Olympics-bound

By Aj Camacho / El Inde

It started when half the U.S. Women’s National Softball team voted to travel to Seattle, Washington, while the other half voted to stay put. That’s how Dejah Mulipola got stuck in a hotel conference room. They were given a black card and told to book flights, everyone was scared. Scared to go home alone, scared of the disease, scared of having to stay in the state with the second-highest positive Covid-19 cases. The room had people booking flights home, crying players, and staff. They had 6 hours to get home or be stuck for another day. Social media was rapidly updating because the NCAA canceled all post-season tournaments. The NBA season was postponed the night before. Then the Olympics. Dejah didn’t know what was happening and it seemed like no one else in the world did either. 

Dejah is a member of the USA Olympic softball team, she stands at 5’8, with a smile as big as her personality. She was named the best college softball catcher in 2019 by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. In 2020, she was one of three college athletes to make the U.S. Women’s National Team (WNT). In 2021, she returned to the University of Arizona to finish her final year of college softball and graduate with a degree in communication.

The U.S. Women’s National Softball Team was traveling the country in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Dejah took part in the official “Stand Beside Her Tour.” The tour consisted of games and practices taking place in towns across the United States to celebrate and support the softball team. The WNT just finished playing in Tucson, Arizona, home of Dejah’s college softball team, when they made their way up  to Seattle, Washington. 

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In 2021, the biggest natural disaster in the United States were the winter storms that brought in freezing temperatures and surrounded the area with snow and ice in early February. Stuck in the middle was Taylor McQuillin, a pitcher for the Mexican Women’s National Team. She was stuck in Arlington, Texas almost a year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. There was ice all around her. It was in the trees and on the road causing massive pileups. The temperature was in the 20’s and the games that were scheduled were canceled. 

Taylor and her teammates, who she had not practiced with in over a year, decided to stay in Texas after the games were cancelled. The team practiced in an MLB indoor facility, keeping the doors open allowing the freezing air inside. This way there was ventilation for everyone to safely be inside as COVID-19 continued to be a threat. Taylor wore a parka and switched in and out of it between drills so she could stay warm in the middle of a once in a lifetime winter storm that put ice everywhere in Texas.

What do the two have in common? Taylor is a left-handed pitcher for the Mexican National Team, a grad assistant and former player for the University of Arizona. Taylor is juggling her dream to play in the Olympics while being able to play at the collegiate level with a GA position. Taylor and Dejah started their friendship back in travel ball. This is the time period when young softball players join club teams and travel around the country. The friendship has grown past that and into their college years. 

“Me and her are on the same mental page, I know what she wants to throw and she knows what I want to call. I know what Taylor likes to throw and Taylor knows what I like to hit,” remembers Mulipola. The two faced off in an early-season scrimmage for the University of Arizona softball program where McQuillin pitched to help her stay in shape. Despite them being on different international teams the two have only faced off in one at-bat where Mulipola got hit by a pitch. “She’s been my catcher for years, so it’s normal. The weirdest part is playing internationally because you’ll see her in USA and I’ll be in the Mexico jerseys. It’s just weird.” said McQuillan.

As crazy as it sounds, this year has turned out almost perfect for Mulipola, who had to leave her senior year to go on tour. She returns to play with 6 other seniors in her graduating year. “I get to play, I get to graduate, and I get to go to the Olympics so everything worked out in the end.”  Sadly, for Mulipola not everything is perfect. You are in your senior year and there are no fans allowed. “My whole college career I was looking forward to my senior year just because family saved their money up and said they would come to every game.” Thankfully, March may bring in a chance for family to come to her games as COVID-19 restrictions lift. Still, Mulipola is going through a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity alone. Her Olympic teammates are together practicing, her family is in California, and COVID-19 has hindered her ability to see anyone in person.

Taylor is having similar struggles. Unlike Mulipola she hasn’t officially made Team Mexico’s 15-person roster. She is currently fighting to make the cut of five while also being committed to traveling with the University of Arizona. “Making the five-person roster is my own goal individually, and Coach [Candrea] kind of understands why I gotta leave so that Mexico understands I am committed to them.” The hardest part for Taylor is “finding the balance between both teams” but since all of the U of A’s courses are online — there are no in-person classes that are stopping traveling.

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Dejah Mulipola is on fire. Coach Candrea has definitely helped her prepare for the Olympics. So far in the season she has hit 12 home runs in just 24 games. According to Arizona Softball Dejahis also leads the Pac-12 in on base percentage (the percentage of time she gets on base), and slugging percentage (the total number of bases she gets per at bat). The best part of the season so far was the first time Arizona Athletics allowed fans and family to attend games. 

“I had my dad, stepmom, two uncles, my aunt, and six little cousins. I had a bunch of people and I couldn’t get them on the guestlist because we only got four tickets.” This was Arizona Softball’s first time allowing fans all season and was the first time Dejah’s Dad got to see her play in two years. It was the first time her aunt’s and uncles saw her play in four years. 

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A week later Taylor McQuillin and Team Mexico came to Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium to face the Arizona Wildcats in an exhibition game. Taylor pitched 3 innings holding her current team to 1 walk and striking out Team USA’s Dejah Mulipola. Taylor, who has family now living in Tucson, had a reunion of sorts with her family able to attend the game. 

“The last time anyone has seen me play was probably Super Regionals here in Arizona. Then only my Mom went to the World Series. This was the first time my Grandma, my Mom, my Dad have seen me play in two years.” said Taylor who had parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles in attendance.  

There was a bit of a family reunion with two other former Arizona players playing for Team Mexico, pitcher Danielle O’Toole and left fielder Brigette Del Ponte. Dejah hit a home run off of Danielle and during a post game conference said “I wanted an aggressive approach regardless of who was pitching whether it was Taylor, Toole, or any of the Mexico pitchers. There was also a nice moment before the game where all the Olympians met with Head Coach Mike Candrea at home plate and received an ovation from a limited crowd of 25% capacity. 

More news from the WBSC who tweeted that the Olympic games begin in 100 days and start with softball. The games are scheduled to be July 21 until July 27. Softball will be the first sport to open the Olympics. 

Taylor is still unsure of her position because the final roster for Team Mexico will not be released until June 7. Until then, all she can do is play and wait.

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