Inside of her visor bill, the Bible verse “Psalm 23” is written in ink, a little blurred from Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza‘s perspiration playing in center field for Arizona.
Fitting that through her diligence, helping the Wildcats return to the Women’s College World Series through a lot of sweat and tears, her faith is unmistakable. It is crystal clear.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” is part of that scripture.
During last weekend’s games against Ole Miss in the Super Regionals at Hillenbrand Stadium, Palomino-Cardoza said she calms down on the field or at the plate after “taking a second to breathe and say a little prayer.”
She went 4 for 7 with four RBIs and she hit her 17th home run of the season in Arizona’s sweep of Ole Miss. The Wildcats will open the WCWS against Washington on Thursday at 9 a.m., Tucson time, at Oklahoma City.
In terms of Palomino-Cardoza’s playing career, nothing has been as devastating as two ACL tears in each knee. The first tear in her right knee forced her to redshirt as a freshman. The second tear in her left knee occurred two days before the NCAA tournament two years ago.
She went from center field to first base last year because of her knee problems. After regaining her strength in each knee, Palomino-Cardoza was shifted back to center field this season.
“I’ve had some experiences that I’ve had all-time lows,” she said. “Surrounding myself with these people (at Arizona) and surrounding myself really big in my faith has helped pull me out of that, and it has really helped me grow into the person I am. I’m trying to be a more positive person.”
She was not always this faithful. She also was not nearly as mature during her high school days with Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin as a teammate at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School.
“I remember when we were younger like 12, 13 years old (in travel ball), she would go around as a huge ball of energy,” McQuillin said.
Her enthusiasm for softball brought her closer to aunt Toni Mascarenas, a senior when Arizona won the WCWS title in 2001. Mascarenas was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 after her career that included two first-team All-American selections and NCAA top 5 record status at the time in home runs for a season (25) and career RBIs (245).
When Palomino-Cardoza was young she “would ask (Mascarenas), ‘Hey can we go hit today? Can we go take groundballs?'” said Palomino-Cardoza, who had another aunt — Leneah Manuma — play for the Wildcats until 2002.
“Anything I wanted to do was on me and not her forcing me to go do it,” Palomino-Cardoza added. “I think that’s a big reason why I can go to her because she did not force it on me. She let me come to her.”
Arizona coach Mike Candrea does not see similarities between Mascarenas and Palomino-Cardoza in their playing ability, but he recognizes the value of each enabling his teams to reach a WCWS. Palomino-Cardoza is wearing the same number that her aunt wore at Arizona — 32.
“Toni was an excellent player defensively. Offensively, she was very solid, very short to the ball, didn’t try to do too much although she did display some power toward the end of her career at some crucial times,” Candrea said. “Alyssa growing up was a kid you looked at and you are like, ‘Wow, how far can she hit a ball?’ I mean, she’s just strong and some times you don’t realize that Alyssa has above-average speed.
“If there is one thing I wish she had is her having a stronger arm, which she hopefully will get that, but she’s a different type of player. People look at Alyssa and she’s pretty intimidating at the plate. Toni, on the other hand, I don’t think was intimidating, but she was absolutely a rock when it came to pressure situations.”
Palomino-Cardoza was recruited heavily by the likes of UCLA and Florida out of Mission Viejo. She said Mascarena’s background at Arizona “for sure had a lot to do with me coming here.” Candrea said of the recruiting advantage with Mascarenas: “I hope it was taking good care of Toni that her family felt comfortable that I would do the same thing for Alyssa.”
Mascarenas is always a text or phone call away for her “little sister,” as she calls Palomino-Cardoza. After the WCWS-clinching win over Ole Miss on Saturday, Palomino-Cardoza said her aunt texted her, “I love you. I’m proud of you.”
That emotional support along with Mascarenas’ deep knowledge of the game — she coaches a youth club team in California and works with former Arizona teammate Jennie Finch in Finch’s camps — has helped Palomino-Cardoza handle the pressures of the game much more effectively.
She may not be the “rock” like her aunt was in those pressure situations, as Candrea said, but she is certainly playing more that way. With her age — she celebrates her 22nd birthday Wednesday — her teammates call her the “Grandma” of the team.
“She used to let the game swallow her up a little bit,” Mascarenas said. “She no longer goes up there to the plate thinking that every at-bat is the most important of her career. She is seeing the ball a lot better. She is working deeper into the count.”
Arizona center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza: "We're not done yet. There's still work to do." pic.twitter.com/3sNbZiQ7Cb
The proof is in the numbers. Her batting average has improved from .302 as a freshman to .363 as a sophomore to .394 now. Her strikeouts per at-bats has declined from 18.8 percent in her freshman year to 16.6 percent in her last two seasons.
She has recorded at least one hit in 12 of the last 13 games. Out of those 12 games — including the pressure-filled three games to end the regular season at No. 2 UCLA and five do-or-die games in the postseason — nine were multi-hit games. She is batting an incredible .512 in that 13-game span.
“I am most impressed by how much she has matured,” Mascarenas said. “All the stuff she had to go through (with the knee injuries) her first couple of years has made her have a stronger mindset to how she approaches the game.
“It was heartbreaking taking that call from her both times. I told her to stay positive, that it was part of God’s plan for something bigger that will happen. Going to the College World Series just might be part of that bigger plan.”
I asked you to pray with me for a reason! Sisters in softball and in Christ❤️🙏🏽✝️
Palomino-Cardoza turned more to prayer and her faith in Jesus to lean on two years ago when roommate Eva Watson was a senior at Arizona.
Watson was an inspiration off the bench most of the 2017 season. She replaced Palomino-Cardoza in the NCAA tournament in center field after the second knee injury.
“(Watson) was really big in her faith and led me in that direction,” Palomino-Cardoza said. “Being in those low moments, I realized I needed something to lean on, and Jesus was that thing for me.
“I’ve leaned on Him ever since. It’s been the best decision.”
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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.