The last postgame huddle of Arizona’s season was finished, and most of the team’s eight-person senior class simultaneously sank to their knees in left field at Hillenbrand Stadium.
All season long, Arizona coach Mike Candrea has made a habit of telling the Wildcats, in the face of both success and struggle, how much he loved them, how different this team was.
After a particularly troublesome loss at UCLA a few weeks ago, Candrea was angry postgame and didn’t like the way he reacted, so when he retreated to his hotel room, he sent the entire squad a text message.
It said that he was sorry, that he loved this team and everything they had accomplished. The next day, Arizona beat the Bruins and clinched the Pac-12 Championship.
Sunday night, Candrea walked around the outfield, he patted Mandie Perez on the back and hugged Katiyana Mauga for a few minutes. Then he sauntered off the field, watery eyes hidden by his sunglasses as the sun went down, walking through the dugout for the last time this season.
There will be no energetic comeback in the next game, because Arizona’s season is over after a 6-5 loss to Baylor in the Super Regional round. For the seventh straight season, the Wildcats (52-9) will not advance to the Women’s College World Series.
No amount of affection will make that an easier concept to grasp for the No. 2-seeded Wildcats, who had aspirations beyond making it to the WCWS — Arizona thought it could win the whole thing.
“The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” Candrea said. “It’s unfortunate, but the agony of defeat sometimes outweighs the thrill of victory when you’ve been in it for a long time.”
The Wildcats narrowly escaped on Friday with a walk-off win against the Bears, leaving Arizona just one win away from advancing, with games at Hillenbrand, where the Wildcats have rarely lost two games in a row.
Candrea’s formula for success has always included three things — pitching, defense and timely hitting. All season, Arizona was not only good in all three areas, it was great, and the Wildcats ranked among the nation’s best in all three areas.
Then, on Saturday and Sunday, the wheels fell off.
Arizona’s pitching staff, led by Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Danielle O’Toole, had been particularly consistent this season, but that wasn’t the case against Baylor.
Mauga was in the midst of a home run chase, hitting No. 92 of her career on Friday, putting her within three of the NCAA’s all-time record. But Baylor didn’t give her much of a chance to hit another one, walking her four times on Saturday and three more on Sunday.
During an Arizona comeback effort in the sixth inning, Mauga came up with the bases loaded and popped out.
So Mauga ended her career with 92 home runs — including 25 as a senior — which puts her second all-time.
“There’s no words,” Mauga said. “It’s hard because I’ve had a great run here and I know I couldn’t do it without coach, I couldn’t do it without family, I couldn’t do it without my teammates. It’s just hard to have to take this jersey off.”
Arizona led the nation in home runs this season, but didn’t hit any in its last two games.
The Wildcats’ bats went cold to start Sunday’s game, scoring a run in the first inning after Mauga, who had been intentionally walked, scored on a wild pitch, but Arizona couldn’t manage a hit in the second, third or fourth innings and fell behind 3-1.
The bats awoke in the fifth and sixth innings, though, when both senior Mo Mercado and freshman Jessie Harper hit RBI singles with the bases loaded in the fifth inning, and in the sixth, freshman Dejah Mulipola scored after a leadoff triple, driven in by freshman Reyna Carranco, and Mercado was walked with the bases loaded.
The Bears took the lead back in the seventh inning after Arizona pulled starter Danielle O’Toole — who had struggled at the outset of the game but was pitching better toward the end, not allowing a run after the third inning — for sophomore Taylor McQuillin, who proceeded to give up a leadoff double, an intentional walk and a three-run home run off the bat off Shelby McGlaun.
“We didn’t want to go down without a fight,” McGlaun said.
After Baylor took the lead back in the seventh inning, the Wildcats put two runners on in the bottom half but were unable to score. Pinch hitter Nancy Bowling grounded out to end the game, and the season.
When the game ended, the Bears got hats that said “OKC Bound,” for their success in making it to Oklahoma City.
“If you’re picking somebody you do not want to go through, it’s the University of Arizona,” said Baylor coach Glenn Moore.
“Their tradition, their expectations. I felt maybe the pressure to get back might work in our favor, and I think it might have. This program’s (Arizona’s) won so much … our program is not where this one is. We’re trying to get there.”
This marks the second time Baylor had made the WCWS in the last four seasons.
Arizona will have to wait at least one more.
“I was very proud of the way they (Arizona) came back today and I felt good that they were ready, they were relaxed and I thought we were going to get it done, I really did,” Candrea said. “It just didn’t happen.”