The Arizona Wildcats were in Long Beach, Calif. — part of an 11-day road trip — when they first met Sally.
Since then, she’s been the key to their success. The fourth-ranked Wildcats have run off 16 straight wins, and are 12-0 in Pac-12 play for the first time since 1994. They’ll play Utah Thursday night with a chance to improve to 41-1 this season.
Thank Sally — or, more specifically, sports psychologist Ken Ravizza. Ravizza, an accomplished author and longtime friend of UA coach Mike Candrea, talked to the team earlier this season about refining their approach. One of his points was about Sally — or, rather, a team full of them.
“They are playing nine gals named Sally, said Ravizza. “It doesn’t matter what uniform they have on. They have to play their game and not worry about who they are playing.”
Whether it’s the upperclassmen facing players they know or freshmen facing old friends from travel ball, it’s Sally.
When the Wildcats are facing another ranked team, it’s Sally.
“We’re never playing the name game,” said Alyssa Palomino, who has 13 home runs and 49 RBIs. “Whether we are playing against No. 6 Washington or GCU, we maintain the same intensity. We come out ready to play every day.”
The timing of Ravizza’s talk couldn’t have been better. The Wildcats were a few weeks removed from a 1-0 loss to No. 1 Florida State and were about to face No. 9 Oklahoma. The Wildcats rallied to beat to the Sooners on a walk-off home run by Tamara Statman.
Arizona has outscored its Pac-12 opponents 100-10 in 12 games. They swept then-No. 6 Washington, giving up two runs on five hits. Last weekend, the Wildcats swept Stanford while outscoring the Cardinal 41-2.
Ravizza “opened our eyes to more of what coach is saying,” Palomino said. “Now it’s about what we need to do and how we need to play. Coming off the Florida State loss, he focused on staying in the mental game—you can’t hold on to a bad game. In the UW series we were playing for (Candrea) to get his 1,500th win. Even now, everything we do is for coach.
“In Pac-12 play, we’ve had timely hitting and good pitching. We’ve proved that we can do whatever we need to do to win at that level of play.”
Ravizza, who has been working with sports teams since the mid-1980s, is the author of “Heads up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time” and, more recently, “Heads Up Baseball 2.0.” He spent part of last season working with the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
Ravizza gathered the Cubs around a line of more than 162 baseballs divided by 7 bats. Each bat represented a month, each ball a game, and the extra balls represented the postseason games the Cubs hoped to play. The exercise showed while the season can be long, details matter.
Ravizza preached a similar approach to the Wildcats.
“We talked about playing the game one pitch at a time. It’s cliché, so simple, yet so difficult to do at times,” he said. “When does one pitch end and another one start? It’s a process to segment each one. It’s about giving 100 percent of what they’ve got to win the next pitch. They have to get a structure, control their selves. It’s a plan they trust, one they come up with on their own. It’s a system that works for them.”
Ravizza encouraged the Wildcats to stick to their routines, and to quickly move on from one pitch to the next.
“It’s about breathing and letting it go,” said Palomino, who went 2 for 2 with a grand slam and seven RBIs on Friday. “It’s 20 seconds of undivided attention in the box. Twenty seconds to focus on the next pitch. It’s cool that this is the same thing that he teaches major leaguers.”
Ravizza customizes his message to each team he works with but one facet remains true for all athletes.
“If you can give yourself the best opportunity for success, you can take winning or losing,” said Ravizza. “When you beat yourself you stare at the ceiling all night. But when the other team beats you, you sleep well all night.”