 in the RPI rankings and No. 17 in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, a series victory on the road against one of the top teams in the nation could go a long way in determining if Arizona will host a regional.
Arizona head coach Mike Candrea also said he thinks facing the Ducks is an opportunity for the Wildcats.
“I think it’s a great opportunity. I don’t see it as a challenge,” Candrea said. “I told the girls that probably no one expects us to win except us. I think we can. ... If we can pull some victories out, it will really springboard us and help us down the road.”
Oregon overtook the top spot in ERA in the Pac-12 this weekend after the Wildcats’ staff allowed 20 runs against UCLA. Arizona’s pitching staff remains its strength, but more production in the lineup has the team averaging seven runs during its last 11 games.
More production from players like freshman Joelle Krist—who now has five home runs—and improved play from senior Lauren Young have given the team a much-needed boost up from the bottom half of the lineup.
Young batted .400 in the UCLA series and hit two key home runs. Her go-ahead three-run home run in the fifth inning of game three looked like it would be the key hit in the deciding game of the series. The Bruins retook the lead, however, and won the game.
Danielle O’Toole and Taylor McQuillin kept the Wildcats in every game of the series, but timely hits form the Bruins ultimately prevailed. O’Toole started game one and went 5.1 innings, giving up seven earned runs. She only gave up one more earned run over the last 3.2 innings she pitched in the series.
McQuillin started game two going 5.1 innings and allowed three runs. She earned the win in Arizona’s lone victory in the series.
Candrea stuck Nancy Bowling on the mound for the rubber match. It looked like Candrea’s gamble to throw off the UCLA lineup by not starting one of his two lefties paid off during the first three innings. Bowling pitched a clean three innings but gave up to walks to start the fourth inning.
Arizona eventually used all four of its pitchers in the contest and came up just short of stealing the series from the Bruins. The series was competitive throughout and the Wildcats were one or two hits away from taking the series in a sweep.
Katiyana Mauga started out the series 0-5, but finished with four hits in her last five at-bats, including two more home runs extending her team lead to 17.
The top of the lineup remains highly productive and, outside of Mauga, Mandie Perez, Ashleigh Hughes and Mo Mercado have as much to do with the offense’s recent success as Mauga.
All three players are batting at or over .300 and have done a good job of setting up Mauga. Hughes is currently at .298. Eva Watson has fully returned and she picked up right where she left off before her injury. Batting well over .400 when she got hurt, Watson has been batting .426 since her injury.
Arizona aims to host a regional and be a part of the top-16 teams in the country, Candrea knows the team will need some big victories in the last three weeks of the season and thinks this weekend is the best bet at making a move.
“This is as big of a week that we’ve had [all season]. We’re looking forward to it,” Candrea said. “We love being at home, so that’s important to us, but just making sure you’re playing your best softball when you get to regionals is the most important thing.”
If Arizona wants to make a move in the rankings and land a home regional, the prime time is this weekend against the Ducks. It is the team’s toughest challenge to date, but it is the best opportunity the Wildcats have had all season.
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