Mike Candrea’s lineup for 2021 was already loaded with the likes of seniors Jessie Harper, Reyna Carranco, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza and Malia Martinez, but the addition of U.S. Olympic catcher Dejah Mulipola adds a much-needed intangible to the star-studded lineup that also includes members of the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation.
“She’s become a really strong leader for our program … Her presence, on a day-to-day basis, she makes other people better,” Candrea said of Mulipola, a senior captain, in a ZOOM press conference today. “She’s got great rapport with her teammates. She’s a kid that everyone looks up to who does things the right way.
“So it’s a total package and we’re very excited to have her back.”
USA softball made the determination earlier this month that team members with eligibility remaining in college can join their schools for the 2021 season and then report to the Olympic team to prepare for the Games at Tokyo next summer.
Mulipola, who has a career batting average of .320 with 47 home runs and 140 RBIs, spent time with the Olympic team touring the nation to prepare for the Olympics this year but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Games to next year.
The Arizona softball season was also cancelled after only 25 games and the NCAA granted the seniors another year of eligiblity to return in 2021.
The decisions by USA Softball and the NCAA provided the opportunity for Mulipola to finish her career with the class she started with at Arizona in the 2016-17 school year.
“This team is very special to me,” Mulipola said. “Some of these girls I’ve played with since (youth softball) days. They are like family to me and I’m super excited that I get to finish what I started with them just because we always talked about this since our freshman year, kind of like, ‘We can’t wait to be seniors. We can’t wait to be in their position. They’re so cool.’
“To finally kind of get in that position and with the people I started out with is super special to me and to get back to Tucson and play for Coach Candrea again is something I’m very excited about as well.”
The relationships figure to grow even stronger. For Mulipola, the catcher-pitcher tandem with senior Mariah Lopez, the transfer from Oklahoma, carries a significant meaning.
If this season went as planned, the former travel-team softball teammates would not have played together at Arizona in 2021.
“Mariah is so special to me,” Mulipola said. “Fun fact, actually when she committed that I shared on Twitter was that when she came to tryout for my travel-ball team, when we were 9 or 10, I actually caught her for the first time for her tryout.
“She made that team, so we kind of grew up together through travel ball, through high school (Mulipola attended Pacifica High School in Garden Grove, Calif., and Lopez went to Saugus (Calif.) High School), and then we went to different colleges, but we still stayed close. We kind of have that tight-knit sister bond and to kind of be able to go to college together now and finish out our senior year is so special.”
Lopez texted Mulipola before this season and mentioned she was “bummed” she could not play with Mulipola but she was excited Mulipola was headed to the Olympics.
“Now, it kind of worked out that I get to play with her and I still get to go to the Olympics, so I’m super, super pumped for that, ” Mulipola said.
Mulipola rejoins at Arizona something similar to an Olympic team with all the talent expected on the roster, including the top-ranked incoming recruiting class that includes Tucson High School’s prolific power hitter Carlie Scupin, who will occupy first base.
With the array of talent young and old, Mulipola, with her leadership characteristics, figures to be a coach and calming influence for the freshmen similar to Palomino-Cardoza, the team’s “Great Grandma” as her teammates now call her because she will play in her sixth year of eligibility after sitting out her freshman year because of an ACL tear.
“I keep telling everyone that when my class came in as freshmen we had a superior (veteran) class with Katiyana Mauga, Mo Mercado and Tully (ace pitcher Danielle O’Toole) and people like that to kind of show us the ropes and what Arizona softball was like and what the tradition they carried was,” Mulipola said. “I’m excited for my class to be in that position to welcome a freshman class of awesome girls who are going to come in and build that role in our spots.”
Candrea realizes he will hear the comment that the 2021 team will be the greatest combination of talent in Arizona history, which is a loaded statement with the legendary coach producing rosters that have achieved eight national championships.
With that hype will come lofty expectations.
People might lose sight, however, that other programs have an abundance of seniors returning as well, which makes the talent level nationally, “elevated … it’s an exciting time for college softball,” Candrea said.
“Our expectations are always high, and I think this gives us definitely a foundation that you very seldom have,” he added. “This senior class is a very unique class because they they bring a lot of talent and they have been our core for many years.
“When you walk into a season and you have that core already established, I think it’s going to be a great experience for our freshmen coming in to be able to learn from this group. I think the transition is going to be quite smooth.”
Candrea and his staff have conducted numerous ZOOM meetings with the returning players and newcomers during this uncertain time and Mulipola mentioned that her talks with Candrea have been frequent.
“I’m lucky to have somebody like him in my corner,” she said.
That importance of that cohesiveness established by Candrea and his staff now can’t be understated. Because of the roster crunch brought on by the seven seniors returning, players have entered the transfer portal such as CDO grad Carli Campbell and former first baseman Ivy Davis, who is reportedly bound for Tennessee.
“I knew that when we had the opportunity to bring our seniors back, and since we have such a large class and combine that with bringing in eight freshmen, which is a very strong class, a very good class, I knew that it would definitely make some people kind of take a look at their future and their playing time,” Candrea said. “Every kid comes here because they want to play, but this (seniors returning) brought a whole other set of circumstances.”
Candrea said he had “very open and honest conversations” with players about their future and how their playing time might be affected by the larger-than-normal roster of more than 20 players.
“I’d like to say it was a healthy transition,” he said. “I don’t like saying that because I always hate losing any kid from our program, but I did know that it was going to have an effect.
“We’ve kind of worked through it and I think we’re ready to move forward.”
And moving forward is a very promising proposition, especially with Mulipola returning with her valuable experience gained from touring with the Olympic team.
Mulipola likened the experience to being a professional athlete away from her studies and handling herself responsibly with some of the game’s greats such as Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott.
“You’re an adult, so you kind of have to take care of yourself on and off the field,” Mulipola said. “I think that has bettered me as an athlete, and an individual and then also just kind of building relationships with some of the women who are the greatest in the game and kind of picking their brains.”
Mulipola will become similar to a Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott to the freshman class.
“I commend the group of athletes that we have as seniors that they are a group that has done it both on and off the field,” Candrea said. “I think that they’re very, very excited about having the opportunity to finish their careers the right way, and our expectations are very high.
“Our expectations are to compete for a national championship.”
Arizona Softball 2021 RosterNotes: Players without years listed are incoming freshmen. Seniors listed are returning because the NCAA has allowed another year of eligibility due to the 2020 season canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Hannah Bowen||P/INF||5-4||Jr.||Ramona (Calif.)||Ramona|
|Reyna Carranco||2B||5-6||Sr.||Oxnard (Calif.)||Oxnard|
|Aris Carroll||INF||5-9||--||Phoenix||Shadow Ridge|
|Sophia Carroll||INF||5-9||--||Phoenix||Shadow Ridge|
|Isabella Dayton||OF||5-6||Fr.||Wylie (Texas)||Wylie|
|Alyssa Denham||P||6-1||Sr.||Alvin (Texas)||Pearland|
|Jesse Fontes||P||5-10||--||Fillmore (Calif.)||Adolf Camarillo.|
|Jessie Harper||SS||5-6||Sr.||Stevenson Ranch (Calif.)||West Ranch|
|Alayna Hicks||INF||5-7||Fr.||Mesa||Red Mountain|
|Giulia Koutsoyanopulos||UTL||5-11||--||Mission Viejo (Calif..||Capistrano Valley|
|Mariah Lopez||P||5-8||Sr.||Saugus (Calif.)||Saugus|
|Hannah Martinez||OF||5-7||Jr.||Garden Grove (Calif.)||Pacifica|
|Malia Martinez||3B||5-7||Sr.||Poway (Calif.)||Poway|
|Janelle Meono||OF||5-4||Fr.||Hacienda Heights (Calif.)||Glenn A. Wilson|
|Dejah Mulipola||C||5-8||Sr.||Garden (Calif.)||Pacifica|
|Devyn Netz||P/INF||5-9||--||Sierra Madre (Calif.)||Ironwood Ridge|
|Izzy Pacho||C/INF||5-5||So.||Tucson||Ironwood Ridge|
|Sharlize Palacios||C||5-6||Fr.||Chula Vista (Calif.)||Eastlake|
|Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza||OF||5-10||Sr.||Mission Viejo (Calif.)||Mission Viejo|
|Jasmine Perezchica||OF||5-8||--||La Quinta (Calif.)||Palm Desert|
|Allie Skaggs||UTL||5-8||--||Louisville (Ky.)||Ironwood Ridge|
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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.