Arizona softball sports information director Danny Martinez entered the team’s postseason news conference on Thursday afternoon and said to the room, “How’s everyone doing today?”
Total silence, until Estela Piñon chimed in.
“Nervous,” the Wildcats ace said.
Surrounded by picture frame after picture frame of Arizona glory from years past, it’s understandable.
These Wildcats are not only trying to advance out of the Tucson regionals – which begin for Arizona at 8 p.m. tonight against Boston University – but trying to uphold college softball’s loftiest legacy.
The legacy isn’t lost on others, either.
“Who wouldn’t want to play one of the greatest dynasties there is in softball?” Boston coach Kathryn Gleason said. “And under the lights on TV? We’re excited about this opportunity.”
The nervous excitement is palpable, and perhaps Piñon’s nerves are justified: The Wildcats are attempting to recapture their postseason magic after a three-year Women’s College World Series drought.
They’re just happy the journey starts at home, after spending a miserable three-day weekend in College Station last season, when they exited after a 1-2 run.
Arizona has reason to exhale, seeing as they went 28-2 at home in the regular season and were able to avoid the hassle of hurried postseason travel.
“(It’s nice that we) didn’t have to work on travel; last year we had to go into Texas and going on their field we had to figure out what they’re field is like,” said Arizona slugger Chelsea Goodacre, who has hit a Pac-12-high 22 home runs this season. “It’s a lot nicer to stay here. We know how to perform on this field and we’re looking forward to it.”
Arizona’s home cooking tasted mighty good this year, as the team managed gritty wins against stiff competition early in the year – a pair of shutout wins over No. 2-seeded Alabama on Feb. 15 and 16 put them on an early roll – but their reserve was steeled during the usual Pac-12 gauntlet.
The Wildcats swept three straight home series in conference play before running into the buzz saw that is No. 1-ranked Oregon in the regular-season finale. Arizona managed to pull out a win against the loaded Ducks, and their confidence is high heading into the postseason.
“If this team isn’t battle-tested, something is wrong,” Wildcats coach Mike Candrea said. “We haven’t played an easy schedule. Scheduling is a very difficult thing to do; you never know what teams are going to be like two years in advance. But in the Pac-12, you always know you’re going to get good teams, tough pitching.”
Candrea has the Wildcats shifted into postseason mode, the final of their three miniseasons. Nonconference went splendidly, and conference play was up-and-down but mostly up, and now the challenge for Arizona is continuing its power surge into the playoffs.
“When it comes to postseason, to winning a championship, it’s a simple formula – begins with pitching, sound defense and timely hitting,” Candrea said. “This team has a very good balance I would say throughout our lineup, which gives me confidence that at any time we can make some things happen. The more we turn our lineup around, the more runs on board. Really it’s a matter of getting on base this time of year.”
With the bases juiced, the Wildcats know they can convert, and their 393 RBIs attest to it.
“It’s always something we can look back at, but like coach said, it’s split up into three groups, and what we did in the regular season and preseason doesn’t matter,” Goodacre said. “It gives us a little confidence knowing we can hit. We have a great team of hitters.”
Arizona’s opponent, Boston University, knows what to anticipate, as the Pac-12 Network has given the Wildcats plenty of airtime. The Terriers are familiar with Tucson as well, having played in the Wildcat Invitational last season.
“We definitely respect them and their program,” Gleason said. “But we talk about it all the time that we just play the game. One pitch, one out, one inning at a time. But they come from a tremendous conference in the Pac-12 and they’re well-coached.”
If the Wildcats can outlast Boston – and then the winner of Friday’s early matchup between LSU and Louisville – they’ll get one step closer to being immortalized themselves.
“It’s something to look at,” Goodacre said, looking around the room of pictures of Arizona’s championship teams. “We look at these pictures and we want so badly to be one of those pictures. We want to put our frame up there.”