There were fist pumps and jumps and screams and smiles and one big group hug, the likes of which haven’t been seen at Arizona since 2010.
The Wildcats, after outclassing Ole Miss in a best-of-three Super Regional at Hillenbrand Stadium, is headed to the Women’s College World Series for the first time in nine years.
But coach Mike Candrea — who owns eight national championship rings from the World Series — doesn’t change.
After Alyssa Denham recorded the final out on a grounder to second base for a 9-1 victory Saturday to touch off the celebration near the first-base bag, Candrea simply hung out near the dugout. That initial celebration is all about the players. He always makes it about the players.
And, man, does he like his players right now.
“We’re playing well as a team and that is what it takes in Oklahoma City,” Candrea said.
“It’s a grind every pitch, every at-bat. You can’t get ahead of yourself and you can’t worry about what happened. Then you have to have the ball bounce the right way. But it’s going to be the same thing — we have to pitch well, we have to play good defense and we have to have good hitting.
“I thought this weekend, we had all of those. If that is the definition of me feeling good about the team, I definitely do.”
Arizona slugged three homers Saturday, had 10 hits, played great defense — especially shortstop Jessie Harper — and Denham was cool, and effective, in a key moment in the second inning.
Arizona led 1-0 when Ole Miss loaded the bases on three singles. Arizona pitching coach Taryne Mowatt came out to the circle for a meeting, delivering this message to Denham:
“To trust my pitches, and they can’t beat me on my best pitches and to challenge each hitter,” Denham said.
Denham struck out the next two batters swinging — they couldn’t beat her best pitches — and got a groundout to end the inning unscathed.
“I thought it was a game-changer,” Candrea said.
“Her getting out of the inning was huge for our momentum and I think it really sparked our team. Once we got out of that, everyone felt really good about the rest of the game. The one thing we’ve talked about is being able to handle the big moment. Well, that is about as big as it gets. And she handled it quite well.”
The Rebels did tie the game at 1 in the third, but Arizona scored three in the fourth, one more in the fifth and took all the drama out of things with four big runs in the top of the seventh.
And then the celebration began. And then the team ran out to left field with a No. 23 sticker to slap over the No. 22 signifying the program’s appearances in the Women’s College World Series.
The Wildcats are heading back to Oklahoma City with a powerful, and deep, lineup. They have an ace in Taylor McQuillin who can match up with the nation’s best, and a second pitcher in Denham who can win games in a potential long grind at the Series.
And they have something else.
“Team chemistry,” said junior catcher Dejah Mulipola.
“The past couple of years that I have been here, we just haven’t meshed. I think this year everyone truly bought in to what Coach was selling — underclassmen, upperclassmen, bench players, starters. I think we truly bought in. Our motto this year is, ‘One team, one heartbeat’ and it definitely showed on the field.
“And that is why we finally broke the curse and we’re going to where we should be.”