Mike Candrea has been to, what, 762 NCAA softball super regionals?
This one feels different.
They all feel different, sure, but the coach was beaming after Arizona’s 13-5 win over LSU in the second game of Sunday’s regional doubleheader at Hillenbrand Stadium.
This is a team that entered the season almost as an afterthought, which is almost unheard of around these parts. The Wildcats were summarily dismissed until they summarily dismissed pitch after pitch, blossoming into the best offense in the country. They’ve been dealt more bad hands this season than a poker player on a bad run, sevens and deuces flying everywhere.
Still in the midst of a journey that Candrea hopes culminates in the program’s 23rd Women’s College World Series berth since 1988 — and continues on Friday night at Louisiana-Lafayette in the super regional — he was still able to sit back and appreciate his team’s success.
“It’s just … I really like this team,” Candrea said. “You always want success for your players, and right now, what we’ve been through the last couple years, to win that regional at home was a good feeling. I’m really looking forward to this next step, to see how they respond.”
The Wildcats responded to a challenge on Sunday afternoon, albeit a self-imposed challenge.
Candrea felt that Arizona approached Sunday morning’s 5-1 loss to LSU with a play-not-to-lose attitude after winning their first two playoff games. The Wildcats, who’ve played the role of aggressor — particularly on offense — were passive in the early game.
Arizona managed three hits against the Tigers’ Baylee Corbello but could not manage their emotions, shoulders slumped on every sullen return back to the dugout.
An hour after the first game ended, Hallie Wilson led off the bottom of the first inning of the second game with a home run, and suddenly, the UA’s slumped shoulders disappeared.
“Definitely, having that game on the line, winner go home, definitely put more energy in the team,” said the Wildcats’ Mo Mercado, who sulked in game one and swatted in game two, going 4 for 4 with a walk-off two-run, mercy rule-clinching homer.
“All these girls talking to one another, having the respect, getting a speech, knowing how much the game means to us definitely kicked us into gear.”
The morose morning was just another lesson that the Wildcats have learned this year, from a near-flawless non-conference schedule to a brutal road conference slate to a regular season-ending flop against Oregon after a victory over the No. 1 Ducks the day before.
“You have to kind of go through those moments to learn from them,” Candrea said. “We need to be able to play like our backs are against the wall when they’re not against the wall.
“That’s the key to good teams. It’s not about the opponent, it’s about you.”
Traveling to muggy Louisiana to face a Ragin’ Cajuns team that has a balanced offense and a dominating starting pitcher in Christina Hamilton, the Wildcats won’t be able to afford many more crash courses in extended enthusiasm.
“There’s no doubt they’re going to understand the sense of urgency that first night,” Candrea said. “But sometimes you come out the second day, and some teams don’t have the mindset they need to. I’m hoping we’ve learned a big lesson.”