Since the Wildcats decided to have more fun and relax on the softball field, they have gone a combined 4-2 against No. 5 Arizona State and No. 13 Stanford. UA faces Baylor today.


COLLEGE STATION, Texas - There are easy explanations for how the Arizona Wildcats, one of the great programs in softball history, wound up as the third-best team in a regional in the middle of muggy Brazos County: the late transfer of an All-American, a lack of pitching, an injury to star Kenzie Fowler and the slow development of four first-time starters.

There are more reasons deeply rooted in their psyche, too, Mike Candrea said this week as his 32-24 Wildcats prepared to play 39-15 Baylor today at 2:30 p.m.

Facing failure this year - for many players, for the first time - the UA seemed to squeeze harder and worry more.

Maybe it was the expectation of playing for the eight-time NCAA tournament champion, combined with the disappointment of posting the worst record of Candrea's UA tenure.

"They put enough pressure on themselves trying to belong, and trying to live up to the expectations of themselves or the program," Candrea said.

For many of this generation's players, he said, it was akin to a crisis of career.

"This group has grown up with the mindset that they specialize a lot longer than back in the day, when kids played three sports because they enjoyed athletics," he said. "The sole purpose was, yeah, to get a scholarship, to play the game they enjoyed playing and having fun.

"Here, it's almost become a business. 'We're going to get a scholarship.'

"That changes it a little bit."

What was missing, was fun.

So when the Wildcats stood in the outfield after their third straight loss at Oregon State three weeks ago, the team made a conscious decision to smile more, cheer louder and take a couple deep breaths.

Heck, things couldn't get any worse.

Since then, the Wildcats have won four of six - twice against No. 5 Arizona State, and two more last week at No. 13 Stanford - and are playing their best softball of the season.

They cheer like mad now, pushing negative thoughts out of the dugout and into the ether.

"Clearly, it's working," left fielder Hallie Wilson said.

"Oh yeah - that's how we win," catcher Chelsea Goodacre added. "It's having fun. I totally think it's related. Growing up, I was always just having fun.

"Usually when you put too much pressure on yourself, it's, 'Oh, my God - I gotta get a hit.' "

The attitude adjustment has since bred confidence.

But relaxed thoughts, on their own, don't win championships.

"It's worked," Candrea said. "We do know going into postseason, though, it's not always the case that you can go out and have fun.

"You've still gotta execute the game."

Nowhere are nerves more magnified than the playoffs.

"There's not really a balance to it," shortstop Brigette Del Ponte said. "It's, 'Don't think about it, or else it's going to get to you.'

"If you get a ground ball, it's just another ground ball. But if you make an error, it can be really bad and cost us a lot.

"You can't be too relaxed, but you can't be too stiff."

UA junior Shelby Babcock, who practiced again Thursday, is considered healthy and could start.

Her counterpart, Baylor junior Whitney Canion, is 23-7 this season with a 1.62 ERA.

"They've always been a good team throughout the postseason, but I think it's going to be a good matchup," Canion told reporters Thursday, "whether they're going to play the short game, or the long ball."

Whether slapping a bunt or swinging for the fences, the Wildcats will try to walk up to the plate the way they have the last two weeks: not controlled by concern.

"The one thing people don't realize is that softball's a game of relaxed skills," Candrea said. "The more relaxed you are, the better you play.

"But it's knowing how to control that relaxation."

Time change

Today's Arizona's regional game against Baylor was bumped back two hours, from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., Tucson time, at the request of ESPN2 on Thursday. Texas A&M and Penn will play at 5 p.m. All games from College Station, Texas, will be live on ESPN2.

• What: Arizona (32-24) vs. Baylor (39-15), NCAA tournament

• When: 2:30 p.m. today

• Where: College Station, Texas


Contact reporter Patrick Finley at or 573-4658. On Twitter @PatrickFinley