HANSEN

Greg Hansen: Age-old excuse not reason for downfall

2013-05-04T00:00:00Z 2013-05-06T17:18:40Z Greg Hansen: Age-old excuse not reason for downfallGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

In its final issue of the semester, the Arizona Daily Wildcat asked: Is UA softball coach Mike Candrea too old?

You could see that one coming, high and tight, like a Jennie Finch fastball.

The Wildcats have been in-your-face awful. Upon being swept by Oregon State last week, the Wildcats replaced OSU in last place. Two weeks earlier, they had the ignominy of losing back-to-back no-hitters to the Oregon Ducks, a long-time bungling franchise that didn't break .500 in the Pac-12 from 1989 to 2012.

For decades it was news when Arizona lost any game, anywhere, at any time.

The culture changed so quickly - from Arizona-the-bully to Arizona-the-bullied - that after smiling Wildcats outfielder Hallie Wilson singled with the bases loaded to beat Arizona State 10-9 in an epic comeback Friday night, she said, with emphasis, "I mean, this is ASU."

As if the Sun Devils were some type of unconquerable giant. But, after all, ASU had whipped the Wildcats six games in succession, and the Wildcats do remain in last place.

Is this fracture of a long-dominant softball program all because the coach is suddenly too old?

No, that's not it. Candrea turns 57 in August. ASU coach Clint Myers, who has won NCAA titles in 2008 and 2011 and is in position to win a third next month, is 62. Cal's Diane Ninemire, whose Bears won the Pac-12 title and finished tied for third nationally last year, is 56.

For 20 years, Candrea has been seen as the most accomplished hitting coach in all of softball, a tactician and motivation specialist who, some have estimated, earns close to $1 million annually in video/speaking/instructional revenue.

Candrea hasn't lost it any more than Lute Olson did at 57. At that age, Olson still had three Final Fours and a national championship left.

"The softball gods haven't been with us this year," Candrea said 20 minutes after Friday's game. But the perfectionist in him quickly bubbled to the top. Harking back to last week's agonizing sweep at OSU (the Beavers won three consecutive 2-1 games), Candrea said "where the hell was that (comeback) last weekend?"

The fire still burns.

Whatever happens to the Wildcats the rest of the season, even if they miss postseason play for the first time in about a million years, they can be assured, like most things in college sports, the collapse can be traced to bad recruiting and program-altering injuries.

How did it all go wrong?

1. 2009 national high school player of the year Kenzie Fowler has been chronically injured and her throwing motion altered - some say "wrecked" - by former pitching coach Teresa Wilson. Fowler won 38 games as a freshman and was a first-team All-American. If she returns in 2014, it could be strictly as a hitter.

2. Wilson's evaluation of junior pitcher Shelby Babcock, signed as an "A level" pitcher in the Class of 2011, was seriously off target. Babcock's career ERA is 3.49. Here's some context: UA pitching coach Alicia Hollowell compiled an 0.87 ERA during her Wildcat career.

3. While Candrea was coaching Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, interim coach Larry Ray did the bulk of evaluating/recruiting for the Class of 2010, this year's seniors. It was a program-altering bust.

California career prep home run/RBI leader Baillie Kirker left the team after hitting .211 with one homer last year. Becca Tikey, who, coincidentally, is now a seldom-used outfielder at ASU, washed out. Matte Haack transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette. Shortstop Brigette Del Ponte is hitting .229. That's it. No one else remains.

4. After hitting 19 homers with 55 RBIs as a freshman, shortstop Shelby Pendley, unhappy, transferred to Oklahoma where she is hitting .397 with 18 homers and 61 RBIs. She is the likely Big 12 Player of the Year. Her presence alone might've prevented four or five Pac-12 losses.

5. And then there's this: In February 2010, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) High School pitcher Brianne Matthews, judged by recruiting analysts to be the top young pitcher in high school softball, committed suicide. She had pledged to play for Arizona six months earlier. Matthews would've been a freshman this season.

That's enough to throw any program off course.

The other critiques are a bit goofy. Those who lump aging Hillenbrand Stadium into the downfall of UA softball are wrong.

On game day, Hillenbrand remains, by far, the top softball facility in the Pac-12 and among the best in the nation. The UA is averaging 2,142 fans at Hillenbrand this year. First-place Oregon averages 476, and even nouveau riche power Arizona State can put no more than 1,235, on average, into its softball facility, which, true, has better restrooms and media facilities than Hillenbrand, but nothing else.

Women's college softball has changed dramatically since Candrea and UCLA took the league hostage in the late '80s and were virtually unchallenged for 20 years. The pool of available recruiting talent overflows. Everybody has good players.

"There's no corner on the market any more," Candrea said.

Now the Ducks go to small-town Sutter, Calif., and find a pitcher, Jessica Moore, who goes 23-3 and tosses a perfect game against Arizona. Now the Sun Devils go to Mater Dei, ironically enough, and sign the late Matthews' old battery mate, Amber Freeman, who is hitting .403 with 16 homers as a sophomore.

The Wildcats have a talented core of players who will return in 2014 - Wilson, Chelsea Goodacre, Lauren Young and UCLA transfer Kellie Fox are "Arizona good" - but unless incoming freshman pitching prospect Michelle Floyd is Finch-type good, it won't be a quick fix.

As the Sun Devils built an 8-0 lead early Friday night, the capacity crowd at Hillenbrand Stadium sat quietly, almost resigned, as if in church.

But this time, when you least expected it, the Wildcats were a holy terror.

It was just like the good old days again.

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

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