The No. 8 Arizona softball team has a chance to put a ribbon on what has so far already been a rewarding season.
The Wildcats host a three-game series versus the No. 1 Oregon Ducks starting on Thursday. It is Arizona’s last series before the team makes its NCAA Championship run. Arizona is 27-0 at home this year, and Oregon is 11-1 in road games.
“They’re No. 1 for a reason,” Wildcats softball head coach Mike Candrea said. “They’re a disciplined team, and we can’t beat ourselves or expect them to beat themselves. We’re going to have to play pretty flawless.”
Most recently, the Wildcats (40-11, 13-8 Pac-12 Conference) lost two out of three to No. 10 Washington in Seattle. Candrea said they didn’t help themselves with that series, but said he didn’t feel they hurt themselves too much either. He said he was happy with the way they ended the series, preventing the sweep in an old school pitchers’ duel.
As for the Ducks (47-6-1, 18-2-1), they most recently played ASU this past weekend. The two schools actually split the three-game series. After the Sun Devils won the opening game and Oregon won the second, the third game ended in a tie. The third game was called during a 2-2 tie in the sixth inning due to rain.
For Arizona, this upcoming series with the top-ranked Ducks is a chance to solidify a favorable seeding in the postseason. Lucky for the Wildcats, it’s at home, where they haven’t lost all season.
“We have a great crowd, and it’s just so much more comfortable playing in a place we’re used to playing,” Arizona outfielder Katiyana Mauga said. “Knowing we’re coming home to play this series gives us so much more confidence. I would hate to have to go to Oregon and play on the road and in that rain.”
Mauga, a freshman, has been one of most productive players in Arizona’s high-powered lineup. Candrea, who has coached some of the greatest offenses in NCAA softball history, said this year’s team is up there as one of the best he’s coached.
Heading into Thursday’s game with the Ducks, Mauga has a .385 batting average and a team-leading .934 slugging percentage, which as of Monday was the fourth highest in the country.
“I came into this season with high expectations for myself,” Mauga said. “I expected to be a power hitter, but I’m doing better than I thought I would be.”
Mauga hasn’t been the only Wildcat striking the ball. Including Mauga, Arizona has four players with a slugging percentage in the top 24 in the country, more than any other in Division I.
Candrea said that’s how the game has evolved. Changes in equipment and rules have turned softball into an offensive game, unlike college baseball, which is more of a small-ball game now.
The Wildcats’ offense will be tested this weekend, though, as Oregon brings to town a top pitching staff. As of Monday, the Ducks had the 10th-lowest team earned run average (1.73).
“[Oregon has] a strong nucleolus of kids who have been back from last season,” Candrea said. “They’re a team that really doesn’t beat themselves. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Wildcat freshman second baseman Mo Mercado’s older sister Danica Mercado is a sophomore infielder for the Ducks. However, Danica Merado won’t be playing this weekend, as she broke her leg in January.
Saturday’s game, the final game of the season, is senior day for Arizona. The Wildcats have five seniors on the roster, three of whom are pitchers.
Arizona’s pitching staff is improved from last season, but overall hasn’t kept up with its offense.
Candrea said he has put an emphasis on recruiting pitchers. He expects every recruit he signs to be able to make an impact next season.
—Follow Luke Della @LukeDella