Arizona’s magical run may have ended in the Women’s College World Series with Sunday’s 5-2 loss to Texas, but with only three seniors on the roster, the Wildcats have a feeling that this positive wave of emotion will flow into next season and beyond that.
For Caitlin Lowe’s team to finish one of the last six teams standing nationally at Oklahoma City generates optimism for a national title run next year, harkening the expectations during the best years of the Mike Candrea era.
Talent is one thing, but the grit of a team that went 6-2 in the postseason after an 0-8 start in the Pac-12 and last-place finish in the conference with an 8-16 record will be the foundation of Lowe’s program going forward.
“In 21 days (through the postseason), I watched them grow up, and we’ve been on the road for all of it,” said Lowe, whose team left for the Columbia (Mo.) Regional on May 18 and never returned to Tucson through the Starkville (Miss.) Super Regional and the WCWS at Oklahoma City.
“I watched them go from a team that was happy to be here and then they realized like, ‘Why not us?’ … They put their head down and they grinded and I think they did it in their own special way, which was cool. They didn’t try to be last year’s team or the teams of the past. They did it with their own stamp, having fun. … I’m just so proud of the growth and I think now that they just expect these moments and they’ll prepare to be in these moments.”
That’ll do it for the Cats from Oklahoma City.
What a team. What a run.
We’ll be back! pic.twitter.com/v5d2AF9J0D
— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) June 6, 2022
The most significant loss from the 39-22 season is fifth-year senior right-hander Hanah Bowen, who fought through being “banged up all season,” Lowe said.
Among Bowen’s tribulations in addition to a nagging hip injury was being involved in an automobile accident before Arizona opened the Pac-12 season at UCLA in March. She was unavailable to play as Arizona lost all three games to the Bruins.
“I’ve expressed it to Bo throughout the postseason and throughout every tournament that we were winning to get here that I was so proud of her,” catcher Sharlize Palacios said. “The struggles that we faced during the season and during conference all led up to her to be able to pitch this well in the postseason.
“I told her that all the struggles made her better for this moment. I think this is the way she would have wanted to end — in the biggest stage for softball. I’m very proud of her. She went out the way Bo should have went out. She went out competing. She played through injury. I’m just so proud to be able to try to help her through that and be her biggest cheerleader behind the plate.”
Lowe said she will “never forget Hanah Bowen.”
“I told her that,” Lowe said. “I think you saw her heart today, and honestly, all season. She hasn’t been at 100 percent all season. She’s had bumps and adversity thrown at her. She’s handled it with grace.”
What a career, @hanahb5!
Thank you for giving us everything you had and then some! pic.twitter.com/Et5sz9XNB0
— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) June 6, 2022
The Wildcats will have Devyn Netz returning for her third year next season as well high-profile incoming freshman pitcher Sydney Somerndike, who is a two-time Gatorade California High School Player of the Year.
Netz worked the last three innings in relief of Bowen in the loss to Texas. She allowed two earned runs on two hits with no walks and one strikeout.
The performance capped an impressive postseason for Netz, who had a 1.22 ERA in 23 innings. She allowed only 13 hits and seven earned runs while striking out 11 and walking eight.
“It all started I would say when we saw our name called (during the NCAA tournament selection show) at Coach Lowe’s house, and we were sitting there,” Netz said of her turnaround from regular season which she was 3-6 with a 6.95 ERA. “Coach T (pitching coach Taryne Mowatt-McKinney) said to us in the bullpen the next day, ‘This is a clean slate. It doesn’t matter how bad you’ve done. It doesn’t matter how well you’ve done. Everyone has a clean slate.’
“That’s what I think all of us went into and I took it from that perspective. I took it and ran with it. I’m pretty sure everyone else did as well.”
Entering the game with Texas, Arizona was 4-1 in postseason games in which it trailed (against Illinois, two games against Mississippi State, Oklahoma State and Oregon State). The Wildcats had to rally back again against the Longhorns after Courtney Day hit a home run off Bowen to lead off the third inning to open the scoring.
Arizona did not get a hit in the first three innings off Hailey Dolcini, who retired nine of the first 10 batters she faced.
Palacios’ leadoff single in the fourth inning started a two-run rally that ultimately forced Texas coach Mike White to relieve Dolcini with infrequently-used left-hander Estelle Czech, who had not pitched in the WCWS.
Allie Skaggs worked the count full against Dolcini before walking and Izzy Pacho followed with a single — her first hit in the WCWS in her seventh at-bat — that loaded the bases against Dolcini.
Carlie Scupin followed with a single that rolled to the wall in the right field corner that scored Amber Toven (pinch-runner for Palacios) and Skaggs to put Arizona ahead 2-1.
“I was getting a lot of pitches and I was seeing her pretty good,” said Scupin, the former Tucson High standout who finished this season batting .368 with 19 home runs and 59 RBIs. “It felt good to get the lead but … I just wanted to execute.”
White then relieved Dolcini with Czech because left-hander Blaise Biringer was coming to the plate. Czech struck out Biringer and Sophia Carroll to end the inning.
“I thought they were on to (Dolcini) a little bit,” White told ESPN. “They had some left-handers coming up along with a righty. We had to get through. I thought it was a move we had to make at that time. Thankfully it paid off.”
Texas forced Bowen’s exit in the bottom of the fourth after Alyssa Washington walked and Mary Iakopo reached on a single to lead off the inning.
Netz entered. After she struck out a batter, she gave up a three-run home run to J.J. Smith, who had only one home run the entire season before Sunday.
Texas increased its lead to 5-2 in the fifth after Janae Jefferson led off with a double, moved to third on a sacrifice bunt and scored on a sacrifice fly to right field.
Czech retired the first eight batters she faced before freshman Paige Dimler lined a single to center field after battling with many fouls through 11 pitches to lead off the seventh.
After striking out Biringer, Czech got Carroll to ground into a double play to end the game.
“Nobody thought we would make this far, but we believed wholeheartedly,” said Palacios, who overcame a midseason slump to become one of Arizona’s most dangerous batters hitting .326 with 20 home runs and 64 RBIs.
“We all didn’t want it to be over. I don’t want it to be over now. I just want to say a great thank you to our seniors because they’re continuing to better the program the way all our seniors do. I’m happy to be able to come back and have more years with the girls that I’m playing with. I’m just excited for us to be able to do the same thing next year.”
The other two seniors exhausting their eligibilty are outfielder Hannah “Peanut” Martinez and utility player Bailey Thompson (CDO graduate).
The incoming recruiting class in addition to Somerndike of Villa Park (Calif.) High School are Tayler Biehl, an infielder from Folsom (Calif.) Vista del Lago; Logan Cole, an infielder from Salpointe Catholic; Olivia Dinardo, a catcher from San Mateo (Calif.) Aragon; and Dakota Kennedy, an outfielder from Sacramento (Calif.) Sheldon.
Lowe’s first year replacing Candrea is behind her. The way Arizona exceeded expectations in the postseason allowed the former four-time All-American centerfielder to put her stamp on her alma mater’s storied program as a head coach.
Candrea is the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), as he is often referred to, but there is no questioning now this is Lowe’s program going forward.
“I will remember their belief in themselves and in each other, and I think when you have so many people doubting you, you still find a way to keep your circle tight to keep 18 people plus support staff and everyone that works with us forging ahead,” Lowe said. “We believed in ourselves and we saw it every day. We knew what kind of team we were.
“For them to not only believe it but put that into action and really not care what was behind them, man, it’s so huge.”
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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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.