The No. 2 Arizona softball team gets a look at its past, present and future this weekend in Lafayette, La.
The Wildcats open their only three-game series of the season Friday against No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette, in Arizona's final tuneup for Pacific 10 Conference play and a rematch against the team that prevented a 17th consecutive trip to the Women's College World Series.
"Lafayette's a good team, and obviously, being on the road is always a challenge. It's a very unique place to play at," said Arizona head coach Mike Candrea of Lafayette's Lady Cajun Park. "They have great fan support. The fans are crazy. It's a great environment, and it'll be a great challenge for our kids."
In the Cajuns (22-5), the Wildcats (24-2) have an opponent that on paper carries striking similarities.
Arizona faces a three-deep pitching staff in senior Brooke Mitchell (17-4, .74 ERA, 199 strikeouts in 113 1/3 innings), junior Ashley Kirchberg (2-1, .72, 40, 29) and sophomore Heather Bobbitt (3-0, 2.62, 50, 32). The trio has allowed opponents only a .142 batting average this season.
That bodes poorly for an Arizona squad that averages .329 but strands nearly seven runners per game.
"It's real hard when the first batter that gets up in an inning gets out," said freshman catcher Callista Balko. "It's real easy to get that momentum going if the first two runners get on. That's the key, to just execute when we have baserunners on."
First baseman Lacey Bertucci (.373, nine home runs, 27 RBIs) and right fielder Danyele Gomez (.358, six home runs, 19 RBIs) lead a Lafayette offense that has lived and died with the uppercut swing. The Cajuns edge the Wildcats in home runs (31 to 16), RBIs (146 to 121) and extra-base hits (74 to 44).
"They swing at almost everything," Balko said. "It's just trying to keep the ball out of the zone and making them chase after it."
Junior pitcher Alicia Hollowell (15-1, .37) gets the first and final cracks at Lafayette, starting Friday and Sunday. Junior Leslie Wolfe (2-0, 1.50) takes the mound Saturday in place of freshman Taryne Mowatt (7-1, .86), the usual second starter.
Candrea said the freshman's performance Sunday against No. 1 Michigan, when she gave up four runs in 3 1/3 innings, had less to do with the decision than Wolfe's recent success.
"Leslie threw well in Las Vegas (against Miami-Ohio March 13) and really needs an opportunity," he said.
The chance to exact vengeance against a Cajuns squad much intact from the one that defeated Arizona 5-0 in the NCAA Regional round in May hasn't troubled the minds of many Wildcats.
"I just think we're going to come out with the same intensity as we have every game," said senior third baseman Jen Martinez. "Just knowing what happened last year will bring us out with more intensity and ready and really wanting to do some damage to that team."
Candrea isn't reading too far into the teams' history, either.
"Right now, it's just taking care of Arizona and doing the things that we do well," he said. "I'm hoping that we continue to improve offensively. Right now, that's what I'm looking for, that we're getting quality at-bats and doing the little things that it takes to win."
The Wildcats have done as much so far this season compared to Lafayette - they are 4-2 against ranked opponents this season, while the Cajuns are 0-3.
"I think we're really getting ready for Pac-10," Martinez said. "We're getting some good games in. Facing good competition is only going to benefit us."
Even after taking its first losses of the season at the Kia Klassic in Fullerton, Calif., last weekend, Arizona feels confident looking ahead.
"Especially after this road trip, I know there's a lot of us coming together," Balko said. "Rather than individuals on the field, it's a team effort that will carry over into Louisiana."