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Arizona Cites Nerves Of New 'Rita' For Sluggish Start

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(Photo Courtesy of Arizona Athletics)

For nearly a year, Arizona senior pitcher Taylor McQuillin walked out to the circle at Hillenbrand Stadium and looked at a backdrop of construction.

She got to see every stage of the building process as she threw towards home plate each day, blocking out the noise of construction crews as she waited for its completion. Then, finally, last week, she got a full tour.

“We actually got to walk through the entire stadium after Wednesday’s (Feb. 13) practice at like 8:30 at night,” McQuillin said. “That was the first time we got to see the background stuff.”

The $8 million renovation was exciting. It included a new seating area, press box and suite level, which rivals any softball facility in the country. New dugouts and netting behind the plate were installed, along with a new concourse, which had upgraded facilities for fans.

It looked just like the pictures, released by the athletic department, but there was a new addition the players hadn’t quite anticipated.

As they walked through the halls of their new home, they felt an anxiety they hadn’t felt before.

“I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves,” McQuillin said.

That translated into a rough start.

After already dropping two of its first five games, Arizona lost its new facility’s opener to unranked South Florida 4-1. After a 10-1 win over Illinois-Chicago, the bats were silenced again, this time by Alabama freshman Montana Fouts, as the No. 6 Crimson Tide rolled to a 6-1 victory on Feb. 16.

The Wildcats (6-4) ended the Hillenbrand Invitational on a high note, defeating New Mexico 15-1 Saturday and Cal State Fullerton 6-1 Sunday. However, coach Mike Candrea could tell the damage was done. His Cats fell from No. 9 to No. 16 in the rankings Tuesday, thanks to their worst 10-game start since 2008.

“That first night, we were not as excited as I’d expected to run through a wall because of this new place,” Candrea said. “It’s a special place, and we want to make it a special place.”

Privately, Candrea has to hope that nerves have played a large role in the bumpy start.

The Wildcats entered this season with high expectations, eager to end a nine-year vacation from the Women’s College World Series. The last time Arizona qualified, 2010, it lost in the championship series to bitter rival UCLA.

Th Bruins have made four WCWS appearances since, while U of A has consistently come up just short, losing in Super Regionals seven times.

While the new facility is sure to impress recruits and fans, Candrea, who is second in NCAA history with 1,569 wins, knows the importance of getting the right results.

“I don’t think you can look at a picture. Until you walk in here and see it, it’s pretty special,” Candrea said. “Recruiting, I think it will be a big factor, and I also think it will pave the way for the future of this program. I think it’s the best facility in the Pac-12 and one of the top ones in the country.

“But like I told the girls, the most important part of every stadium is what happens between the lines.”

Arizona rebounded and finished 3-1 at the prestigious Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic last weekend with its only loss to No. 4 Oklahoma (2-1).  The Wildcats also defeated the Japanese National Team, in an exhibition game, 1-0 thanks to a Dejah Mulipolah solo shot.

The first home weekend, the Wildcats dug a hole for themselves, but it’s certainly not too deep yet. This weekend, No. 16 Arizona welcomes Drake, Kent State, No. 24 Minnesota and No. 12 James Madison to Tucson.

“The first week we were like, ‘Oh no, it’s a new stadium. We have to live up to the hype,’” junior Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza said. “But I think that now, throughout the rest of the year, since we got all the kinks out, our nerves are down, that we’ll be a better team for sure.”

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