Alyssa Denham and Aleah Craighton are enjoying the Tucson weather, which peaked in the mid-70s with sunny skies at Hillenbrand Stadium during Wednesday afternoon’s softball practice.
It beats Lafayette, Louisiana, where the two developed into softball standouts before a strange turn of events. Louisiana-Lafayette fired Michael Lotief on Nov. 1 after determining the longtime coach subjected his players and coworkers to “violent, vulgar language and verbal and physical assault, creating a hostile learning and working environment,” the university said in a statement.
Both players signed with the UA, where they’ll be able to play immediately. The Wildcats start their season Feb. 9 at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe and open at home on Feb. 15 with the Hillenbrand Invitational.
“It got pretty bad,” Denham, a sophomore pitcher, said of the environment in Lafayette. “It was more mentally bad than physically bad. Just kind of upset about the situation, more emotions — emotions you’ve never felt before.”
Craighton, an outfielder, acknowledged that the situation with the Ragin’ Cajuns was bad, but said it could have been worse.
“(It was) very unexpected, but, I mean, life happens so it is what it is,” she said.
UA coach Mike Candrea wasn’t expecting to benefit from Lafayette’s collapse, especially given his relationship with Lotief. The two coaches have long been friends.
“When it all went down, we had talked,” Candrea said. “I obviously wasn’t out looking at that time, but at this stage of the game you’re always looking.”
Especially when new players can contribute.
Denham was named the Sun Belt Conference freshman of the year last season. Craighton, a fifth-year senior, is a two-time All-American.
“I looked at a couple other schools, but I really enjoyed this coaching staff,” Denham said of her decision to transfer to Arizona. “I like working with coach (Taryne Mowatt). I wanted to have a coaching staff (that’s) successful, (has) a good track record, (is) consistent — and that’s what I found here.”
Candrea also said he wanted to make sure the transfers were the right fit for the Wildcats.
“You’ve got to be very careful that it’s not just a great player but a quality human being that’s going to fit in because they’re walking in in January,” Candrea said. “This team’s been together since September.”
Candrea normally doesn’t like adding transfers, but considered both players a good fit culturally.
“We just, fortunately, had the opportunity at the time to bring in a couple of kids,” he said. “I think both of them will have the opportunity to help us.”
The two have “fit in really well,” UA pitcher Taylor McQuillin said.
“They gel with everyone on the field and off the field, so that’s the best part about it,” she said. “I think it’s just going to help our successes this year.”
Denham is still getting acquainted with the campus, which is much bigger than her previous school. She’s trying to make new friends, too.
“I didn’t know anybody here but Aleah, but everybody’s welcomed us with open arms and been very welcoming,” Denham said. “At first it was kind of rough just figuring out a schedule and a routine, but now that I have everything lined up — academic wise, sleeping, lifting, practice — everything’s pretty smooth now.”
Luckily, Denham and Craighton have had each other for support through it all.
“We’ve gotten super close and we were good friends last year, so having her with me as we get used to a new environment, new people, it’s really nice,” Denham said.