No. 6 Arizona dominates No. 11 Ole Miss to punch WCWS ticket
Arizona's drought came to an end Saturday and Mike Candrea is happy he won't have to answer questions about it anymore. His Wildcats took care of Ole Miss 9-1 to lock up their second win over the Rebels in the Super Regional securing a spot in the Women's College World Series for the first time since 2010.
Candrea's team went through a stretch in the 1990s and early 2000s when it rarely missed making it to Oklahoma City. Arizona has been close in recent years routinely making it to the Super Regional round, but it was finally able to break through Saturday thanks to its bats plus some spectacular defense and an impressive performance in the circle.
No. 6 UA is playing as good as it has all season right now, and it has needed all parts of the team to be in sync to get over the WCWS hurdle. One of the best offenses in the country showed why that is the case in the victory for Arizona as three players went deep taking the team's home run total up to 106 on the season.
Alyssa Denham held things down in the circle for the Wildcats as she worked through several tough spots throughout the game including a bases-loaded jam early in the game.
Denham took advantage of her defense all game long and no play was more memorable than a flip to first base from shortstop Jessie Harper in the eighth inning that brought UA within three outs of reaching the WCWS. Candrea said the play was reminiscent of a play Derek Jeter would have made for the UA head coach's beloved New York Yankees.
All the pieces came together and Candrea has been preaching it would take that type of effort for his team to continue advancing in the tournament.
"Well, we got it done," Candrea said after Saturday's win. "That's it. We get to play this next week, which is our goal every year. I'm just very happy for this team. They've done a lot of good things. Not just their performance on the field, but they've become a team.
"I can't say enough about the kids that aren't playing everyday and have still bought in and were totally engaged in this journey. The players on the field were just fabulous. I think we've grown up a lot ... we have a lot of kids right now that I think have really come a long way. It all kind of came together."
Catcher Dejah Mulipola started off the scoring in Saturday's game with her 22nd home run of the season in the second inning before No. 11 Ole Miss answered back with a home run of its own in the third. It was the fourth inning that would eventually be the crucial one for the Wildcats as UA took a one-run lead on a single from Reyna Carranco that scored Malia Martinez.
Before the end of the inning UA would add two more runs on a fielding blunder from Ole Miss left fielder Tate Whitley who lost a ball off the bat of Hanah Bowen allowing two more Wildcats to come in to score. Martinez homered to center in the fifth inning and the Wildcats added four more runs in the top of the seventh – highlighted by a two-run home run from Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza putting the game completely out of reach and securing UA's spot in the WCWS field.
"The one thing I didn't want us to do is to get into pull mode," Candrea said about his team at the plate. "I think it was about the second inning that I told them, 'you either have to pick one or the other.' We were trying to cover both the off-speed pitch and the hard stuff, and she was giving enough of both that you could sit on one or the other. That was basically our adjustment."
While the offense eventually is what carried the Wildcats in Saturday's win the team would not have been in such a favorable position without Denham working out of a number of tough situations throughout the game. The junior battled her way out of a bases-loaded situation in the second inning with two strikeouts and a groundout before finishing off a tough fifth inning, that started with two walks, with a big strikeout during an eight-pitch at bat against Ole Miss' cleanup hitter, Brittany Finney.
"I take no credit for any of it," Denham said. "It was literally all of the defense and the bats. ... I think that was one of the best feelings that I ever felt. You've gotta just dig deep and you gotta bear down."
The end result of Arizona's win over Ole Miss was a spot in the 2019 Women's College World Series. It's something the Wildcats have been working to get achieve once again for the most of the last decade. It was well worth the wait.
"I think we truly just bought in, and we worked as a unit," Mulipola said. "Our motto this year was one team, one heart beat and it definitely showed on the field, which is why we finally broke the curse and we're going to where we should be."
And what about that drought and all the Super Regionals Candrea's team didn't win over the last decade?
"Well it's sweet because maybe I won't have to answer anymore," he said.
Next up for Arizona will be a meeting with No. 3 Washington to open the WCWS in Oklahoma City. UA will be looking to avenge a sweep at the hands of the Huskies in the last regular-season home series earlier this month.
UA and UW open up the WCWS Thursday at 9 a.m. MST.