Last year at this time, Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea thought he had the right kind of pitching.
Now, he knows.
The Wildcats began fall practice last week, eager to get back at it after falling one game short of the Women’s College World Series, dropping a best-of-three Super Regional at Auburn.
“This is a team that right now has many more pieces to puzzle,” Candrea said.
Everything starts with pitching, so the main piece is senior pitcher Danielle O’Toole. With sophomore Taylor McQuillin continuing to develop behind her, and seniors Nancy Bowling and Michelle Floyd providing depth, this is the best Arizona has felt about its pitching since Kenzie Fowler was a healthy freshman in 2010.
“Right now, there’s just not as many question marks, to be honest with you,” Candrea said.
“Last year, we thought we could be pretty good, but we also knew we had a lot of different people in different positions. This year, it’s completely the opposite. We have a lot of people who are returning in the same positions. The stability factor of this group is much higher than it was at this stage last year.”
O’Toole is that stability. In her first season of eligibility at Arizona after transferring from San Diego State, she went 26-12 with a 2.17 ERA. McQuillin was 12-8 with a 3.17 ERA.
But when Candrea says he has more pieces to the puzzle, it’s not just pitching.
Arizona returns its top six hitters, loses only one regular from last season — Lauren Young — drops redshirt freshman Alyssa Palomino into the middle of the order and adds five freshmen.
Palomino, a teammate of McQuillin’s at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School, missed last season because of a torn ACL suffered in fall practice. Palomino was one of the top high school sluggers in California history. If all works out well, she’ll join senior Katiyana Mauga (67 career home runs) in a more powerful middle of the lineup.
“She’s going to take some time to get back into the swing of things,” Candrea said of Palomino, “but she’s a kid who has a great passion for the game and has a great work ethic. That’s her life. She loves playing the game of softball. I think we have quite a few of those this year.”
Competition should be fierce. That’s a good thing. Candrea has 22 players in camp — much larger than his usual teams — but he’s OK with that.
It’s hard to know which freshmen could elbow their way into regular playing time, but catcher Dejah Mulipola was the No. 5 recruit in the country according to FloSoftball and Jessica Harper is a power-hitting middle infielder, to name two. We’ll be talking about all the five freshmen in due time.
“Right now, it’s a matter of giving them all opportunities,” Candrea said.
“I can tell you right now from our workouts, they fit in really well. They belong here, and that’s nice to see. The thing you hate sometimes is when you bring in a kid and they’re not where you thought they were. But I really think we have some kids who are definitely going to be competing to make an impact in their first year with us.”
Arizona, an eight-time national champion under Candrea, hasn’t been back to the World Series since 2010.
The Cats — fueled by the hunger of eight seniors — have the raw material to strongly contend in 2017.
“This is a team that could be really good in the circle, could be really good defensively and could be really good offensively,” Candrea said. “Now it’s a matter of how willing we are to work to become a special team.”
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You can find Arizona’s fall schedule at ArizonaWildcats.com, culminated by an alumni game on Oct. 30. The program will honor the 1997 and 2007 NCAA championship teams.