Diamond sharpens diamond, they say, and apparently on the softball diamond most of all.
Just ask the Arizona softball team, which has leapt to No. 9 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball top-25 rankings after a brilliant 15-1 start.
The Wildcats, who host the Wildcat Invitational this weekend, have outscored opponents 132-10. Their one loss came to then-No. 16-ranked Missouri on Feb. 20, despite allowing just five hits and two runs.
Nine of the 10 regular batters (more than 20 at-bats) are batting .317 or better; six are above .409. The pitching staff has a combined 0.68 ERA and has surrendered just nine earned runs with 102 strikeouts in 92 innings.
Both team batting average and team ERA rank second in the conference.
Diamond, meet diamond.
“Our model this year was trying to bring some competitiveness to practice every day,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “That’s the only thing that raises your level of play. One of the toughest things to do in our game is to practice at a certain level, and here we’ve done a good job of keeping the level the same whether they’re in practice or a game.”
The team has won six games by nine or more, including the last three – against UNLV and UTEP, twice – by a combined of 39-3.
The recent offensive surge has coincided with a switch in the lineup, with freshman Katiyana Mauga moving to the No. 8 hole. Mauga has hit .409 with four home runs and 16 RBIs while drawing 10 walks, and for a better understanding of the magnitude of the Wildcats’ wild start, her batting average ranks sixth on the team.
That a team full of former high school superstars has come together so well, and so quickly, is not much of a surprise. Balance, as Candrea says, is the key to any offense.
The Wildcats have nearly 100 more hits than their opponents and have out-slugged the opposition .636 to .201.
Candrea had an idea the team could be really good, but maybe not this good.
“I don’t think that anyone can ever foresee the future, but you try to prepare for it,” Candrea said. “It’s a game of numbers and we’ve been put together some good innings, girls have driven on some runs. Right now we’ve been hitting on all cylinders.”
Despite yet another fluky injury for Kenzie Fowler – for the second time in three years, she was struck by a batted ball; this time in the face, though it didn’t require much time off – the Wildcats have dazzled from the pitcher’s circle, holding opponents to a .150 average.
“They’ve been showing it on the field, throwing strikes, throwing the right pitches,” slugger Kellie Fox said. “They’ve let us have a relaxed mindset.”
Relaxed, but aggressive.
The Wildcats have attacked at the plate this season, something that was missing during a down three-year stretch from which they’ve finally emerged.
“It’s from the top down and from the bottom up,” Fox said. “Everyone is putting it to work. We’re leaning on each other, and I think that’s a big thing about this team. We trust each other.”
Added Candrea: “This group here is very special – we not only were looking for great athletes but great character. That’s what you’re seeing right now. Chemistry is very good, a lot of unselfishness. Everyone is doing their part.
“That’s what happens when you have a team pulling the rope the same way.”
Fox, who leads the Pac-12 with seven home runs and ranks second with 26 RBIs, said that the team will be fired up for competition in this weekend’s Wildcat Invitational, when Arizona will welcome Indiana, Valparaiso, Longwood, Iowa and Texas-Arlington.
That’s nothing new for these Wildcats, even if there might be a little extra fuel on Saturday, when they play UT-Arlington, which is helmed by Fox’s older sister and former UA great Kristie.
They might not need it, Kellie Fox said.
“Oh my gosh, we are so competitive,” Fox said. “Singing in the locker room, playing games in our off days. Things get heated pretty easily here.”
Makes sense – they are on fire, after all.