The three degrees of defeat in Top 25 college softball are (1) we’ll-get-‘em-tomorrow; (2) this is going to cost us a seed or two in the tournament; and (3) check for a flow of tears.
The Wildcats left Hillenbrand Stadium in tears Sunday, but it’s not a full Stage III alert because it was Senior Day and, well, you know how emotional things get when you lose at home on Senior Day.
In what didn’t seem possible a week earlier, Arizona was swept at its softball palace by the Washington Huskies.
Friday’s game was decided by one swing of a Washington bat. Saturday’s loss was determined by a seeing-eye ground ball. Sunday’s 7-4 loss wasn’t a one-pitch breakdown, but rather a long, hot afternoon in which the Huskies put on a clinic of championship softball.
A week ago, having won 21 consecutive games, Arizona was the clinician, climbing in all the polls, threatening to break NCAA home run records and bent on rolling into the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2010.
Now, on the final week of the regular season, it must try to restore its confidence and RPI seeding at the most dreaded place on the softball map: UCLA’s Easton Stadium against the 45-3 Bruins.
“It’ll be like a prize fight,” Arizona coach Mike Candrea said Sunday.
Arizona lost hard-earned ground over the weekend, scoring just six total runs after averaging 8½ runs a game over the first two months of Pac-12 competition.
If there is any consolation, it’s that Washington is a potential national champion, with two pitchers — Gabbie Plain and Taran Alvelo — who remind you of those 1-2 punches at Arizona like, say, Jennie Finch and Becky Lemke, or Nancy Evans and Carrie Dolan.
The entire series at Hillenbrand had the feel of a WCWS winner’s bracket game, as will this week’s set at UCLA. Arizona All-American outfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, who more than held her own against Plain and Alvelo, going 7 for 12 over the weekend, won’t be walking into a softball ambush.
“They have two more pitchers like this at UCLA,” she said.
At least the Wildcats know what’s next.
It long ago ceased being a surprise when Pac-12 contenders not named UCLA arrived in Tucson and began to hang tough and sometimes beat Candrea’s Wildcats. Washington doesn’t get the attention of most Top 25 softball programs, but coach Heather Tarr has quietly become a legend in her own right.
She has coached the Huskies to six WCWS since being hired in 2005, which is one more than Candrea in the same period. The Huskies won it all in 2009 and played in the championship game a year ago.
Getting to the big show in Oklahoma City carries weight; Alvelo and Plain both say they were strongly influenced by watching Tarr’s Huskies win the 2009 WCWS on television, deciding long ago to play at Washington.
Arizona hasn’t had that type of exposure since 2010, and that’s the only goal in what remains of the 2019 season. That 21-game winning streak, a Pac-12 championship and those loaded home run numbers — Arizona hit just two this weekend to add to its NCAA-leading total of 92 — don’t compare to the opportunity to host and win a Super Regional and get back to OKC.
“Winning streaks don’t matter,” UA starting pitcher Taylor McQuillin wisely said Sunday after her record dropped to 19-7.
The NCAA softball selection committee will meet this weekend to decide the all-important 1-to-8 seeds, which seemed like a lock for Arizona as recently as Friday morning.
But now the 1-5 seeds are apt to go to UCLA, Washington, Oklahoma, Florida State and Alabama. The 6-8 seeds, which would ensure hosting a Super Regional if a team gets that far, are going to be a shuffle between Arizona, LSU, Texas, Florida and maybe even Michigan, which went 22-1 to win the Big Ten.
The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 will stage their year-end conference tournaments this week, which is big-time softball, but no bigger than the Arizona-UCLA series.
“We’ve got to find a way to help ourselves (in the RPI),” said Candrea. “We should be in decent shape to be a host, but I’d like to be in the 3-4-5 area.”
Candrea has always been a power-of-positive-thinking force, refusing to show a defeatist pose at any time, and especially this close to the postseason.
After Sunday’s game, he was neither snippy nor gloomy.
“My team is always a work in progress,” he said. “It’s a roller-coaster.“
A lot of younger coaches would’ve been tossed out of Sunday’s game, and even a few older ones. But when a few close calls went against Arizona in the early innings, as Washington started to pull away and frustration grew, Candrea composed himself and saved it for another day.
He could’ve thrown an absolute fit when second baseman Reyna Carranco, the club’s leading hitter (.433) was almost certainly lost for the season when an Alvelo pitch hit her hands and broke her left hand and right thumb Saturday. If it had been baseball, there would probably have been a brawl. A year ago, a pitch from Alvelo hit Carranco in the face, breaking her nose, giving her a concussion and forcing her to have midseason surgery.
But when Candrea left the ballpark Sunday, he paused to pose for photographs with his Senior Day players and families and said simply, “We need to find ourselves again.”
The search starts now.