Greg Hansen: Offense reigns in softball as teams copy Candrea's UA program

2014-05-20T00:00:00Z 2014-05-20T00:07:57Z Greg Hansen: Offense reigns in softball as teams copy Candrea's UA programGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Mike Candrea was reading his team the riot act Saturday afternoon, and if you were near the left-field bleachers at Hillenbrand Stadium you couldn’t help but get an earful.

This isn’t like the old days, when Candrea’s softball teams won regional playoff games 13-0, 14-0 and 15-0; when the Wildcats practically invented the term “run-ruled” and went home after five innings with their uniforms clean.

“There’s not a safe lead anymore,” he would say after the NCAA’s mandatory cooling off period.

Late in Saturday’s 9-8 victory over LSU, Arizona pitching coach Alicia Hollowell ran a shuttle from the bullpen to the dugout, keeping Candrea updated on the readiness of reliever Shelby Babcock.

Do you realize that the UA’s opponents over three days at Hillenbrand Stadium hit exactly .300 and scored 24 runs? That usually gets you beat in any college softball series.

Candrea chose to stick with senior pitcher Estela Piñon even though she threw 84 pitches in relief Friday night and would require 121 more to beat LSU on Saturday. And did I mention it was 100 degrees?

Over three days at Hillenbrand, 27 home runs left the park. Teams combined to score 101 runs. The Arizona regional wasn’t the only place where offense dominated a game once ruled by power pitchers. At the Oklahoma regional, the Sooners and their opponents combined to score 88 runs.

“Our stadiums were built for a different game,” Candrea said. “We need to move the fences back. It really makes the game tough on the pitchers.”

Everybody hits in college softball. A generation ago, when the ball went from a whiter shade of pale to an eye-catching yellow – “we had a white ball with white seams,” Candrea remembers — the pitching rubber was moved from 40 feet to 43 feet.

Amazingly, when Candrea coached Arizona to its first NCAA title, in 1991, the Wildcats hit five home runs. F-i-v-e. This year they’ve hit 106.

The talent level in college softball continues on a remarkable uptick. After 20 years of travel-ball and all-summer AAU teams, the available pool of elite players has multiplied many times.

When the Wildcats open super regional play Friday in Lafayette, La., they will face a Ragin’ Cajun club that has hit 85 homers. It’s a team from the Sun Belt Conference that has been rated as high (or higher) than Arizona all season.

Oh, how the game has changed. Who doesn’t have a player like the Cajuns’ sophomore catcher Lexie Elkin, who has 20 homers and 70 RBIs?

When Candrea delivered his peppery post-game address Saturday, he stood near an awning that displays in bold letters Arizona’s 22 appearances in the Women’s Softball World Series. That impressive list of World Series visits ended in 2010.

You almost look at the awning and wonder if a painting crew forgot to add the last few years.

Qualifying for the World Series in Oklahoma City has never been more difficult. Although the UA’s player of the weekend, first-baseman Hallie Wilson said “our team is not full of superstars,” you wouldn’t be far off if you suggested Arizona has the most potent on-field lineup in college softball.

But unlike the golden years, 1991-2010, Arizona no longer has a corner on the pitching market. After freshman Kenzie Fowler pitched the UA to the 2010 finals in Oklahoma City, her career was stalled and taken off track by an unfortunate series of injuries.

Instead of two or three pitchers capable of leading their teams to the World Series title, there are now probably nine or 10 nationally. Arizona will go as far as Piñon and Babcock can take it.

Candrea stimulated the growth in college softball more than anyone in the business. His eight NCAA titles, and his head-turning talent and sellout crowds at Hillenbrand Stadium, were envied around the country.

Every team with a softball program wanted to be like Mike.

He’ll be able to see part of what he inspired in Louisiana this weekend.

The Cajuns play in Lamson Park, a 2,790-seat stadium that is more modern than Hillenbrand. Lafayette is 252-29-1 at Lamson over the last 10 years, and the chance to beat a Big Name Team like Arizona will surely mean that all 2,790 of those seats will be full this weekend.

Cajuns’ pitcher Christina Hamilton is 27-2 with a 1.53 ERA. If she’s not the best pitcher in the country, she’s close. She beat the mighty Texas Longhorns in back-to-back games at the regionals over the weekend, giving up a mere seven hits in 14 innings.

“She was kind of like a machine,” Longhorns coach Connie Clark told reporters after the Ragin’ Cajuns eliminated Texas 10-1.

Much like Candrea’s old teams, Lafayette has itself become a Big Red Machine. Lamson Park won’t be a place for the weak of heart.

Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com. On Twitter @ghansen711

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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