Just before Wednesday’s practice, the occasional drilling and clanking could still be heard around Hillenbrand Stadium. Construction workers squeegeed the new suite and media center windows and installed the final hand rails.
The final touches bring to an end the $8 million, eight-month renovation of Hillenbrand. The ninth-ranked Wildcats will open their renovated home Thursday at 6 p.m., when they host New Mexico in the first game of the Hillenbrand Invitational.
The weekend tournament will also feature games against No. 7 Alabama, South Florida, Illinois-Chicago and Cal State Fullerton.
“It met all expectations, plus even more,” coach Mike Candrea said of the renovations. “When you look at drawings, it just didn’t do justice until they started putting the structure up and seeing how big it is. We’re really excited. We couldn’t ask for anything more for these players, but also the future of this program. Going down the road, I think it’s going to be a good place, facility-wise.”
UA players say they’re more than ready to start playing in the new Hillenbrand. They began practicing in the renovated stadium a month ago.
Catcher Dejah Mulipola doesn’t have the same view on the field as the rest of her teammates, but when she turns around, she’s constantly impressed by the added seating and sheer size of the stadium.
“We’re the first team to be able to play in this new stadium, so we’re stoked about that,” Mulipola said.
The only thing that’s missing are the fans.
“Our fans are awesome,” Mulipola said. “They’re so supportive of us and knowing that we have all of them — we usually say nine on one, you know, nine fielders against one batter, but we have all of the fans with us. It’s that home-field advantage, and we love it.”
When Hillenbrand Stadium first opened in 1993, Candrea said people would spend the first couple of innings looking around. He hopes the new facelift provides the same shot in the arm.
The Wildcats are coming off opening weekend in Tampa, Florida, where they finished 3-2. Arizona beat then-No. 19 Michigan, USF and Illinois State, but lost to then-No. 5 Florida and N.C. State.
Arizona’s offense hit 11 home runs over the five-game weekend. Defending Pac-12 home run champion Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza picked up where she left off last season, hitting four homers.
Mulipola accounted for three of the Wildcats’ homers, and Malia Martinez and Jessie Harper hit two apiece.
Candrea said the top five hitters in the lineup were on fire but that Arizona will need production from the bottom half of the order to be successful.
“That’s going to be our venture here: to try to find some people in that bottom half that can turn that lineup around,” Candrea said. “I think, overall, opening on the road and opening up against, I think, a really good field of teams will hopefully help us out down the road.”
Even though the team has been practicing on situational hitting, they struggled with it in Tampa. They expect the hitting to settle in as the season progresses.
Either way, the Wildcats hope to have a competitive weekend to celebrate their renovated home.
“You can’t underestimate anyone,” Mulipola said. “It doesn’t matter who they are — New Mexico, Alabama, top 10, top 100 — you have to take everyone the same way.”