Arizona’s quest to make its first return to the Women’s College World Series since 2010 will start with regional play Friday against Harvard at Hillenbrand Stadium.
The Wildcats, seeded No. 6 overall in the NCAA tournament, are also a potential host for a Super Regional in two weeks at Hillenbrand as a top 8 seed.
The other teams in the regional at Hillenbrand next week are Auburn (37-19) and Colorado State (38-10).
Hearing our name for the NCAA-record 33rd straight season…
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Arizona's regional starting Friday pic.twitter.com/AivP3f8FY1
Arizona (42-12) plays Harvard (25-17) at 8:30 p.m. on Friday night following the 6 p.m. game between Auburn and Colorado State. Arizona has played Harvard once, in the 2011 regional at Hillenbrand, won by the Wildcats 10-0 in six innings.
“Being able to play here is the best,” junior shortstop Jessie Harper said. “I love our stadium, especially our new stadium. I’m excited for other teams to come play here because it is a different environment here at Arizona.
“We have amazing fans and just having the homefield advantage here will be something special.”
If the Wildcats advance to a Super Regional, they could host No. 11 seed Ole Miss. Arizona pitching coach Tayrne Mowatt was the pitching coach for the Rebels two years ago.
Harvard, which won two games over Columbia in the Ivy League playoff series, enters the regional on a five-game winning streak. Since going 6-10 in the non-conference schedule, including six straight losses in tournaments at Fullerton, Calif., and Los Angeles, the Crimson have gone 19-7 with a 16-5 Ivy League record.
Harvard has eight players from California on its roster and another from Oregon.
Senior infielder Meagan Lantz leads Harvard with a .333 batting average. Tegan Shaw, a freshman catcher and utility player, tops the Crimson with six home runs. Sophomore infielder Morgan Melito, from Westlake Village, Calif., is the team leader in RBIs with 26.
Harvard’s ace is senior southpaw Katie Duncan at 17-5 with a 2.72 ERA. She has 98 strikeouts and 52 walks in 149 innings.
Arizona’s top batter, junior second baseman Reyna Carranco (.433), is questionable to play in the postseason after suffering broken bones in both hands last week when she was hit by a pitch against Washington. Mike Candrea said the training staff will monitor the injuries “day to day” and he is not certain about Carranco’s availability in the postseason.
The Wildcats’ next best batter with a .381 average is junior outfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, who was injured in Saturday’s game at UCLA when a foul ball off her bat struck her in the face. She came out of that fine and should be ready Friday, which is significant because she has 15 home runs and 56 RBIs.
Harper led the Pac-12 with 25 home runs and 64 RBIs.
Candrea’s pitching staff can go four deep with ace Taylor McQuillin (20-7 with 1.59 ERA with 192 strikeouts and 39 walks in 167 1/3 innings), followed by Alyssa Denham, Gina Snyder and Hanah Bowen (although Bowen has replaced Carranco at second base).
The Wildcats, despite playing the nation’s second hardest schedule, finished the regular season 42-12 overall and 19-5 Pac-12. Arizona’s 19 conference wins are the program’s most since going 19-2 in the Pac-10 in 2003. The Wildcats posted their 32nd 40-win season.
The road to OKC runs through Tucson!
Arizona is coming off a series victory at No. 3 UCLA, the Wildcats’ first series win vs. UCLA since 2011 and the first series win over a top-five team since taking two-of-three from No. 3 Arizona State in 2013. It was the first road series win against a top-five team since 2012 against No. 4 Washington.
UCLA earned the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and Washington is the No. 3 seed.
“For us, that last weekend meant so much more than just going there (to UCLA) and getting a good seed for postseason,” McQuillin said. “It meant finishing conference strong and really showing who Arizona was. It was a good reset button especially from the week before (in a sweep at the hands of Washington at Hillenbrand).
“Coming back strong, we showed we are capable of playing strong against tough teams, top teams, with wins in those situations.”
Hear what Mike Candrea, Jessie Harper and Taylor McQuillin had to say about Arizona’s NCAA Tournament draw https://t.co/UGW0oSlyhY
In the other regional matchup Friday, Auburn has never faced Colorado State. The Tigers have not played Harvard since losing a three-game series in the program’s inaugural season in 1997. Arizona and Auburn have played seven times with the Wildcats leading the series 4-3.
Auburn won the final two games of the 2016 Super Regional against Arizona to reach the Women’s College World Series.
“It’s a very good bracket, and we’re going to have to play our best,” head coach Mickey Dean told the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. “But when you get down to 64 teams out of 300, you better be ready to play your best.”
Auburn has gone 4-11 to end the regular season and SEC tournament. The Tigers went 10-14 in the SEC.
Colorado State University's softball team clinched its first Mountain West title since 2004 and qualified for the NCAA Regionals for the third time. https://t.co/Xfx8QCH5hs
Colorado State features former Arizona pitcher Taylor Gilmore, who never played for the Wildcats. She redshirted as a freshman last season before transferring to Colorado State.
A Colorado native, Gilmore chose to leave Arizona to be closer to home. She was part of Arizona’s No. 6-rated recruiting class of 2017.
She is 8-2 with a 2.24 ERA with 24 strikeouts and 14 walks in 43 2/3 innings.
“We have to take care of business and do what we do,” said Candrea, who summoned some of his players of the past to talk to the Wildcats before the UCLA series, providing insight on how to get mentally prepared for big games.
“I like the way we’re playing right now. I thought the Washington series was a defining moment for us recently just trying to handle the big moment. I thought at UCLA we did an outstanding job playing the game at a high caliber (with) what we need to do in the postseason. I feel really good right now that our mindset is in the right place. We still have to come out and pitch, play good defense and get some timely hits.”
Candrea added it is an advantage that Arizona finished the regular season playing in tournament-atmosphere games against Washington and UCLA instead of “boat-race someone for two weeks and then go into postseason and mentally not be ready to play that tight ballgame.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.