UA HOME TURNS 20

Arizona softball: Turning 20, memories aplenty

Cats to honor storied Hillenbrand Stadium before facing Bruins
2013-04-18T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T15:32:17Z Arizona softball: Turning 20, memories aplentyPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 18, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Hillenbrand Stadium turned 20 two months ago, but the Arizona Wildcats are celebrating tonight.

The team will fete the softball ballpark tonight - complete with players wearing copper batting helmets as party hats - when the Wildcats (27-17, 4-8 Pac-12) host the rival UCLA Bruins (28-14, 5-10).

In that spirit, here's a look at 20 things that make the stadium unique:

1. It was Mike Candrea's dream. After the UA won the 1991 Women's College World Series, William G. Hillenbrand walked into Candrea's office and asked if the coach had any projects to which he could donate money. The UA coach pulled a napkin out of his bag on which he'd doodled a sketch for a stadium complex on the site of their home, Gittings Field.

The day Hillenbrand and his wife, Doby, made the $1 million donation "was one of the biggest days of my life," Candrea said.

Less than two years later, Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium -named for William's late sister - opened on Feb. 13, 1993.

2. They win there. The Wildcats are 580-66 all-time at Hillenbrand and 17-4 this season.

3. Some of the sport's great players called it home. The 2006 Women's College World Series 25th Anniversary Team featured three Hillenbrand-era players - Leah Braatz, Jennie Finch and Leah O'Brien - plus Candrea on the 11-person roster.

4. All-Americans. Since moving to Hillenbrand, the UA has claimed 77 National Fastpitch Coaches Association All-Americans.

"I think our advantage was not so much the stadium as much as it was the athletes that put on the uniform and walked out here," Candrea said. "The combination of the two was always worth a run, we felt like, when we walked onto the field."

5. The home run was practically invented there. In the program's 11 NCAA years before moving to Hillenbrand, the team averaged 5.2 homers and had never hit more than 15. The Wildcats launched 36 in their first year at Hillenbrand, 93 in Year 2 and 100 in Year 3.

6. Linda Ronstadt. Since moving to Hillenbrand, the UA has blared Ronstadt's "Palomita de Ojos Negros" and "La Mariquita" every time players warm up in the top and bottom of the first inning.

7. "Candrea's Corner." After winning back-to-back national titles, the UA launched the general admission season-ticket package beyond left field in 2008.

"I think it's the best when I'm hitting, or on deck," shortstop Brigette Del Ponte said, "and I look at Candrea's Corner and it's all filled."

8. Fans come. In 2011, the Wildcats set an NCAA record by drawing 77,129 fans.

9. Welcome to Wildcat Country. The last vestige of Gittings Field is a white wooden sign that says "Welcome to Wildcat Country." It's hung in the left-field concourse for 20 years.

"I wanted them to keep that," Candrea said, "as a little bit of a reminder of where we started and where we're at now."

10. It's a postseason destination. The UA has hosted NCAA regionals 17 times in Hillenbrand's history.

11. The onetime wooden wall. The UA padded the outfield wall for the first time in 2010, one year after adding a warning track. Before then, the outfield intimidated opponents.

"I actually loved the wood wall," said former star outfielder Caitlin Lowe, who plowed, face-first, into it in 2007 and is now the UA operations director. "I thought it was kinda an advantage for us - the fact few people had a chance to play off something like that, plus the fact we had no warning track. I feel like I know this field like the back of my hand."

12. It's on TV. The stadium, which has hosted more than 30 national broadcasts since 2005, will be on ESPN2 tonight, ESPNU Friday night and the Pac-12 Networks on Saturday.

13. The dirt. The Wildcats' infield dirt is "a slapper's dream," Lowe said. The ball trampolines off the hard surface, giving hitters time to beat out hits.

14. The dugouts. When Hillenbrand Stadium was built, the UA - and most of its opponents - had chain-link, Little League-style dugouts. UCLA used to sit in beach chairs. Hillenbrand helped "to really wake everybody up," Candrea said.

15. The grass. At Gittings Field, the UA had to paint the grass green. At Hillenbrand, Candrea said, groundskeepers "take care of it like it's their own backyard."

16. The honorees. The UA's outfield wall and batting cage facade display lists of the school's retired numbers, conference titles, playoff appearances and eight WCWS titles.

17. It's grown. When the stadium opened, the stands had not been completed and it held about 500 fans. After averaging 734 fans in the first year, the UA has averaged at least 1,291 every year since. The Wildcats have led the nation in average nine times, most recently with 2,516 fans in 2010.

"You feel like a professional," Del Ponte said, "playing on this field with all the fans."

18. They want it to grow more. Candrea has dreams of raising the stands and putting a clubhouse and bathrooms beneath them. He'd like indoor batting cages and a larger team room.

"Basically it's to keep up with money that people have put into facilities around the country," he said. "At one time this was the best. When kids walked in here, they were in awe. Now it's not the best."

19. The UCLA rivalry. Tonight's opponent is perfect for the occasion. The two have combined to win 19 WCWS titles; UCLA has won 66 of the 120 all-time NCAA matchups.

20. It's still home. The Wildcats will welcome at least 15 former players tonight. The Hillenbrands' grandchildren will throw out the first pitch, and Doby Hillenbrand is expected to attend Friday.

"There's quite a few people coming back; hopefully they'll take up a section of fans," Lowe said. "But then again, they're kinda always out here."

On StarNet: See the new copper helmets and listen to Mike Candrea talk about 20 years at Hillenbrand azstarnet.com/video

The series

• Who: UCLA vs. Arizona at Hillenbrand Stadium

• When: Tonight at 7 (ESPN2); Friday at 5 p.m. (ESPNU); Saturday at 6 p.m. (Pac-12 Arizona)

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

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

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