The smell of freshly cut grass, the sight of white-chalked foul lines, the sound of leather cracking as a ball hits the catcher's mitt.
While it technically may still be winter, here in Tucson, the sun is shining, softball and baseball seasons are quickly approaching, and this year the Wildcats are poised for success on the diamond.
Photo courtesy of Arizona Athletics
Fans were able to catch a glimpse of the Arizona softball team during the fall season when the Wildcats collectively outscored their opponents 112-9 and posted a flawless 8-0 record. This weekend, the team returns to action as the Wildcats open their nonconference season with a three-game series against Oklahoma State at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. The UA's first game with the Cowgirls is slated for Friday at 5 p.m.. Saturday's contest will take place at 2 p.m., and the final game will be Sunday at noon.
Arizona softball head coach Mike Candrea is expected to rely heavily on standout returners such as Kellie Fox, Hallie Wilson, Chelsea Goodacre and Katiyana Mauga, who are projected to be key cogs in the Wildcats' offensive and defensive arsenals. Last week, Wilson, Fox, Goodacre and Mauga were selected to the USA Softball Player of the Year watch list.
Fox has been touted as one of the best all-around shortstops in the nation. The San Diego native is the sister of Kristie Fox, the current University of Texas at Arlington head softball coach and former Wildcat shortstop.
Kellie Fox began her career at the University of California, Los Angeles before transferring to the UA in 2013. Last year, she made the most of her first year of eligibility as a Wildcat and subsequently earned first-team All-Pac-12 honors, was selected as a third-team National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-American and was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. Fox has been a part of the U.S. Women's National Softball team for the past two years.
Wilson was placed on the watch list for the third time in as many years after a successful 2014 campaign. The southern California native posted a .799 slugging percentage and led the team with a .535 on-base percentage. Her tenacity and discipline at the plate resulted in 44 walks — tied for seventh in program history.
Goodacre, a senior catcher who has been awarded first-team All-Pac-12 honors, earned a spot on the watch list after leading the conference last year in home runs and runs batted in.
Mauga returns to the field for the first time after claiming the 2014 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year award. She is one of six sophomores named to the watch list after bursting onto the scene last season to hit 20 home runs (one shy of the program's freshman home-run record) and produce a .877 slugging percentage, the sixth highest in the nation.
Arizona baseball will open its season beginning Feb. 13 with a trio of games against Eastern Michigan. The UA's 10-game homestand will continue over the next two weeks.
The program made moves during the offseason seemingly designed to find leadership and bring new talent into the lineup and bullpen. Head coach Andy Lopez has added two junior-college transfers and 12 freshman prospects to the roster as the Wildcats attempt to rebuild and return as conference contenders. Key returners from last year's team include preseason All-Americans in junior shortstop Kevin Newman, junior infielder Scott Kingery and sophomore pitcher/infielder Bobby Dalbec.
During the summer, Newman made headlines by being the first player ever to win the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League batting title over two consecutive summer seasons. Last month, the native of Poway, California, was honored as a second-team Louisville Slugger and third-team Perfect Game preseason All-American.
Kingery was named to the Louisville Slugger preseason All-America third team after being one of just three Wildcats to have received Pac-12 all-conference honors last season. Although he served as Arizona's starting center fielder last year, he has since transitioned to the infield and is expected to start at second base.
Dalbec, a double threat as a pitcher and power-hitting infielder, was selected as a third-team Perfect Game preseason All-American after an impressive freshman campaign. He compiled the lowest earned-run average of all Wildcat pitchers and also had the fifth-highest batting average on the team along with two home runs and 30 runs batted in.
This year will be of extra importance for seniors Riley Moore, Joseph Maggi, Tyler Crawford and Mathew Troupe, who were on the roster during the UA's 2012 national championship season. It will be their final chance to lead the team back to the College World Series.