The Arizona Wildcats softball team did what it should have done. It took care of business in the NCAA regional this weekend, capped by a 10-2 victory over Texas Tech on Sunday.
Whether it was the Red Raiders, or New Mexico State on Saturday, or Harvard on Friday, none of the opponents had the pitching to challenge Arizona.
The Wildcats won by a combined score of 28-2. That’s the way it often is in this round of the playoffs.
But those days are over.
Arizona will take on Oklahoma this weekend in a best-of-three Super Regional at Hillenbrand Stadium. Friday’s game begins at 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU). The teams will play Saturday at 2 p.m. and, if necessary, at 4:30 p.m. (ESPN)
The Sooners beat UA 11-1 in a season-opening tournament in Tempe on February. They won again, 5-3, in the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif., on March 17.
Oklahoma has one of the nation’s best pitchers — hard-throwing left-hander Keilani Ricketts, who ended the regular season fourth in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings (11.5).
“From here on out,” said coach Mike Candrea, “the margin of error becomes so slim.”
With the stakes, the pressure and the competition rising, here is a look at what’s going good and what’s going bad for the Wildcats:
GOOD NEWS — Kenzie Fowler
Arizona’s sophomore ace pitched all 19 innings at the regional, going 16 1/3 innings before allowing a run to Texas Tech on Sunday. She allowed two runs at the regional, and seemed to show little ill effects about starting on three consecutive days.
Fowler has been working on her endurance after missing nearly three weeks because of a concussion late in the regular season.
“Physically, I feel good,” Fowler said.
“I felt better as the weekend went on. I was a little tight in the Harvard game, just physically. My arm was a little tight, and then it loosened up through Saturday and Sunday. The heat helped me stay loose, that’s for sure.”
It might be a concern that Fowler retired the side in order in only two of her 19 innings, which is a dangerous way to live at this time of the season. But everybody around Arizona is feeling a lot better about the team’s postseason chances with the way she pitched this weekend.
Without her at something near her best, the Cats have no chance of going far.
“I was glad to see Kenzie get through three games and feel pretty good,” Candrea said.
BAD NEWS — Defense
Arizona has a young infield — with sophomores at the corners, junior Kristen Arriola at second and a pair of freshmen walk-ons at shortstop.
One of the those shortstops, Alex Lavine, let a high-hopping ball go off her glove Saturday as she moved toward second base to try to make a play. On Sunday, Arriola had a similar thing happen. Both plays were deemed hits by the official scorer, although Candrea might be scoring those as errors in his head.
Centerfielder Lauren Schutzler committed an error on Saturday when a fly ball went off her glove.
“Defensively right now, I don’t sleep at night really well,” Candrea said, “because we’re not there yet.”
GOOD NEWS — The middle of the order
Brigette Del Ponte, Stacie Chambers and Lini Koria combined to hit .433 (13 of 30) with four doubles, five home runs and 15 RBIs in regional play.
That’s a ton of production from the 3-4-5 hitters.
Koria was 6 of 10 with two home runs, including a grand slam.
Candrea’s message to her recently has to been to start her swing earlier, so she can slow down and not rush her swing.
“He is really big on telling me that I need to realize that I’m good when I’m relaxed,” Koria said. “I just found that happy medium I need to be in.”
Chambers’ two home runs at the regional gave her a school-record 87, just three off the NCAA record of 90 held by former UCLA catcher Stacey Nuveman.
“I like where Chambers is, probably more so than at any time this year,” Candrea said.
“I think she is laying off some bad pitches and seeing the ball better. I just feel good about her ability to make some good decisions there.”
Chambers walked four times — once intentionally — in the three games.
BAD NEWS — The team’s overall mindset
Candrea has been outspoken, especially in the past week, about the need for his team to get fired up, to play at a consistently high emotional level, to have more vocal leadership from his veterans.
Arizona spent the past weekend playing with the lead; will this team have the fortitude to battle back if it falls behind Ricketts and Oklahoma?
“The big thing is I hope this team feels the sense of urgency to kind of clean their act up a little bit,” Candrea said.
It was a business-like reaction to winning the regional. In this case, Candrea wouldn’t have minded a little celebration.
“Like I told them, there is one thing I don’t take for granted, and that’s winning,” Candrea said.
“It’s huge when you’re winning in front of your fans. I’ve been in enough of these regionals to know it’s not a cakewalk, and it’s getting tougher every year. …
“The tough thing about Arizona softball is you don’t really see a lot of jubilation (after winning a regional) because it’s part of the process. And that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, with a team like this, I was hoping it would kind of ignite them a little bit to feel good about themselves and what they just accomplished.
“So, I guess we’ll see this week when we start practicing.”
GOOD NEWS — Brittany Lastrapes isn’t hurt
Lastrapes made a running, leaping catch at the left field fence in the bottom of the third inning Sunday, and, although it wasn’t a violent collision, she crumpled to the ground after throwing the ball back to the infield.
“I was like freaking out,” Fowler said. “I was like, ‘Get up.”
Lastrapes stayed on the grass for a couple of minutes, during which time the trainer and Candrea came out to check on her. Turns out, Lastrapes just had the wind knocked out of her.
Lastrapes, Arizona’s senior leadoff hitter and three-time All-American, is just fine.
“I just went in ribs-first,” she said of her collision.
Good thing Candrea put protective padding on the wooden wall after the 2008 season. Quite famously, centerfielder Caitlin Lowe went face-first into the wall in pursuit of a fly ball in the 2007 super regionals.
“I don’t even want to think what would have happened if it was still a wooden wall,” Lastrapes said. “I probably would have broken my rib.”