It seems to have become a tradition for the Arizona Wildcats to enter a new season with high expectations. That is to be assumed when your program holds the second-most national championships in NCAA history.
The 2020 season is no different, as the Wildcats rank No. 3 in the country by D1Softball.com entering the new year. The team is also rebounding from last year’s College World Series appearance and is projected to return to Oklahoma City this season.
Although the stakes are high for this 2020 squad, several of the players aren’t focused on the outside noise.
“All those [rankings] don’t really matter to us,” said Jessie Harper, senior shortstop. “Once we step on the field, it’s just about playing our game and doing that. All those ratings don’t matter. It’s just about what we do right now and what we do to build up to get us to that final game.”
Outfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza had similar feelings about the preseason rankings. “We honestly don’t look at it. Cool, we’re no. 3, that’s awesome. Now the challenge is to stay there and stay in the top eight. That’s what we’re worried about.”
Harper and Palomino-Cardoza are two of the six players among this year’s senior class that are projected to bolster this year’s roster. The two combined for 48 home runs last year while also leading the team in RBIs and slugging percentage in 2019.
But swinging the bat well isn’t the only thing needed to win a championship and head coach Mike Candrea knew that entering the offseason. Last year’s pitching staff was held together by southpaw Taylor McQuillin, who recorded a 1.52 ERA last season. Candrea and the rest of the staff were quick to repair the gaping hole left behind by the former ace by bringing in Oklahoma transfer Mariah Lopez.
Lopez was recruited by Candrea in her freshman year of high school and already had a strong relationship with some of the Arizona players. She and Harper played recreational ball together before competing against each other at rival high schools in Santa Clarita, Calif. Lopez also played travel ball with Palomino-Cardoza, Reyna Carranco, Malia Martinez and Dejah Mulipola.
“I think it was more of a re-opening of the door and having her come here and feel comfortable,” Candrea said. “She had a step-up because she had played with a lot of these kids so it worked out well for us.”
Lopez posted a 19-1 record and a 1.25 ERA with the Sooners last season and could potentially be viewed as an upgrade at the position. She’ll be complimenting returning pitcher Alyssa Denham as the duo will surely be a nightmare for opposing teams.
“[Denham] has gotten stronger, so she’s throwing with a little more velocity,” Candrea said. “Her down pitch is hard and heavy. Right now I think she’s just a little more mature now and a little more understanding of what she’s trying to do with hitters. I expect that to be a strength for us this year with Mariah [Lopez] being up in the zone and her being down in the zone. I think it’s a really good combination.”
Aside from the amount of depth this roster has, a common agreement between the players was just how mature and experienced this team is — maturity from not only the returning players, but from the freshman class as well. Arizona brings in the No. 13 recruiting class, according to FloSoftball.com, after signing four new players before the 2020 season. Candrea says that all of them could see a lot of playing time this year.
“They play like they’re seniors,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “They’re not scared to make a play, go after a ball. They’re not scared to speak their mind if something happens. They don’t act like freshman and they play big.”
The Wildcats aren’t perfect, however, as they will need to find a replacement for star-catcher Mulipola. The senior will play for the U.S. Women’s National Team in the 2020 Olympics this summer. Arizona has a couple of options behind the plate with freshman Sharlize Palacios and sophomore Izzy Pacho, both of whom coach Candrea is confident about.
“I was impressed with [Palacios] this fall, I thought she swung the bat well. She has some maturity so she’s a good leader behind the plate,” Candrea said. “Izzy [Pacho] has done a good job there too so I feel good about both those kids.”
Arizona softball begins its season on Feb. 7 in Tempe for the Kajikawa Classic.
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