The No. 11 Arizona softball team entered Saturday’s elimination game against Florida State with their backs against the wall after being silenced by a once-in-a-generation pitcher in Montana Fouts and the Alabama Crimson Tide in the opener.
The Wildcats national title aspirations would come to an end in heartbreaking fashion as they went on to lose via a walk-off sacrifice fly by Florida State’s Cassidy Davis in the bottom of the seventh inning and lost 4-3.
After being picked apart by Fouts in the opener, Arizona was hungry for a bounce-back performance and reminded everyone in the nation why they have been one of the most lethal hitting teams all season. It wasn’t the start the offense was looking for as they went down in order in the first and second innings to start the game. However, if there was any silver lining, each Arizona at-bat in both innings resulted in hard contact, something they rarely did against Fouts.
Arizona ace pitcher Alyssa Denham got the call for Arizona to try and help them stave off elimination and fight to see another day. Denham came into the win-or-go-home contest with a 19-8 record, sporting a 1.90 earned run average and 107 strikeouts. Denham was up to the task as she matched Florida State’s Caylan Arnold pitch-for-pitch early on. In the first two innings, she was able to record three outs via groundouts and was aided by second baseman Reyna Carranco who turned a huge double play to end the second inning.
The Wildcats would strike first in the top of the third inning thanks to a first-pitch solo home run to left field by Malia Martinez. Martinez made Arnold pay as she left the pitch far over the plate. Resulting in a no-doubter to the left-field stands as Martinez immediately knew it was gone. Martinez spoke on what it was like to deliver a spark for her team in such a big moment in the game and her aggressiveness on swinging on the first pitch.
“It was really cool,” Martinez said. “The mindset for all of us is pass the bat. I went up there, I wanted to square something up and just get on base so Peanut [Hannah Martinez] behind me can make something happen. It was a cool feeling, definitely a memory I’ll always have. I was just thinking, first good pitch I see I was going to go for it.”
After going up 1-0 through three innings, the Wildcats would strike again in the top of the fourth inning and extend their lead to 2-0. Freshman Carlie Scupin batted in a run on a sacrifice fly that easily scored Dejah Mulipola from third base. However, this was the only damage that the offense could muster after having bases loaded with only one out in the inning. Failing to hit with runners in scoring position was a narrative that would come back to haunt Arizona in this game as they only hit 2-8 in that category.
Leading 2-0 over the Seminoles after four innings, it appeared that the Wildcats were primed for a big inning once again after having the bases loaded with only one out in the top of the fifth. Hannah Martinez kicked things off for Arizona by reaching first base on a fielding error committed by Florida State’s shortstop Josie Muffley.
Janelle Meono followed with an infield single that resulted in Arizona having runners on first and second with no outs. Ensuing batter Reyna Carranco delivered a sacrifice bunt that advanced the runners to second and third. Jessie Harper followed by getting intentionally walked. Once again, Arizona had the bases loaded with only one out.
Hoping to put away the Seminoles for good and leave their mark on this game, the Wildcats would come up short yet again in a prime scoring opportunity with bases loaded. After Harper was intentionally walked, Mulipola had a chance to come through in the clutch.
It turned out not to be the result she was looking for as she lined out to right field to make it two outs. Palacios, who has been the MVP for Arizona thus far in the NCAA tournament, couldn’t quite deliver that decisive hit that her team was looking for as she went on to ground out to end the inning.
In the bottom of the sixth inning, after squandering Arizona’s great squandering opportunity in the fifth, Florida State would take full advantage. The Seminoles went on to take a momentous 3-2 lead after a clutch two-out three-run home run to left field by Dani Morgan as the ball just went past Meono’s outstretched glove.
Morgan made Arizona pitcher Mariah Lopez pay the price as she left a pitch right in her sweet spot. The play resulted in Florida State stealing all momentum and sending their fan section into a wild frenzy.
After losing their 2-0 lead in the sixth inning, the Wildcats found themselves down to their final three outs of the season in the top of the seventh. Unphased by the pressure and what was at stake, Hannah Martinez started the inning with a leadoff single. Meono followed by beating out a throw to first base and avoiding a potential double-play off a fielder's choice. Down to their last two outs with a runner on first, Carranco decided to play hero ball as she hit a single up the middle that allowed the speedy Meono to score from first base and tie the game at three apiece.
Carranco touched on her clutch game-tying hit and the resilience of her senior teammates.
“I knew we could pick up our pitcher [Lopez],” Carranco said. “We wouldn’t go down without a fight and that just describes the senior class. We like to be the bulk of this team and we just knew we weren’t going to go down without a fight and [do] everything that we could.”
After Carranco’s clutch hit, Harper would continue Arizona’s seventh-inning rally as she singled and put runners on second and first with no outs. Mulipola followed by grounding out to first base, however, she was still able to advance the runners to second and third with two outs.
A chance to give the Wildcats the lead for good, Palacios couldn’t come through in a huge spot for her team as she grounded out to second base to end the inning. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Arizona would go on to lose the game after a walk-off sacrifice fly by Florida State’s Cassidy Davis.
Despite the gut-wrenching loss that put an end to their season, senior Maliah Martinez touched on the significance of what it will mean to potentially be a part of the last Arizona team that the most decorated head coach in the history of the sport, Mike Candrea, will coach.
“I feel like I’m forever indebted to coach [Candrea],” Martinez said. “He really has had such an impact on my life and has really built me into the person I am both on and off the field. He’s always there for me and I just love that man so much and owe him everything. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be able to play for him.”
Coach Candrea understands how tough it is to lose a game of such magnitude on the biggest stage. Regardless of being eliminated from the tournament, he reflected on how proud he is and what a privilege it was to coach this Arizona team this season.
“Today’s tough and it always is when you get here and fall short of your goals,” Candrea said. “There’s so much for this group to be thankful for and a lot of it is just their body of work. Getting through the season, protecting the bubble and doing all the little things just to play the game that they love to play. I’m just very proud of them and proud of them as people. This is a good group of young ladies that have made me proud by the way they represented our program [and] our university and I couldn’t be prouder of them. At the end of the day, I was just proud of the job they did to get us here. I’ll go back to the Super Regional in Arkansas, I think that was one of my highlights. The way they played the game on the road in a tough environment and we just got here and fell short.”
Coach Candrea also talked about how the senior class and former Arizona players look up to him as a father figure and having nothing but admiration for the eight-time national title winner.
“It’s a blessing,” Candrea said. “Not often do you get to do something that you love to do and then surround yourself with people that you never want to see leave. Every athlete that I have ever been a part of at Arizona is a lifelong relationship. As a coach that’s what you hope. I hope that I treat them well [and] treat them like my daughter. I hope that I can continue to be a part of their life because when you spend this much time together it’s awfully hard not to be that way. I hope that this program is stable and I try to do the right things the right way. I hope that it has an impact and influence on the kids that I coach. The one thing that I take very seriously is being a mentor and role model. I always tell them, everything that I do I always think about how it’s going to affect them for all these years. I’m honored and blessed that I’ve been able to coach so many great young women.”
Losing back-to-back games and being bounced out of the Women's College World Series in a walk-off fashion was not the result that Arizona had in mind to conclude its 2020-2021 season. Despite losing seven seniors that have been cornerstones for the program since they first arrived in Tucson back in 2017 and Candrea contemplating retirement, the Arizona softball team still has a very bright future ahead of them.
They will bring back their young stars in Meono, Palacios and Scupin who present a formidable big three and will be the faces of the program for the next three years. If this does end up being Candrea’s final year, his successor will have enormous shoes to fill, however, he or she should be able to fill in just fine thanks to the winning tradition and legacy that Candrea built at Arizona as this sales pitch will continue to attract the top recruits in the nation.
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