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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Manager turned player

    Freshman Jill Malina was the softball teams manager until a few weeks ago. Shes now a base runner and backup outfielder for the No. 3 Arizona softball team.
    Freshman Jill Malina was the softball team’s manager until a few weeks ago. She’s now a base runner and backup outfielder for the No. 3 Arizona softball team.

    Jill Malina had what she wanted – an academic scholarship to Arizona, her school of choice, where she could pursue a physical education degree with hopes of becoming a teacher or a coach.

    In the meantime, she figured she’d try playing for the Wildcat softball team.

    “”I thought, ‘There are only three outfielders (on the team),'”” said Malina, a freshman outfielder. “”The worst that could happen is they could say ‘no,’ so I gave it a shot.””

    Arizona head coach Mike Candrea, facing a roster that carried only eight returning players from last season and just 12 athletes overall, lifted Malina from her team manager post to active duty four weeks ago to be a pinch-runner and backup outfielder.

    Malina joins former Wildcat soccer player Kelly Nelson, a senior, and walk-on sophomore second baseman Danielle Rodriguez as recent additions to the No. 3 Wildcats (6-0).

    “”It is definitely an honor. I don’t think I could ever be happier,”” Malina said. “”I’m spending most of my days with the most talented group of girls out there.””

    Coming off four years at Scottsdale’s Pinnacle High School, where she set career and single-season records for runs and stolen bases, Malina said she e-mailed Candrea in September to ask about tryout dates.

    Soon after, she hit the field under the watch of Candrea and Arizona assistant coaches Nancy Evans, Bill Feinberg and Larry Ray.

    “”(Candrea) was looking for another manager, and I told him I would do anything to help out the team,”” Malina said. “”So I did that, and he offered me a spot on the team.””

    As a manager, her responsibilities were simple: get out on the field before practices, set up buckets of balls for coaches and lay out bases if they weren’t already in place. Sometimes she ran in drills and caught for players when they wanted to warm up.

    Though game action remained at a distance, she found other ways to contribute on the field.

    In December, she assisted Feinberg during Candrea’s Christmas camp for youth athletes from all across the country. Despite being a middle infielder at Pinnacle, she helped out exclusively with the outfielders.

    “”She’s a phenomenal instructor,”” Feinberg said. “”Her family’s a group of teachers, she’s going to be a teacher. That helps her as a player as well. She’s always looking at what she can do to get better.””

    Feinberg said Malina still needs to improve her arm strength to approach the levels of position mates senior Autumn Champion, junior Caitlin Lowe and sophomore Adrienne Acton, but she’s already made significant progress in a relatively short period.

    Since the preseason began, he said, he’s used a point system to evaluate the throwing accuracy of each outfielder.

    He awards three points when a throw to an infielder leads to a perfect tag at the base and one point if the tag gets made after an extra step or two.

    Where Malina showed only 65 to 70 percent accuracy in the drill during the fall, he said, she’s since raised that number to the mid-80s.

    “”Jill’s always asking about her score,”” Feinberg said. “”She cares about getting better.””

    Malina said she isn’t expecting to see much playing time this season unless a starter gets hurt.

    Instead, she intends to chip in on the base paths when needed – as in three games of the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe last weekend – and take mental notes of things to teach her children down the road.

    “”You just have to look at it as a positive way of helping us get to where we need to go,”” Acton said. “”It’s a really big job. It can help us win or lose.””

    Acton spent last season somewhat in Malina’s shoes, starting only 10 of 49 games in the regular season before becoming a mainstay during the NCAA Tournament.

    One of her season highlights was scoring the winning run as a pinch-runner in the bottom of the seventh inning of the Wildcats’ 3-2 win over Eastern Michigan.

    “”It feels great. It feels like hitting someone in or making a great play,”” Acton said. “”The rush you get from it is just amazing, because you get to win the game for them.

    “”(Jill) definitely (has) a lot to look forward to because that feeling is better than anything.””

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