Some guy coaching the Oklahoma City University Stars, an NAIA softball team in the Sooner Athletic Conference, racked up his 1,700th career victory two weeks ago. He shook hands with the losing Panhandle State players, spoke briefly to his own team, and went home.
It didn’t mean anywhere near as much to coach Phil McSpadden as his 1,614th victory, when his Stars went an astonishing 68-1 to win the 2017 NAIA championship.
In college softball, not all numbers are created equal.
On Friday night, Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea was so overwhelmed by winning his 1,600th career game that he a) didn’t give a speech, b) point to the sky to thank the softball gods or c) pose for photographs while holding an oversized lifetime achievement trophy.
What does No. 1,600 — a 9-1, run-rule victory over Stanford — mean to Candrea?
It’s nothing close to No. 276, the day he coached Arizona to the first of eight NCAA championships.
Nor is it relatable to victory No. 7 at the 2004 Athens Olympics, when Candrea coached Team USA to a gold medal.
Candrea has never been blinded by the lights of college softball, and he’s certainly not blinded by the numbers through which some define his coaching career.
“It’s not about the numbers,” he said. “The numbers are for everybody else.”
Do you know what is more impressive and generates as much appreciation as Candrea’s 1,600th career victory?
Try this: In 59 consecutive games from 1998-2015, Stanford was ranked in the Top 25 when it played Arizona — yet Candrea’s team won 49 of those games.
None of Candrea’s numbers are inflated; this college softball stuff is hard and will continue to get more difficult by the week.
When Arizona plays host to No. 3 Washington from May 3-5 at Hillenbrand Stadium, the Huskies will have played 97 consecutive games against Arizona while ranked in the Top 25. The Wildcats have not played an unranked Washington team since 1995.
Get your tickets now.
But that’s not where it ends; Washington might be the best team in college softball, and if not the Huskies, then perhaps No. 2 UCLA.
A monstrous six-game finish this year, against the Huskies and Bruins, is surely why Candrea returned from a 6-0 road trip having won 17 consecutive games (now 19) and said “you don’t want five-inning games all the time.”
Arizona’s five-inning, mercy-rule victories have been so frequent this season — 17 of them and counting — that it makes you wonder how the Wildcats will react when they step to the tee of a 585-yard par-5, with water left, alligators right and an acre of sand in front of the green.
For Arizona, the first 14 games of the Pac-12 season have essentially been practice time at the range.
“We know we have to be able to do it when it counts,” Candrea said. ‘And that’s down the road.”
The person least impressed with Arizona’s current 19-game winning streak might be Candrea himself. He’ll probably never forget the May 1994 afternoon in Seattle when the Wildcats went to the final game of the Pac-10 season at 24-0.
No team in three decades of Pac-10/12 softball has gone undefeated through 23 conference games, before or since. The Wildcats lost 2-1 to Washington that day.
These winning streaks — these historic numbers — can be fickle and meaningless.
Motivated by the loss, Arizona finished the season on a 7-0 roll, winning the NCAA championship by outscoring its playoff opponents 38-2. Those are numbers that count.
You can make a strong case that May and June 2019 will be among the most meaningful days of Candrea’s coaching career. The Wildcats have not been to the Women’s College World Series since 2010, losing in the Super Regionals seven of the last eight years.
If not now, when?
The Wildcats are blessed with a No. 1 starting pitcher, senior Taylor McQuillin, who appears capable of matching outs with anyone in college softball.
The Nos. 1-5 hitters in Candrea’s lineup — from Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza to Malia Martinez — stack up with any 1-5 punch in the long history of Arizona’s softball success.
On Friday, Candrea talked not about the victories, but about the history created by those victories.
“This is a tremendous place for us to tell the history of Arizona softball,” he said, motioning to the beautiful ballpark that drew another capacity crowd of 2,841 on Friday. “I’ve watched teams come through the gates, pull out their phones and start taking pictures.”
The Arizona players did not attempt to dump a celebratory bucket of Gatorade over their coach’s head Friday. As winning pitcher Alyssa Denham said, beating Stanford was a time to prepare for “later on.”
“It’s 1,600 and counting,” she said.