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Softball continues where it left off

KEVIN KLAUS/Arizona Daily Wildcat

UA senior pitcher Jennie Finch fields a grounder this weekend against Alabama. Finch won both her starts in the Wildcats' three-game sweep of the Tide to extend her winning streak to 42 consecutive games.

By Dan Komyati
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday Feb. 4, 2002

UA sweeps first regular season series against No. 13 Tide

In a not-so-typical weekend of Arizona softball, the defending national champions began their season much like they left off last May - as the victors.

Top-ranked Arizona overwhelmed No.13 Alabama, 8-2, 13-5, and 11-1, during the season-opening games at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium.

The Crimson Tide managed to take a first-inning lead during each contest of the weekend, but for three consecutive games, the Wildcats' bats responded with some timely hitting and the long ball.

Yesterday was no different, as senior all-American pitcher Jennie Finch gave up her second home run in as many starts - both to Alabama sophomore all-American Jackie McClain - to stake the Crimson Tide to an early 1-0 lead.

But in the bottom half of the inning the Wildcats reminded their Southeastern Conference opponent of exactly why they are coming off their sixth national championship in the past decade.

Sophomore first baseman Leneah Manuma stepped to the plate with two runners aboard and drilled a three-run home run that was still rising as it bounced off the Ina E. Gittings building beyond the right-field fence.

After sophomore catcher Mackenzie Vandergeest lined an RBI single in the second, the Wildcats put the game away in the third.

Freshman third baseman Jackie Coburn came to the plate with two runners on after being held hitless in her first six at-bats of the weekend. She promptly delivered the first hit of her Wildcat career with a blast over the right-center field fence for a three-run shot and a 7-1 lead.

Manuma ensured that all in attendance would be home in plenty of time to catch the Super Bowl pre-game show as she delivered a two-run single to help stretch UA's lead to beyond the eight-run mercy rule.

Finch shut down the Tide over the final two innings for her second victory of the weekend in the five-inning game, allowing four hits and striking out four.

The third win of the weekend was the most complete victory for the Wildcats and most pleasing for head coach Mike Candrea.

"(Sunday) was a lot closer to the type of performance that I expect," Candrea said. "First weekends are your chance for the new kids to gain a little confidence, and I really believed that happened."

Manuma's effort yesterday was especially gratifying as it came on the heels of a bizarre turn of events during Saturday's game. She had a home run taken away from her after she passed a runner in the baseline, and after hitting a ball over the fence she was only credited with an RBI single.

"That's the first and last time that I think you will see anybody on our team do something like that," Manuma said of the early-season blunder.

On Saturday, the Wildcats again relied on their All-American Finch - but this time it was her bat that decided the outcome of the contest.

After the Crimson Tide scratched across three runs on one hit off of sophomore pitcher Jenny Gladding in the first inning, Finch tied the game with one swing of the bat during the bottom half of the frame.

The Wildcats' lone returning senior was just getting started.

Two innings later she came to the plate with the bases full and the Wildcats trailing 4-3, and again erased the Crimson Tide lead with another blast to left - giving her seven runs batted in on just two swings.

The total was just two shy of a UA single-game record that Finch tied with a nine-RBI effort a year ago.

After a slow start at the plate during the exhibition season, a red-hot Finch finished the weekend with six hits and nine RBI.

"I was seeing the ball really well and just trying to get the barrel out and not think about too many mechanics," Finch said of her 3-for-3 afternoon. "With runners on base, I was just trying to hit the ball somewhere hard."

With plenty of run support, Gladding battled through six innings that saw her walk a career-high eight batters but also strike out nine in the 13-5 win.

The opening game of the series set the tone for some of the more unusual events of the weekend, when - after three consecutive exhibition no-hitters - Finch surrendered two hits and two runs in her first inning of the season.

After Finch helped herself with a RBI single in the Wildcat half of the first, Vandergeest ignited the weekend's offensive fireworks with a grand slam over the right field fence off of Alabama's all-American pitcher Shelley Laird. She finished the game with five RBI, and freshman outfielder Courtney Fossatti started her career with a perfect four-hit day in the 8-2 victory.

Finch only allowed a single over the game's final six innings and struck out 10 batters in the opening night win.

Head coach Mike Candrea was left shaking his head several times during the weekend, but in the end he was happy with outcome of the series that extended the Wildcats' home winning streak to 47 games.

"I think offensively there were a lot of bright spots - especially in the middle of the lineup," Candrea said. "We need to keep making adjustments, but, truthfully, I think that this team is going to be very good."


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