For the 23rd time in program history and the first since 2010, Arizona softball is headed to Oklahoma City to play in the Women’s College World Series. The Wildcats routed Ole Miss 9-1 in game two of the Super Regional on Saturday night to sweep the series and move on to the final stage of the NCAA Tournament.
The journey to get back to the crown jewel of college softball hasn’t been an easy road, though, as the Wildcats had been eliminated from the postseason the previous five years in the Super Regional round.
“A lot of time you learn more from your failures than you do your successes,” UA head coach Mike Candrea said, who try to win his ninth national championship next week. “For a long time, we made it look so easy to get to Oklahoma City but truthfully… the toughest part is getting there.”
Going from consistent World Series contenders to “not quite good enough” over the last eight seasons wasn’t something Candrea dwelled upon too often, but it did leave an unpleasant feeling year after year.
“When people ask if it wears on you, obviously it wears on you," Candrea said. "But I promise you each and every year we are trying to do our very best to feel this moment. It takes a team to do that… and this group of young ladies has become a team."
If you’re looking for evidence that points to Candrea’s case of teamwork, look no further than the close-out game against the Rebels. It was the ultimate test of a group sticking together. In fact you might not find another group of players so willing to relinquish their personal spotlight and spread it around.
“I take no credit for any of it. It was literally all of the defense and the bats,” pitcher Alyssa Denham said after throwing a complete game and allowing just one run on six hits.
But Denham deserves her due credit for working out of a bases loaded, no outs jam in the second inning where the junior somehow managed to escape without allowing a run. With UA clinging to a 1-0 lead, she struck out two batters in a row then induced a groundout to end the inning just as cracks were beginning to show in Arizona’s armor.
“One of the best feelings that I’ve ever felt,” Denham said.
According to Candrea, “It was a game-changer.”
Added Ole Miss head coach Mike Smith, “Took the wind out of our sails.”
Once Arizona dodged the early bullet, it felt like Arizona’s crowning moment was meant to be. Using a three-run third inning and a four-run seventh inning, the Wildcats eventually ran away with the game, showcasing the many ways they are able to manufacture runs.
RBI bloop singles by Reyna Carranco and Hanah Bowen into left field – along with help from the afternoon sun directly in the fielder’s eyes – allowed Arizona to take a 4-1 lead in the fourth inning and a home run to center field from Malia Martinez in the fifth gave it a comfortable lead.
Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza put the game out of reach in the top half of the seventh when she blasted a two-run home run to center field putting UA up by six. Arizona added two more runs in the inning by drawing two walks and using two singles by Rylee Pierce and Reyna Carranco to put the ‘Cats up 9-1.
With two-outs in the seventh and a runner on first, the 2,835 fans came to their feet to witness the historic moment. Denham’s first pitch to Ole Miss’ Abbey Latham was chopped to second where Bowen fielded the ball cleanly and threw it over to first to put the celebration on full blast.
Denham was mobbed by her teammates in between the pitcher’s circle and first base, and just like that the party was on.
Candrea was later greeted with a cooler of ice water poured on him; the typically stoic coach couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“I’m very happy right now for this group of young ladies,” he said.
The journey to Oklahoma City was a team effort, through and through.
“I think we truly just bought in and worked as a unit. Our motto this year was 'one team, one heartbeat,' and it definitely showed on the field which is why we broke the curse and we’re going to where we should be,” Dejah Mulipola said.
No. 6 Arizona will face off in an eight-team bracket beginning on May 30 where it will play Pac-12 foe No. 3 Washington. Perhaps the toughest part is over, but now the next challenge awaits.
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