(Tucson, AZ) Kim Doss
In the last game at “Old Rita,” Arizona Softball showed that they intend the future to be as successful as the past. The Wildcats battled the Bulldogs of Mississippi State to a 4-3 win in a display of everything that has made Arizona Softball a titan of their sport. They finished the regional with a 3-0 record, eliminating Mississippi State from the postseason without the need for a second game.
“Arizona got upset on their field last year to go to the World Series,” said MSU head coach Vann Stuedeman, “and you gotta know they didn’t want that to happen again. You gotta know that they wanted to defend their turf.”
Early in the game, it looked like Arizona might have difficulty defending that turf. As the designated visiting team, Arizona was able to get a hit off MSU starter Holly Ward in the first inning, but couldn’t push a run across. Ward sat the Wildcats down on 11 pitches.
The Bulldogs offense came out ready. SEC Freshman of the Year Mia Davidson came to the plate with one out, and smashed a 2-2 pitch from Alyssa Denham over the fence to give MSU a 1-0 lead. Davidson’s 19th home run of the season set the school home run record for MSU.
She was followed by teammate Sarai Nui, who put her team up 2-0 with a home run of her own. Arizona head coach Mike Candrea immediately had Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin in the bullpen warming up, but Denham was able to get out of the inning without any more damage.
The Wildcats’ bats came alive in the second inning. An infield single from Dejah Mulipola was followed by a single off the bat of Aleah Craighton. It was the start of a productive day for the #5 and #6 hitters in the line-up. Mulipola went 2-3 with a walk, while Craighton was 3-4 with an RBI double on the day.
With Craighton and Mulipola on base, Ivy Davis was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Jenna Kean reached base for the fifth straight at-bat over the past two days, scoring Mulipola from third with a base on balls. Senior Ashleigh Hughes stepped in to knock in Craighton and Davis with a single up the middle. The Wildcats were up 3-2.
Denham appeared to have settled down, starting the bottom of the inning with her first strike-out of the day on four pitches. The illusion was shattered by another home run, this time off the bat of center fielder Carmen Carter. When Denham walked the next batter, Candrea made the pitching change.
“I knew I was going to have a short leash,” Candrea said.
McQuillin came in and immediately settled things down, getting two outs on three pitches with a double play ball. She would not give up another run, and needed only 57 pitches to get through 5.2 innings.
“I think [McQuillin] has grown a lot mentally,” Candrea said. “Today, she was the pitcher I thought she was when we recruited her.”
Ward appeared in all four games MSU played over the weekend, but didn’t feel that had an effect on her. Arizona was seeing the ball well out of her hand, but were unable to put any more runs on the board until the fifth inning.
“I really didn’t throw that many pitches the past two days compared to a regular SEC weekend,” Ward said.
Jessie Harper gathered her first hit of the game in the top of the 5th with a single to left field, and was moved into scoring position by a walk to Mulipola. Craighton’s third hit of the day drove in the deciding run, scoring Harper with a one out double.
“It was great to finally get some hits,” Craighton said. “This is what we’ve been working for all season, all week at practice, so it feels good to execute it on the field.”
McQuillin continued shutting down the Bulldogs’ hitters, sitting them down in order until the seventh inning. After a leadoff walk to Reggie Harrison, she induced a bunt in the air to third base and a strikeout. When Carter came to the plate as the possible final out, the Arizona fans rose to their feet. Strike. Ball. Ball. Foul. A foul that looked catchable dropped by Mulipola. Strike. Game over.
“Just tip your hat,” Stuedeman said. “They played a great game.”
Arizona will move on to play in the Super Regional against conference foe UCLA next weekend.