For the final time at Hillenbrand Stadium, the No. 11 Arizona softball team put on a show that nobody will ever forget. They came from behind to defeat Ole Miss 12-6 to win the Tucson Regional on Sunday, May 23.
This was the second time these teams had met in the regional tournament, with Arizona winning the previous matchup on Saturday, May 22. Pitcher Hanah Bowen entered the circle for the Wildcats in hopes of replicating the team's past performance against the Rebels. However, Ole Miss had time since its last matchup to readjust and plan a new line of attack against Arizona, and it worked.
Ole Miss came out firing in the first inning and batted the entire lineup against Bowen. After allowing the first two batters to get on in the second inning, Bowen’s day was done. Bowen finished with a disappointing line of 1.0 innings pitched and allowed seven hits, four runs (one earned) and zero strikeouts. Head coach Jamie Trachsel credited her staff on how well they prepared their players for Bowen.
“[Assistant coach Katie Rietkovich Browder] does a great job preparing our hitters,” Trachsel said. “We had a lot of time to plan. We hit the ball well all weekend and felt very comfortable. No matter who Arizona had thrown, we were going to score the ball and pressure the defense and put ourselves in a good position offensively, and we did.”
After sending Bowen to the bench early, Arizona called on senior Mariah Lopez to stop the rally. While Lopez did hold Ole Miss to no runs in the second inning, she gave up two runs in the third and the lead grew to 6-0 for Ole Miss. The Rebels did not look like they could be stopped and many players were all smiles, even dancing on the field in between Arizona batters getting out.
With this being the last ever series for the seniors at Hillenbrand Stadium, the Wildcats did not want to be humiliated and forced into an elimination game later that night. It was going to take something special for the Wildcats to come back and the seniors stepped up.
The comeback started in the top of the fourth inning after first baseman Carlie Scupin doubled to left field. Next up was senior third baseman Malia Martinez. With the team desperate for runs, all Martinez had to do was get the ball out of the infield so Scupin could score. Instead, Martinez launched a 1-0 pitch over the center field wall where nobody could get it to make it a 6-2 game.
Later in the inning, senior shortstop Jessie Harper drove home left fielder Janelle Meono to cut the lead to 6-3. Even with the deficit the Wildcats encountered, Martinez and the team never counted themselves out.
“We had hope from the very first inning,” Martinez said. “We had such a long game and a lot of opportunities, so there was no point in getting down because we knew we could come back because we are strong.”
After Lopez stopped the Rebels from scoring in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Wildcats headed into what will go down as one of the wildest and most historic innings ever played at Hillenbrand Stadium.
It began with Martinez in the fifth inning, who reached first on an error. After that, Arizona called an audible and decided to pinch hit Isabella Dayton for right fielder Hannah Martinez. The plan worked and Dayton singled to center field and advanced Martinez for second. With two on and one out, Meono doubled to left field to bring home Martinez and cut the lead to 6-4.
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Next up was senior second baseman Renya Carranco, who up until this point was 0-6 in the playoffs. Knowing this could be one of her final at-bats at Hillenbrand Stadium, Carranco kept her composure and drilled a 2-2 pitch into right field for her first hit of the postseason. Carranco’s hit brought home Dayton and a throwing error brought home Meono and just like that the game was tied 6-6.
With Carranco at third because of the throwing error, Harper stepped up with a chance to give the Wildcats the lead. On a 1-1 pitch, Harper smacked a line drive at the shortstop that was too hot to handle and Carranco scored on the infield single to make it 7-6 Wildcats.
Catcher Dejah Mulipola was up next, but she was hit by the first pitch and that brought up designated player Sharlize Palacios with runners on first and second with one out. After getting ahead in the count 3-1, Palacios crushed a double to right field that was far enough to bring home Harper and Mulipola, growing Arizona’s lead to 9-6.
Center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza came up next hoping to get in on the action, but she grounded out to shortstop. Now with two outs in the inning, Scupin came back up to bat after flying out earlier in the inning for the first out. With Palacios now on third after a wild pitch, Scupin kept the rally going and hit a single up the middle that brought home Palacios to make it 10-6 Arizona.
Martinez batted for the second time in the inning and reached on a single. Dayton, who was originally a pinch hitter, returned for her second at-bat and doubled to left field on a 1-0 pitch that scored Scupin to grow the lead to 11-6. The inning finally ended when Meono grounded out to second base.
In total for the top of the fifth inning, the Wildcats scored eight runs off eight hits, three errors and a hit by pitch.
“It was the buy-in mentality for sure,” Martinez said. “The entire lineup and the team in the dugout were going absolutely crazy. Having that confidence and knowing that we are capable of doing great things and that we are going to step up in big moments … and I am just so proud.”
What came next in the bottom of the inning added to the craziness and drama that this game already produced.
With the lead and momentum all in Arizona’s favor, it was up to Lopez to stop the Rebels from gaining any momentum.
Lopez struggled a bit, allowing designated player Nyomi Jones to reach first on an infield single. Lopez managed to get shortstop Mikayla Allee to pop out, but then she allowed back-to-back singles to center fielder Tate Whitley and second baseman Blaise Biringer and now the bases were loaded with one out.
Catcher Autumn Gillespie, the team’s second-best home run hitter, stepped up with the bases loaded looking to do damage. Throughout all her at-bats during the game, Gillespie had a strange routine in between pitches where she would walk halfway up the baseline and take her time with some practice swings. Lopez was determined to keep Arizona’s lead intact and got Gillespie to strike out looking. Gillespie was furious at the call and made a comment to the umpire as she begrudgingly walked back to the dugout.
With two outs and the bases loaded, it was up to right fielder Abby Latham to take advantage of the opportunity. With the count at 1-0, Lopez fired in a fastball for a strike and Latham was not happy with the call. Latham gave the umpire a look, made a comment and walked up the baseline in frustration. Having already been barked at by Gillespie for strike calls, the umpire was on a short fuse and asked Latham to return to the batter’s box. When she refused, the umpire called Latham out for a delay of game and the inning was over.
“I have never had that happen before,” Lopez said. “I got amped up a little bit. It added drama to the game … and it was interesting.”
With her team’s chance of a comeback slipping away, Trachsel ran out to debate the call with the home plate umpire. Many Ole Miss players were running on high emotions, including Jones who was stranded on third base because of the home plate umpire’s call.
As Jones was jogging back to the dugout since the inning was over, out of nowhere she took a detour towards home plate and pushed the umpire aside before returning to the dugout. This sent the Arizona fans into a frenzy and they rained down chants of “boo” on Jones, especially after Jones was not ejected for pushing of the umpire. Trachsel would not comment on the altercation or other events of the fifth inning.
“I will have to look back at the tape and talk about it,” Trachsel said. “I do not want to speak when I am not absolutely sure what happened on some of those things.”
After Trachsel’s discussion with the umpire, the decision was reversed and ruled a strike instead of a delay of game. Both teams were called back onto the field, except Jones found herself on the bench and pinch-runner Maddi Banks ran for Jones at third. The move puzzled many spectators and analysts, especially after Trachsel said she was unsure of what happened during the inning.
Nevertheless, Lopez returned to the circle with a 1-2 count on Latham. Lopez went into the windup and got Latham to swing and miss on a high fastball. The crowd erupted and the Wildcats swarmed Lopez as she closed the door on the only rally that Ole Miss had a chance at.
“We had the momentum on our side, and we were not going to be denied,” Lopez said.
Arizona extended their lead one final time in the sixth inning. After Carranco drew a full-count walk, Harper came up next and hit a double into center field that brought Carranco home to bring the lead to 12-6.
Lopez came out in the seventh and got Biringer to line out to Harper for the final out of the game, making Arizona the Tucson Reginal champions. It was fitting that the out went to Harper, who made her final catch ever at Hillenbrand Stadium. Harper was thrilled to have her final home game end that way.
“That was one of the most exciting and emotional games for me,” Harper said. “I loved every second of it. Our team really showed fight and I choose us 100% of the time.”
Harper also made sure the ball she caught went to who she feels is the most important person on the team to her, head coach Mike Candrea.
“I caught that ball and I held onto it tight,” Harper said. “It was not leaving my glove until I could walk over to [Candrea] and hand it to him. That is his ball at the end of the day. It was a great end to the season. I just wanted to hand him the ball, give him a hug and tell him I love him because that man has built me into the person and player I am today.”
Candrea shared how that moment and the entire game made him very emotional.
“When you give up six runs, it can be very difficult to compete the way they did,” Candrea said. “I have been around a lot of games and I told them that they showed more grit than anyone I have seen in a long time.”
Key facts from the Tucson Regional’s
- Arizona is now 76-7 in regional play.
- Arizona will advance to their seventh straight super regionals.
- Every starting player got a hit in one of the three games.
- Palacios batted .613 with two home runs, 10 RBI’s and three runs scored.
- Arizona outscored their opponents 31-12.
- Lopez was 2-0 from the circle.
- Arizona beat Ole Miss twice by the same score, 12-6.
- Seven seniors played their final game at Hillenbrand Stadium.
Arizona will face Arkansas in the Fayetteville Super Regional at Bogle Park in a best of three series starting Friday, May 28 at 4 p.m. MST.
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