It’s been nearly nine months since the Arizona Wildcats’ unceremonious conclusion to a once-promising baseball season.
The Wildcats, who kicked off the 2017 season with 10 consecutive wins, hit the skids at the worse time, losing two of the last three regular season games against Cal, before getting bounced in the NCAA Tournament regional by Sam Houston State.
Fast-forward eight months, and there is an almost brand-new Wildcats squad taking the field at Hi-Corbett Field, in what could be a year to remember in Tucson. Coach Jay Johnson certainly has high hopes for his team this spring, with the Wildcats kicking off their season at home against Bryant University at 6 p.m. this Friday.
“There’s a lot to feel good about, a lot of returning players with a lot of at-bats that are better than they were a year ago,” Johnson said. “Some guys that were hoping to take that next step in their development meshed together and figure out our best team and go out and compete really hard, in a way that we want our team to be known for. We’re very excited to get going next week.”
The Wildcats, fresh off a 38-21 finish in 2017—have a star-studded infield, led by Golden Spikes Award (given to the best player in college baseball) nominees Nick Quintana and Alfonso Rivas, III.
Quintana, who hit .293 in 56 games as a freshman, with 17 doubles and two home runs, is expected to anchor the team’s third base position. He expects this year’s team to take the league by surprise, saying their chemistry and talent is unmatched.
“I would say experience definitely is one them, one of the main ones really because a lot of older players that played last year, contributed to last year’s team, came back,” Quintana said. “And our kind of teaching how everything goes, kind of the ropes, to the younger guys.”
Rivas, meanwhile, is expected to be the team’s offensive tour de force, playing first base for Johnson. Rivas hit .371 with seven home runs and 63 RBIs, and will be counted on to replace the output of former first baseman JJ Matijevic, now in the Houston Astros organization.
Johnson spoke high of the duo in his preseason press conference last Tuesday, calling Rivas one of the most underrated hitters in the country. Rivas knows how tough it’ll be to replace Matijevic’s offensive output but believes the team as a whole can do their best to make up for it.
“I mean we lost two, three pretty big parts of our team last year. I mean with JC [Cloney], JJ and all of us leaving,” Rivas said. “But I think some players have stepped up this year, to kind of fulfill those roles and so, I mean maturity has gone up, with this team, experience has shown in practices and meetings and stuff like that. So yeah, I think one of the bigger differences between last season’s team is kind of like that. Kind of stepping up, being a leader to the younger guys and stuff like that.”
Johnson certainly isn’t doubting his junior first baseman, who he expects to have a breakout year this spring.
“In terms of his qualities as a player, he has as good of plate discipline as any college hitter you’ll see,” Johnson said. “His ability to hit mistakes is as good as you’ll see from any hitter at this level. And the thing I appreciate the most about him is his mental maturity. He’s very consistent, never too high or too low, and that allows him to perform at a high level on a consistent basis.”
Rivas and Quintana will likely be joined in the infield by junior catcher Cesar Salazar, second baseman Cameron Cannon and freshman shortstop Jacob Glass.
The Wildcats softball team also experienced quite the unexpected gut-punch to end its season last year. The Wildcats, who were up by two runs in game three of the NCAA Tournament Super Regionals on visiting Baylor University—needed three outs to clinch its first berth in the Women’s College World Series since the 2010 season.
The Wildcats went 52-9 a year ago, but couldn’t get the outs they needed—with lockdown pitcher Taylor McQuillin surrendering a three-run home run to Baylor’s Shelby McGlaun—giving the Bears a 6-5 lead they’d never relinquish.
It’s a loss that still stings for Coach Mike Candrea, now in his 32nd season with the Wildcats.
“Well it’s pretty hard,” he said. “If you’ve ever been in the shoes of a college coach or a player that goes through that, it’s not something that leaves you very quickly. But the lucky part about it is that in softball you have the summer to deal with it. And I think as you get older in life, you realize that things aren’t always going to go your way, and you have to move forward.”
That’s just what Candrea’s team did in its opening weekend last week, going 4-1 in the Kajikawa Classic, held in Tempe.
The Wildcats throttled Northwestern, University of California-Davis, Fresno State and New Mexico, outscoring the trio 31-3. Their lone loss of the event came to 24th-ranked Oklahoma State, in a 9-4 Cowboys victory.
Perhaps the most impressive performance of the weekend tournament was the effort turned in by McQuillin, who threw her first no-hitter against the Lobos—striking out 11 New Mexico hitters in five innings, with only a walk preventing her from a perfect game.
McQuinllin’s dominance was something that Candrea predicted during his preseason press conference, saying that the junior is one of his most improved players.
“I think Taylor McQuillin is what I’d consider right now my ‘ace,’ because of her experience,” Candrea said. “She’s pitched in some big games. I think she’s changed herself a little bit, which you have to do at this level. You have to kind of recreate yourself each year.”
Candrea knows that this year’s team is full of potential, but that they’re lacking in experience. He feels that tournaments will help him determine which players are ready for the sport’s biggest stage.
Perhaps the biggest boon for Candrea is having redshirt sophomore Alyssa Palomino back, after she tore her ACL for the second time in May. Palomino, who hit .302 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs a year ago, suffered the injury in the lead-up to the NCAA Tournament in May.
This weekend’s opening tournament allowed Palomino the chance to take the field, going 3/14 (.214) at the plate in five games.
Palomino knows she’s not at 100 percent yet, but believes she’ll get back in the swing of things soon.
“I’m feeling great, ready to go, ready to get this started,” Palomino said. “…I was cleared after seven months, got cleared a week away, and just ready to hit the ground running. I went in there, my mentality was just getting, kick some butt, let’s get ready for season. That’s exactly what I did.”
Arizona Softball’s first home game is this Thursday against Colorado State.