Arizona pieced together an improbable run to the Women’s College World Series
OKLAHOMA CITY — Arizona softball will make its 25th appearance in the Women's College World Series on Thursday, the second-most behind UCLA.
This is the most unlikely of them all.
These are the same Wildcats who were 0-8 to begin Pac-12 play, the worst start in program history.
The same Wildcats who finished at the bottom of the conference with twice as many losses (12) as wins (6).
The same Wildcats who got swept by Arizona State at home for the first time since 2011 and lost a home series to Stanford for the first time in school history.
When Selection Sunday rolled around, the program's 34-year streak of reaching the postseason was in jeopardy and they knew it.
Then the bracket was revealed, Arizona was in it, and everything changed.
"In watching the Selection Show, it was huge for our team, and it made my heart happy just to hear their reaction," said head coach Caitlin Lowe. "I thought we released a lot that day, and it was just a new start from then on."
The Wildcats have made more history in the postseason, this time the good kind.
They handled No. 15 Missouri and Mississippi State on their home fields, becoming the first unseeded team ever to go undefeated on the road in Regionals and Super Regionals, thereby making Lowe the first first-year head coach to lead her team to the Women's College World Series.
Arizona has been sharp in every facet of the game and is having fun again. The two go hand in hand.
"I think they've played with less pressure," Lowe said. "I think they've played loose. I think they've started to be themselves. It helps to have a healthy team going in, too. I think they chose themselves in a way they hadn't yet before. It didn't really matter what anybody else thought and they went on a tear of being themselves, and I think that's been the coolest thing to see."
𝑻𝒉𝒆 𝑶𝒏𝒆 𝒂𝒏𝒅 𝑶𝒏𝒍𝒚
Since the @NCAASoftball Tournament expanded past 16 teams in 1988, @CaitlinLowe is the 𝐎𝐍𝐋𝐘 coach to lead its team to the WCWS in her first year as a head coach at any level
She is the 𝐅𝐈𝐑𝐒𝐓 𝐄𝐕𝐄𝐑 female to accomplish it in WCWS history pic.twitter.com/ysCln3F81B
— Arizona Softball (@ArizonaSoftball) May 31, 2022
Arizona's pitching has seen the biggest transformation. After posting the worst ERA in the Pac-12, the Wildcats have only allowed six runs in five postseason games. Hanah Bowen and Devyn Netz have found a new gear, attacking the zone and commanding their pitches like never before.
"I think they've had it in them the whole time, it's just a matter of when they were bringing it out, and they brought it out at the perfect time," said catcher Sharlize Palacios. "I love catching our pitching staff. They're great competitors, and they do an amazing job. I think just what Hanah said is just trusting and commanding the zone and competing out there. I think that's what we did as a whole entire team, and it's really fun catching them now in the postseason. It's always been fun, but even elevated to that. They've been doing an amazing job, and I'm really proud of them."
Palacios has been one of Arizona's hottest hitters during this run, a fitting storyline during her team's turnaround. During their 0-8 start, her batting average dipped below .200. Now it's up to .331 to go along with 19 homers, including two in the postseason.
"There was definitely a lot of tears and a lot of talks with Cait and my family, but I just tried to stay the course and just simplify [my approach] again," she said. "And, yeah, it's been a lot more fun now on this side."
Looking back, the Wildcats' struggles — as painful as they were at the time — might have been the best thing that happened to them.
"You go on an 0-8 streak, and you just say at what point are we going to change this? It's up to us," said second baseman Allie Skaggs, the Pac-12's home run leader. "That's one thing that Cait kept telling us at the end of those games: Hey, it's up to you guys. You're the team. Now go light a fire under someone, and let's go win some games. Losing I think just ignites that, and now that we're in a little bit of a good streak, I think the pressure is off. We're loose. We're just having a good time and taking advantage of every single moment that we get at this point."
Lowe opened Arizona softball's Instagram story on Wednesday and smiled when she saw her players assembling puzzles together. It was the perfect metaphor for her team as it continues its pursuit of its ninth national championship.
"I just sat in my room, and I was like, 'we're a puzzle, and we're a bunch of puzzle pieces, and that's what we were at the beginning of the year,'" she said. "We were a bunch of really good puzzle pieces, and we saw it in the fall. We just knew we had to put the pieces together. The pitching, the defense, and the hitting together. I think for the last five games you've seen all of it."'
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