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Arizona Ends Drought, Returns to WCWS

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(Photo Courtesy of Arizona Athletics)

TUCSON, Arizona – After clinching their first Women’s College World Series title since 2010, No. 6 Arizona didn’t quite dogpile.

Instead, the players just kind of huddled and jumped up and down, while Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” blasted through the loudspeakers at Hillenbrand Stadium. It felt very appropriate.

While it has been nine years since the Wildcats made it to Oklahoma City, the WCWS berth never really felt out of reach for this team or this program. Since the drought started, coach Mike Candrea’s teams have been turned away in the super-regional round seven times, including twice at home. Yet again, they were the favorite, this time against No. 11 Ole Miss, and with an 9-1 victory Saturday, they made sure there was no doubt.

“The past couple of years that I have been here we just haven’t meshed,” catcher Dejah Mulipola said. “We finally broke the curse, and we’re going to where we should be.”

The Wildcats (47-12) grabbed control of the game by hitting two balls to Tate Whitley, which eventually had the freshman left fielder in tears.

The first one was hardly her fault. Arizona’s leading hitter, Reyna Carranco, did what she has done all season, blooping an outside pitch to the opposite field with runners on second and third in the fourth inning.

Despite playing back, Whitley made a diving effort at the ball, but it escaped her glove as she hit the ground, giving Arizona a 2-1 lead. The next batter, Hannah Bowen, went right back at the freshman outfielder, lifting a single down the left-field line.

Fighting the sun, Whitely was unable to read the spin on the ball as it caromed past her, allowing not only Dejah Mulipola to score from third but Carranco to race home from first. In the dugout, Ole Miss coach Mike Smith tried to console an emotional Whitley.

“I just told her, ‘Hang in there kiddo,’” Smith said. “The ball hit and spun and got away from her. It happens. She made some unbelievable plays for us this year as a freshman. She’s been a superstar for us, and she’s going to do some great things. That kid has a chance to be an All-American.”

Ole Miss, down 4-1, never recovered. Malia Martinez hit a bomb in the fifth and Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza blasted another one in the seventh, giving the Wildcats a 7-1 lead.

Martinez was the engine for the Arizona offense throughout the super regional.

Entering the weekend with just three hits in her last 38 at bats, the junior third baseman went 6 for 8 with two doubles, a home run and three RBIs. It was much needed in a series where NCAA home run leader Jessie Harper was not only kept inside the park but went 1 for 7.

“If I had to give an award to the most improved player this year, I would give it to Malia Martinez,” Candrea said. “She’s just finally matured from the young lady I recruited. When we got her here, she was a much better defensive player than she was an offensive player, but she has worked really hard.”

Filling in for ace Taylor McQuillin, junior Alyssa Denham worked through a few hiccups to pick up her second win of the postseason.

A monster solo homer from Autumn Gillispie gave the Rebels their only run, and that big swing wasn’t all too worrisome. In the second inning, Denham worked out of a bases loaded jam with no outs, striking out Amanda Roth and Mikayla Allee before forcing a groundout from leadoff Kylan Becker. In the fifth inning, Denham put herself in trouble, walking the first two batters before getting some help from her defense.

Harper, at shortstop, made the play of the game, charging a grounder and throwing a runner out at home to get the second out of the inning. Harper would later hear her name chanted by most of the 2,835 in attendance, second largest crowd in postseason program history, after making a running back-handed throw to record the final out of the sixth.

“Their shortstop is amazing,” Smith said. “That play she made on the run, that’s a major-league, big-time play. You need to have defensive players like that to make big plays in big moments, and that’s what Mike got out of his kids tonight.”

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