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UA, ASU softball programs heading in opposite directions

The battle for softball supremacy in the state is no different. The rivalry has gone on for decades, and it might be experiencing a power shift toward Tempe. Both schools have storied softball programs, but their seasons are going in opposite directions heading into the stretch run of the 2022 season.

In a weekend series of top 20 teams played last month in Tucson, the Sun Devils swept three games by a landslide. The Sun Devils outscored their rivals 28-2 in the series and have won their past 14 games. Arizona, meanwhile, is struggling. The Wildcats snapped an eight-game losing streak Sunday by beating Washington, but they’re 1-8 in Pac-12 play.

First-year Arizona coach Caitlin Lowe knows how much these rivalry games mean. Players, coaches and fans took the weekend hard.

“I think frustration is the best word,” Lowe said after an 8-0 loss in the series finale. “We went through our bumps last year, too, and that made us into the team we became at the end of the year. The mindset still is ‘What team are we building towards?’ That is the perspective we all need right now.

“What we’re seeing, too, is that when our bats are alive, it takes pressure off our pitching. And when our pitching is going well, it takes pressure off our bats. Unfortunately, we don’t have either going right now.”

Arizona’s 0-8 start in conference play was its worst start to Pac-12 play in program history.

As Arizona’s center fielder from 2004 through ’07, Lowe enjoyed a 10-2 record in games against the Sun Devils. As a member of the University of Arizona's coaching staff for the better part of 10 years, losing to ASU still stings.

“It feels terrible,” she said. “But we can either continue to feel terrible, or use it as fire.”

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The schedule does not get much easier for the Wildcats, who travel to Corvallis, Oregon, for three games against No. 23 Oregon State beginning Friday. Lowe believes her team can get out of its funk and that Arizona is somewhat fortunate to be playing the Goliaths of the Pac-12 at the beginning of the conference schedule rather than at the end.

“The silver lining is that we have games right now, and we have a chance to turn it around,” she said. “If this was the end of the year, we would’ve missed our opportunity.”

“We’ve seen some of the best pitching and hitting in the Pac-12. We now know what to expect. Now, it’s a matter of turning our mindset around. I think that’s where it’s painful right now, because I know we have the physical tools to be able to do that, but it’s currently all between the ears.”

In the series finale against the Wildcats, Arizona State’s Marissa Schuld, who transferred from Arizona before the 2021 season, got a little revenge by throwing a perfect game – the eighth in program history. She couldn’t have asked for anything better in her return to Tucson.

“Obviously there were emotions from me, and I wanted to show the player that I can be – sticking to my plan and not making the game too big,” Schuld said. “Taking it pitch-by-pitch was important.”

Lowe saw Schuld dominating the Wildcats not just physically but mentally as well.

“Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve mattered who was on the mound,” Lowe said. “I saw it in our hitters. We were just not in the right place mentally. We were just putting too much pressure on ourselves.”

The Sun Devils got another emotion-driven performance from Yannira Acuña. The senior outfielder, a Tucson native, made just two outs all weekend. She was awarded Pac-12 Player of the Week honors, and now is slashing .494/.606/1.013 or the season. Acuña hit one of ASU’s eight homers of the weekend on Sunday and scored six runs in the series.

The Devils have now won six of the past seven games against the Wildcats. She knows it hasn’t always been this easy playing against Arizona during her time at ASU. The Wildcats swept the Sun Devils when the teams last played in Tucson during the 2019 season, and Acuña understands better than most how much Wildcat fans appreciate their program.

“They’re a young but very talented team still,” Acuña said. “It’s always great to win, and I’ve loved how happy we’ve been for each other’s success. A lot of the fans down here screaming all weekend were my family, too. It was awesome, and I’m fortunate enough to get support from both Tempe and Tucson.”

Riding an impressive hot streak, Arizona State coach Trisha Ford might have wished the Sun Devils didn’t have a bye week after the University of Arizona series and could keep playing while firing on all cylinders, but Ford wasn’t complaining about getting a bit of rest while sitting atop the Pac-12 standings at 6-0. The Sun Devils return to action Friday at Oregon.

“I think we can always use a weekend to get healed up and feel fresh to prepare for Oregon, as it’ll be a tough series, but we’ll be ready,” Ford said. “I think that we’re starting to find our rhythm and not skipping a beat. The game is enjoyable. We got a lot of pep in our step, and we’re in a great spot.”

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Ryan Schwager/Cronkite News

Arizona’s offense has been quiet recently, scoring just two runs during a six-game losing streak in late March.