OKLAHOMA CITY — Behind the plate for 65 games, 434 innings and 1,529 at-bats, Callista Balko caught every game of the Arizona softball team's NCAA championship season.

Which means, of course, that no one else did. The Wildcats did not have a backup catcher.

"We were," coach Mike Candrea said, "one injury away from devastation."

The UA found itself in that position when former Pima College catcher Erin Slettvet became academically ineligible before the start of the season. It left Candrea without anyone to replace Balko, who started 33 games at catcher and 16 at second base in 2005.

Candrea tried first baseman Laine Roth in practice.

"She was crying," Candrea joked. "She didn't like it."

He finally settled on backup first baseman Sam Banister, just in case.

After the UA defeated Northwestern on Tuesday night to clinch the Women's College World Series, Candrea gave much of the credit to Balko.

He will reward her with the 'Golden A' award, presented every year to the coaching staff's MVP.

"Callista never complained," he said. "You could have a great pitching staff. Without her, it wouldn't work."

After Tuesday's victory, Candrea thanked the sophomore catcher for her toughness this season.

"Just to see how proud Coach is makes you want to cry," she said. "I wasn't crying until Coach came up to me and told me how proud he is of me. To feel he has so much confidence in you makes you feel so good."

Balko's nurturing of tournament Most Outstanding Player Alicia Hollowell would be enough to earn any catcher accolades. But Balko also had the biggest hit of the tournament — the team's only single against Texas star Cat Osterman, driving in the first run of a 2-0 victory.

The win moved tournament favorites Texas and UCLA into the same half of the tournament bracket; Arizona was on the other side. Texas lost to UCLA, and UCLA lost to Northwestern, which advanced to the WCWS final series.

"It's winning the right games," Candrea said. "The Texas game was a huge game, pure and simple. Callista Balko's base hit against Texas, beating Osterman, was huge, because it puts you in the right position.

"I don't care how talented you are — if you don't win those right games, it gets tough on you."

Balko will be one of many UA players coming back for a chance at a repeat title. The Wildcats lose Hollowell, left fielder Autumn Champion and little-used pitcher Leslie Wolfe.

Eight of the team's nine hitters — plus pitcher Taryne Mowatt, who finished the season 21-5 — will return.

They will add pitchers Amanda Williams of Brentwood, Calif. and Sarah Akamine of Escondido, Calif., plus third baseman Stacie Chambers of Glendale and shortstop/utility player K'Lee Arrendondo of Tempe.

"I think that we have the potential of being good," Candrea said looking ahead. "I will expect even more out of this group coming back."