Mike Candrea opened his Arizona coaching career 0-10-1 against his alma mater, Arizona State, but if you ask him about that now, he gives a quizzical look as if to say “is this a joke?”
But it’s true. The Wildcats of 1986 and 1987 couldn’t beat the Sun Devils in 11 attempts, a period of college softball now considered prehistoric, with hard-to-follow white softballs (instead of today’s eye-pleasing yellow) and a pitching rubber so close to home plate every pitcher came off as Sandy Koufax.
After the Sun Devils swept Arizona in the 1987 NCAA regionals, with a berth in the Women’s College World Series at stake, ASU coach Mary Littlewood showed some compassion to the young UA coach.
“Arizona’s been knocking on the door and I know it,” Littlewood said. “I’m not taking them lightly.”
A year later, Arizona swept the Sun Devils in five games and went to the first of Candrea’s 26 Women’s College World Series. In two years, he flipped the rivalry and since been the one to “not take them lightly.”
By 1990, ASU tried to bring Candrea back to Tempe to replace the retiring Littlewood. It was like an old Carole King song: “It’s too late, baby, now, it’s too late.”
Before Friday’s opener of the UA-ASU series at Hillenbrand Stadium, Candrea talked to his softball millennials about the importance of the rivalry. Not all of it got through.
The Wildcats seemed to play the first three innings in a fog, tied 3-3 with a team with a 6-9 Pac-12 record. Even pitcher Danielle O’Toole said she needed to “light a fire” to get properly psyched.
“They need to bring some more energy,” Candrea said, which seemed odd given the importance of the game to the Pac-12 standings, the Territorial Cup maneuvering and all that jazz.
“I just think right now they really don’t understand,” he said. “They think our rival is UCLA. This was a good time to talk about the Cup and all the stuff that young freshmen don’t really think about.”
Arizona won 4-3 and the uncomfortable nature of the game was a reminder that all that can be lost if the Wildcats don’t sweep the series: Arizona leads the Pac-12 at 16-3, but Utah, 12-4, continues to linger in the championship race.
But that’s a story for next month. Beating the Sun Devils is all that matters now, and Friday’s escape got Arizona’s attention.
Candrea simply carries on, preferring to search for his ninth national title rather than reflect on how it all got started.
“I find that it’s better to have a short-term memory,” said Candrea. “If you think back to those first two or three years, or to the 300 or so games we’ve lost, it’s like Mickey Mantle stopping to count his strikeouts and not his home runs.”
Unlike the early days against ASU, Candrea now holds the best cards. No one in his starting lineup began the night with a batting average of less than .303. Five Sun Devils starters were hitting .275 or below.
If nothing else, Candrea is a survivor.
A decade ago, under coach Clint Myers, ASU began a five-year run in which it actually took control of the Territorial Cup series as Candrea struggled to find a franchise-pitcher to replace injured Kenzie Fowler. It took longer than anyone wanted.
The Sun Devils won national championships in 2008 and 2011 and built a new stadium. In contrast, Arizona went 59-58 in the Pac-12 from 2011-16.
But Candrea persevered and rebuilt his program after acknowledging that leaving the program in 2008 to coach Team USA at the Beijing Olympics took such a toll on recruiting that it required an unexpected reconstruction.
As Candrea was rebuilding, Myers left ASU to coach at Auburn and the Sun Devils are working on their third head coach in three years, from Craig Nicholson to Robert Wagner to Trisha Ford.
Now it’s the Sun Devils who are scrambling to get back near the top.
This in-state scramble to be on top goes back three decades, to December 1985. Four months after Arizona hired Candrea, the mother of UA catcher Stacy Engel — now assistant coach Stacy Iveson — helped to arrange a fundraising campaign to install lights at the UA’s old softball facility.
A few nights before Christmas, 25 glowing hot-air balloons were positioned at the UA Mall. You could ride in a balloon for $1,000, with the proceeds going to what Arizona hoped would someday be a winning softball program.
Friday night, three decades later, Hillenbrand Stadium was again filled to capacity, at 2,695. In a season in which Arizona is 46-4, the lights shine on.