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Arizona head coach Mike Candrea originally recruited the eight true freshmen on his 2021 roster to replace last year’s senior class. He could have never imagined they would all play together.
But once the coronavirus pandemic cut short the 2020 season, all of Arizona’s seniors – Jessie Harper, Reyna Carranco, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza, Mariah Lopez, Malia Martinez and Alyssa Denham – decided to return for an extra year of eligibility. Plus, senior Dejah Mulipola returned after redshirting last season while training with the U.S. Olympic team.
The seniors have been serving as mentors and role models for the freshmen in how to act on and off the field.
“It’s just a fabulous senior class and I am so proud of them. I am sure the fifth-year seniors sometimes start thinking about the future and losing interest, but this is a special group,” Candrea said. “They have really stepped up and have shown the freshmen the right way to do things. They are really good people and are old enough now to understand how important leadership is and how to lead.”
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Arizona was 22-3 when the 2020 season was halted, with losses to Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Florida. The Wildcats were set to begin Pac-12 Conference play riding an 11-game winning streak.
Given the return of the seniors and influx of talented freshmen, Candrea expected some players to transfer out of the program in the offseason. Arizona’s roster is at 22 players, but could have been 27 or 28 if everyone stayed.
“Which would have been absolutely crazy,” Candrea said. “I don’t think this game is built for a roster that size. I go back to my younger days when my largest roster was probably 15.”
Although he hated to see any players leave, Candrea understood why they would want to seek other opportunities. The Wildcats are two deep at every position and five deep in the circle.
“And I am talking about quality depth too,” he said. “I knew that would cause some people to think about playing time in their future. I really believe every one of them left for the right reasons and I tried to help them as much as I could to find a place they could contribute and play and continue their careers.”
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Entering his 36th season at the helm of Arizona, Candrea is the NCAA leader in wins (1,633). He’s witnessed a lot in his career, but nothing compares to this year given all the country has endured from Covid-19 to social justice issues to national elections.
“For me, it has been a really fun fall. I have been doing this for a long time, and sometimes fall can be very challenging. But this group is really having fun,” Candrea said. “I think they realize what it is like to have the game taken away, and maybe now you are seeing a little more of the love of the game coming back like it was in the 70s and 80s when I first started.”
The eight freshmen entered with high expectations, and the big, athletic group showcased glimpses of why during the fall.
“Normally freshman kind of stick out like a sore thumb when you first start and look a little bit lost and a step behind and maybe not as competitive as you would like because they are trying to please everyone. This group for some reason came in and fit in very well,” Candrea said. “I am very pleased with their performance, work ethic and character.”
First baseman Carlie Scupin, a Tucson native, is a 6-foot left-hander that can hit balls off the roof in right field at Arizona’s stadium and doesn’t strike out very often.
“Carlie is a specimen. She has probably got the highest bat speed I’ve ever seen. She is very well put together and can hit the ball as hard as anyone I have ever seen. I think she will be a phenomenal player, and one of the best power hitters that have come through here.”
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Pitcher infielder Devyn Netz has a family connection to Arizona. Her brother, Dawson, pitches for the UA baseball team.
“She is one of the hardest throwers right now already. She has come into her own physically and is a very competitive kid,” Candrea said. “She has great upside. I can see her throwing 68 to 70 mph and she can hit. She has impressed me as much offensively because she can hit good pitching and she uses all sides of the field and has good power.”
Right-hander Jessie Fontes was 25-5-1 with a 0.36 ERA and 264 strikeouts as a junior at Camarillo High in Calif. Fontes spent the fall working on her movement and keeping hitters off balance.
“She is a relentless worker and I think she is going to be a really good pitcher,” Candrea said. “This will be a growing year for her.”
First baseman Giulia Koutsoyanopulos has strong defensive skills with quick hands, quick feet and a good glove
Second baseman Allie Skaggs was the 2019 Kentucky Gatorade State Player of the Year. She had a career batting average of .492 with 41 home runs and 50 doubles in three seasons at Ballard High in Louisville.
“She’s just a kid that is dialed in every day,” Candrea said. “She loves to play the game and being able to play behind Reyna will definitely help her development.”
The Wildcats have a set of twin infielders in Aris and Sophia Carroll from Phoenix, and Jasmine Perezchica, whose father, Tony, is the third base coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“Jasmine comes with a really good IQ. She is a short gamer, but she is starting to develop and get stronger and now swings away and keeps people honest,” Candrea said. “She is a really solid player defensively and gets a good jump and has a good arm. I see her getting a lot of playing time for us this year even as a freshman. She is just a solid, smart player.”
Right-handers Lopez and Denham were Arizona’s 1-2 punch last season.
In her first season at Arizona after transferring from Oklahoma, Lopez was 11-2 with a 1.38 ERA, 93 strikeouts and 22 walks in 71.0 innings pitched. Denham was 9-1 with a .192 ERA, 76 strikeouts and 25 walks in 80.1 IP.
“A lot will depend on both of them stepping up and being able to give us those quality games when we need it because we have a good team and a lot of seniors back,” Candrea said. “But so do a lot of people around the country. The whole level of softball this year is going to be higher because of that.”
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Along with the incoming freshmen, redshirt junior right-hander Hanah Bowen gives Arizona more bullpen depth. Bowen threw 11.2 innings last season, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA.
“She had a good fall, and has a chance to be really effective at this level,” Candrea said. “I think this year is going to be her moment of pitching in some bigger games.”
Expect to see a more dynamic and explosive offensive game plan from the Wildcats in 2021.
“I think we have power from top to bottom, but also have pretty good speed overall,” Candrea siad. “But I think the power game is going to be Arizona this season.”
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The home run watch will continue for Harper. The shortstop enters the season with 76 career home runs, tied for 12th most in NCAA history. Harper needs 20 home runs in 2021 to overtake former Oklahoma star Lauren Chamberlain (95) as the NCAA’s all-time leader.
Harper batted .395 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in the shortened 2020 season. All stats from 2020 count toward career records.
Candrea doesn’t expect Harper to get overwhelmed by the home run chase.
“She is so grounded as an individual that if it does bother her, you would never know it. She just works extremely hard,” Candrea said. “I am sure there will be a little pressure on her. It’s hard to predict once you get in the heat of the battle what can happen. But the nice thing about the Harper situation is that we are not depending on just her.”
Mulipola’s return will certainly help. The Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year in 2019, Mulipola batted .311 with seven doubles, 23 home runs and 55 RBIs in 2019.
The first-team All-American missed last season while training with the U.S. Olympic team, but will be back behind the plate for Arizona before rejoining Team USA for the postponed Tokyo Olympics next summer.
“She is looking really good. I think the national team experience has helped her,” Candrea said. “She has become a lot more efficient. She is strong and powerful.”
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Palomino-Cardoza batted .373 with seven home runs, seven doubles and 26 RBIs in 2020, while Carranco batted .360 with 10 RBIs.
Malia Martinez hit .333 with seven doubles and 21 RBIs
“Out of any kid, Malia has improved so much in the past four years,” Candrea said. “She is the kind of person no one ever talks about that is a really big part of our team on offense and defense.”
Although being away from the team during the pandemic wasn’t easy, Candrea discovered new ways to keep working that enabled the coaching staff to spend more time at home with family as well.
He realized technological advances – “Zoom has been a revelation for me – could let the coaches do things at home rather than having to be at the facility at all hours of the day.
“I think one blessing out of this pandemic has been something that has always been dear to me and dear to my heart and that is trying to find some balance in life when you are coaching. It’s very difficult to talk about balance and talk about pursuing excellence because when you are pursuing excellence it is a 24/7 job,” Candrea said. “The one piece I have always wished is I could have done more to be around my own kids, and unfortunately with the job you are in it doesn’t happen that way. This has kind of forced everyone to really understand what is truly important in their life.”