The Arizona Wildcats are on a roll. They’ve won their last 11 games. Six of their wins have been run-rule victories, and six times they’ve shut out their opponents.
Arizona is 9-0 in Pac-12 play heading into its weekend series against Utah, which starts Friday. But it was a pair of nonconference games, played earlier this week, that provided enough highlights to last a month.
The ninth-ranked Wildcats swept a doubleheader against visiting UTEP, 17-1 and 5-1. They did it without their usual starting lineup.
A pair of freshman pitchers, Marissa Schuld and Vanessa Foreman, got the starts in the circle. Dejah Mulipola, the Wildcat’s usual catcher, was moved to designated player. Hillary Edior took her spot in the first game, and Izzy Pacho geared up in the second game.
Joelle Krist replaced Rylee Pierce at first base. Left field and right field were manned by new players.
It was by design. Coach Mike Candrea said he wanted to rest the Wildcats’ regulars for the weekend series.
“It also gives me the chance to play some different people and it comes at a good time,” Candrea said before Tuesday’s practice. “We have a lot of kids that have worked their tail off all the time.”
So what’s working for them? It seems to be a mixture of things – a challenging nonconference schedule, depth, team chemistry and the right mindset.
Ace Taylor McQuillin thinks the early strength of schedule helped the team. Arizona opened with must-see matches in Florida and Palm Springs, California and a home series against top-ranked Florida State. Pac-12 play has been just as competitive. Four conference teams are currently ranked in the top five nationally. Arizona, UCLA and Washington are all in the top 10.
“So, you know, our strength of schedule was really tough, but those are the teams we’re going to play at the end of the season,” McQuillin said. “Those are the teams that we’re going to see, the types of games we’re going be force to play when it comes down to it. Even in conference – we’re in the Pac-12, so you know conference is really rough.
“I think just being able to play those games and get the confidence levels up, but getting the competitiveness out of them – those are the games we live for and that’s why we play college softball.”
When the Wildcats were rattled in the first game against Florida State last month, Candrea had one message: clear your minds. The advice helped. Arizona went on to take Game 2, then lost a close series finale.
Candrea said preparation has given the Wildcats an edge, too.
“I love their mindset, I love their approach, their preparation and I love their chemistry,” Candrea said. “It’s nice when you look forward to coming out here every day. Then you know you’ve got something special. I think this group definitely enjoys one another.”
The team chemistry has definitely reached a new high. Seventeen of the UA’s 22 players are returners.
“I just think it’s been a lot of fun playing with my teammates,” Reyna Carranco said. “Everybody’s just been having good energy. Everything’s just been a lot of fun lately.”
Last year, it seemed the team was broken up by cliques. Carranco isn’t sure what changed – or if anything did – but she knows the team is a lot closer now.
“I think, just because everyone is close on and off the field, we’re all friends on and off the field,” Carranco said. “We’ll hang out, get dinner sometimes. Everyone’s cool.”
The Wildcats will rely heavily on the returners’ experience and the team’s chemistry to get through April’s portion of the schedule.
While Arizona was home all but one weekend in March, they will now have to travel for all but one series in April. It starts Friday.
“It’s always nicer to play at home with your own fan crowd, but you’ve got to get used to playing on the road, too,” McQuillin said. “I think this next month is really going to be a testament to see what we can do on the road and how the road’s going to work with our team. Mostly, we just have to keep our foot on the gas and keep going and not let up.”