Editor’s note: The Star’s Zack Rosenblatt is counting down the 50 best athletes on the University of Arizona campus right now, with help from athletes, coaches and those close to the program.
No. 23: Alyssa Palomino
The details: Palomino is a 5-foot-10 power-hitting outfielder entering her redshirt sophomore season with the Wildcats. Even by Arizona softball’s lofty recruiting standards, Palomino was one of the more highly regarded power hitters UA coach Mike Candrea has ever reeled in. At Mission Viejo (California) High School, Palomino set Orange County home run records both for a season (18) and career (58), and helped the U.S. Junior National Team to a 10-0 record and gold medal in the Junior World Women’s Championship. There, Palomino set a Junior World Women’s Championship record for RBIs with 27, which beat UCLA legend Stacey Nuveman’s 20-year record of 18, and also tied Nuveman’s home run record with five. Beyond that, Palomino was a first-team high school All-American as a junior and senior. Palomino, who committed to the UA as a sophomore, has a UA connection, too — her aunt is Toni Mascarenas, a former Wildcats standout.
The numbers: Palomino missed her true freshman season after suffering a torn ACL on her right knee on the first day of fall practice, but bounced back nicely in her redshirt freshman campaign.
Palomino finished the season with a .302 average and 49 runs scored and was third on the team in both home runs (16) and RBIs (54).
The value: Palomino suffered another torn ACL — this time on her left knee — in practice leading up to postseason play and missed all of Arizona’s regional and super regional games.
As a result, Palomino might move from center field to first base next season, but that won’t have any real impact on her value to the Wildcats. With Katiyana Mauga — the best power hitter in UA history — gone, the Wildcats will need Palomino to take a step forward in the middle of the order. Palomino had surgery on her knee at the end of June, and if her recovery goes in the typical recovery timeline — often 6-8 months — Palomino should be fully recovered by the start of the season. If not for the latest knee injury, Palomino would be rated even higher on this top-50 list.
“It was tough to see Alyssa go down when she went down,” Candrea said at the time of the injury. “That changed our lineup a little bit.”
Why Palomino? Palomino at her best is probably Arizona’s top power hitter, and she showed last season what she is capable of at her peak. She’s technically entering her third season with the UA program, the second with college playing experience.
Coupled with sophomore Jessie Harper, the Wildcats will have one of the best power-hitting duos in the nation. Palomino struggled to close out the season — she only hit .229 in conference play — but was still one of Arizona’s most-dangerous hitters. She was named an All-Pac-12 second team selection.
Proof she’s good: For most of the season, Palomino led the Pac-12 in RBIs, and even after some late-season struggles and the injury that cost her six postseason games, Palomino was still right behind Mauga and Harper in terms of run production, finishing third on the team with 30 extra-base hits.
There was a nine-game stretch from March 25 to April 8 when Palomino hit six home runs and drove in 19, including a 7-RBI game against Stanford on April 7. At that point, Palomino’s batting average was .353.
What Palomino can accomplish: Assuming Palomino returns to full health and stays there, there’s no reason to think she won’t be an All-Conference selection, and probably a first-teamer. With her increased responsibility as one of Arizona’s go-to run producers, it’s conceivable that Palomino ends the season an All-American, too, and she’ll likely battle with Harper for the team lead in home runs and RBIs.
Coachspeak: “She’s a kid who has a great passion for the game and has a great work ethic. That’s her life.
“She loves playing the game of softball. I think we have quite a few of those this year.” — Candrea last season
She said it: “You know, there’s been ups and downs, but that’s what this game is all about. It’s definitely a ride that I’ve never experienced before. It’s a long season and just keeping our bodies right and our minds right for it, it’s been fun and one hell of a ride for this team.” — Palomino before her postseason injury