Arizona softball: Wildcats were hindered by inconsistency in 2015-16, but have a bright future ahead
Arizona pitcher Danielle O’Toole pitches against Houston on Saturday, April 9.
The Arizona softball team began the 2016 season with the expectation that this was the team that could bring the storied program back to the Women’s College World Series. But it came up just short, losing two out of three to the fourth-seeded Auburn Tigers in a Super Regional matchup.
The Wildcats’ final record, 40-21, marked the 28th time the program has reached the 40-win mark. The season also marked the third straight year the team won a regional series, but also marked the sixth straight year the program came up short of a trip to the Women’s College World Series .
The Wildcats had a promising start to the season, winning their first seven games, including a victory over No. 4 LSU. It looked like the emergence of transfer pitcher Danielle O’Toole could make the Wildcats a perpetual top-10 team for the entire season. However, when the team entered its eighth game — a match-up against unranked Central Michigan — it foreshadowed the theme of its seasoninconsistency.
Arizona lost to unranked Central Michigan, scored a victory over No. 15 UCF shortly thereafter, then lost to unranked Cal Poly all in the same weekend. Early season errors cost the Wildcats games they should have won, including when they committed four errors in their 4-3 loss to then-No. 4 Alabama.
The team’s toughest non-conference matchup was a two-game home series against No. 10 James Madison. JMU boasted two of the top pitchers in the nation, and closely resembled the Wildcats’ style of play.
Arizona struggled to plate runs in the series, losing both games and teams started to avoid pitching to the top half of the Wildcats’ lineup.
Arizona’s lineup was very top-heavy throughout the season and head coach Mike Candrea structured the bottom of his lineup in a variety of ways throughout the year. Heading into conference play, Arizona knew it would have to hit to survive the brutal Pac-12 Conference schedule.
Conference play opened with a three-game series against rival ASU and Arizona got off to a hot start in the conference, taking two out of three games against the team from up north and followed that up with another series victory over Utah.
The true strength of the team lied with the pitching staff. Freshman Taylor McQuillin and redshirt junior Danielle O’Toole were dominant throughout the season, and took their games to another level during conference play. However, the team struggled to overcome their thin lineup and struggled against the top teams in the Pac-12 losing series to Oregon, Washington and UCLA.
Arizona finished the season 36-19 and found itself in an unfamiliar situation — the Wildcats were an unseeded team headed to Knoxville, Tennessee for their regional.
Arizona defeated Ohio State 2-0 in the first game of the regional, and took out host Tennessee in game two of the regional, 4-0. O’Toole was nearly unhittable in the first two match-ups, and the Wildcats were suddenly a hot team. They defeated Tennessee 4-3 in the regional final on the back of another fantastic O’Toole performance, and earned a trip to Auburn, Alabama for a Super Regional.
After yet another dominating performance from O’Toole, Arizona took game one from Auburn and had themselves one win away from heading back to the WCWS. O’Toole was carrying the team on her shoulders, but it couldn’t be sustained.
The Wildcats were unable to generate enough runs in the final two games of the series, and fell to the Tigers in three games.
Arizona will lose only one player, senior catcher Lauren Young, and will have the expectation of taking that next step to the Women’s College World Series next year.
Individually, the Wildcats had three players make the first team All Pac-12 squad — leadoff hitter Mandie Perez, cleanup hitter Katiyana Mauga and ace O’Toole. Mo Mercado made the second team and freshman Taylor McQuillin made the third team in her impressive rookie campaign.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Wildcats are a team knocking on the door.
They will have one of the nation’s best pitchers, along with one of the top sluggers in the nation in Katiyana Mauga. Mauga is the only player in NCAA history to hit 20 or more home runs in each of her first three seasons.
Mauga and O’Toole are potential first team pre-season All-Americans, and together they will have Arizona highly-ranked in preseason polls.
Follow Chris Deak on Twitter