Stand Beside Her tour visits U. of Arizona

Olympians host Play Ball event, face Wildcats in exhibition

February 19th, 2020

TUCSON, ARIZ. -- The eighth stop of the Stand Beside Her tour saw Team USA take a trip to Tucson, Ariz., for a day of softball instruction through MLB's Play Ball initiative before playing a game Tuesday night against the University of Arizona.

More than 200 kids from Tucson schools came out to Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium to take part in drills from a group of Team USA softball Olympians: Rachel Garcia, Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Aubree Munro and Dejah Mulipola.

Olympic gold medalist, MLB Youth Softball ambassador and Arizona Wildcat alum Jennie Finch opened the event by giving a speech to those in attendance.

“There’s a purpose and a plan for their life, they have greatness within them,” Finch said. “It’s not going to look the same, we’re all different, there’s only one of them and there’ll only be one of them so go out there and let your greatness shine. Be you, have fun and just enjoy it and let that greatness come out.”

For almost two hours, Play Ball participants rotated among drills run by Team USA, with Finch teaching them how to throw a ball and swing a bat. A couple of young players even got to hit a home run off Finch.

Other drills included playing Wiffle Ball with Garcia, who was the 2019 Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year; fielding popups with Munro; running the bases with Abbott; agility exercises with Osterman; and learning how to swing a bat with Mulipola.

“I think Play Ball is awesome, especially because it’s partnered with MLB,” Mulipola said. “It’s awesome to give back to the younger kids and share the love of the game, and get them going and get them excited about softball."

“It’s a huge opportunity to expand the sport, especially softball.” Garcia added. “It’s fun to be out here to play a game of Wiffle Ball with no rules, and it just means a lot to inspire the younger age.”

Softball legend Lovie Jung was also at Hillenbrand Stadium to help spread the game of softball. Jung won the Olympic gold medal with Finch back in 2004 and the silver medal in '08. That year was also the last time that softball was in the Olympics, and with it returning for the 2020 Olympics, the Stand Beside Her Tour is really important to grow the game.

“There’s always more after college for softball, but the Olympics are our pinnacle for softball right now,” Jung said. “All these girls get to have dreams, aspirations and goals to be able to meet and exceed those and try to get there to where these girls [Olympians] are right now that are going to play tonight.”

Later Tuesday night, Arizona, ranked No. 5 in the nation, hosted Team USA for an exhibition game.

Sellouts are nothing new at Hillenbrand Stadium, but this one was special, with almost 3,000 in attendance to see Team USA win 5-4 after a dramatic comeback fell short by Arizona.

In their nine games as part of the Stand Beside Her tour before Tuesday night, Team USA had six shutouts, including a no-hitter two nights prior against Oklahoma State. What do you expect when you have a pitching staff headlined by Abbott, Osterman and Garcia?

Team USA jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead in the first inning after a three-run home run by Ali Aguilar. They added one run each in the second and third innings to eventually go up 5-0, and it looked like they were going to cruise to another easy win.

“It was fun for me to see how they would react to the dominance of a team that you’re playing,” Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said. “Whether they were going to fall down and die or if they were going to battle.”

In the fourth inning, one of the most dangerous batters in the country woke up. Jessie Harper stepped up to the plate and hit a home run to left field off Osterman. To put it into perspective, Harper was just 8 years old when Osterman lost to Arizona in the Women's College World Series in 2006.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Harper said about the home run. “Probably not until I call my dad -- I know that he’s going to be super excited, so I can’t wait to hear back from my fam. As of right now, it’s just a very cool moment to be able to share the field with this team.”

In her next at-bat, Harper stepped back up to the plate with two runners on and two outs. After connecting on a ball that ended up going about 300 feet foul, Harper slugged her second home run of the game to the opposite field, making it a one-run game.

It stayed that way until the bottom of the seventh, when Harper came up to bat again looking for a third home run. But this time she had to face one of the most intimidating pitchers of all-time in Abbott.

Harper struck out on three pitches and the rest of the Wildcat hitters were set down to finish off the game.

“Coming in in the seventh, I knew Jessie Harper was coming up,” Abbott said. “She had an incredible game with two home runs, and Arizona had all the momentum. I just wanted to come in and try to set the tone early to get that first out.”

Team USA will now travel to the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic for games starting on Thursday.