UA softball: After down years, Wildcats 'ready for our opportunity'

2014-02-09T00:00:00Z UA softball: After down years, Wildcats 'ready for our opportunity'By Jon Gold Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

To get a grasp of the heights that the Arizona softball program has reached and the depths to which it has fallen, look no further than the team’s Wikipedia page.

The entry details the Wildcats’ eight national championships, 10 Pac-10/12 championships and five retired numbers. There is a large section dedicated to head coach Mike Candrea, and one that lists the team’s numerous all-Americans, almost too many to count.

And it hasn’t been updated since 2011.

The Wildcats have not advanced to the College World Series since 2010, a three-year stretch of futility that they had not experienced since the mid-1980s. After falling 6-5 to UCLA in the championship game of the 2010 College World Series, Arizona won 43, 38 and 33 games in the ensuing three seasons — a drought, considering the program’s heights.

But with a lineup loaded with experience and talent and a rotation that returns star Kenzie Fowler, the Wildcats have lifted Candrea back up.

“We’ve had a couple tough years,” Candrea admits. “If you’re in coaching, you’re going to have some ups and downs, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of ups. But you just have to keep plugging away. The passion is still there. I love what I do.”

And that is watching the perfect rise ball, the scorcher down the third-base line, the pristine double play.

Those were at a premium last year, when Arizona slipped to 9-15 in Pac-12 play and failed to advance out of the NCAA tournament regionals for just the second time in 25 years. The littlest of things went wrong, and the biggest of things, too, as Fowler was forced to redshirt after back surgery in October 2012. There were one-run losses to Bradley and New Mexico State and three straight losses at Oregon State in the thick of conference play. There were blowouts at the hands of Florida and Ohio State and Virginia Tech and Michigan.

There was crushing, searing disappointment.

“It’s always a disappointment when you don’t make it to your ultimate goal, and we work so hard at it every year,” Fowler said. “It does fuel our fire a little bit. As long as I’ve played here, that was the first time we didn’t host in the postseason. That was a weird thing, going on the road.”

By the time 2013 ended with an 8-4 loss to Baylor in the NCAA regionals, it was clear it was a lost season.

Worse for Candrea, he saw his team lose its aggressiveness at the plate, the edge that was the trademark of the Wildcats for more than two decades. He’d seen it slowly slip away over the previous two years, but not to that extent, as the offense batted .255 in conference play.

Maybe that’s what made Friday’s breakout, 9-0 pasting of visiting Southern Mississippi so relieving. And Saturday afternoon’s 14-2 win, too.

“Right now we’ve got better production, and the one thing about this game is performance breeds confidence,” Candrea said. “It’s not the opposite. Right now, we have kids who can perform.”

And he means kids.

More than half of Arizona’s roster is underclassmen, and they’ve brought an energy to the Wildcats that is undeniable.

Energy, and a blank slate.

“What I think our freshmen genuinely bring to our team is so much … almost … ignorance,” said leadoff hitter Hallie Wilson. “They haven’t been there. They haven’t felt it. I don’t want to say they’re naïve, but they are naïve to the wounds we’ve felt. They bring a youthfulness to each of us.”

A lineup that features plenty of experience at the top now feels refreshed.

Wilson returns with her .372 career batting average to anchor the lineup, with junior Chelsea Suitos following. They’ll set the table for a dangerous heart of the order, led by UCLA transfer Kellie Fox, veterans Chelsea Goodacre and Kelsey Rodriguez and sophomore Lauren Young.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that each had at least one RBI on Friday night.

“That’s what offense is all about,” Candrea said. “You want it to be a constant flow. I think this team has the chance to be that. It’s about finding the right mix.”

That was the hard part last year, as the team went 12-25 when scoring fewer than five runs. With a rotation missing its ace, the offense struggled to bail out a young pitching staff. The Wildcats return all three of those young starters: Estela Piñon, Shelby Babcock and Nancy Bowling.

That’s what made the offseason so important for the Wildcats.

“It started right away,” Fox said. “Over summer, pretty much half the team was here, working out on our own. We learned a lot from last year and wanted to turn it around as soon as possible. Being able to look back and see all of our mistakes, learn from what we did wrong, that was huge for us.”

If anything, the Wildcats are not shying away from the frustration that was last season, and really, the last three seasons. A once-proud program hungers to be proud again. Forget the damage, remember the past.

“As competitors, yes, we were all wounded in the beginning, but we worked so hard in the summer and the fall – we literally stayed and worked out, worked on everything that needed to be fixed – and we brought in so much talent,” Wilson said. “As deep as those wounds go, we use them to fire us up. We’re ready for our opportunity.”

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

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