Eight Schools In Eight Days: Arizona Softball Season Preview
Feb. 9, 2006
A return to normalcy. A statement that best describes the 2005 season for the Arizona softball team.
The return of Head Coach Mike Candrea after spending the previous season leading the United States to a gold medal in Athens. Arizona's return to the Women's College World Series, after missing the WCWS in 2004 for the first time since 1987.
For the Wildcats, the 2006 season also has that same sense of return, yet this time it may be a return to Tucson what the Wildcat faithful have not seen since 2001: a national championship.
In a sport in which everything starts from the circle, Arizona brings back its entire pitching staff that led the Pac-10 in ERA in 2005. Anchored by three-time All-American Alicia Hollowell, Wildcat hurlers surrendered the fewest earned runs, total runs, hits, walks and home runs in a conference that sent all eight of its teams to the NCAA Tournament.
'Obviously the circle is going to be huge with Hollowell coming back,' Candrea said. 'Taryne Mowatt is much improved and a little more mature, ready to step in. Last year, Leslie Wolfe came on very strong in the end and showed us that she can give some quality innings.'
Hollowell's assault on the UA and NCAA record books should continue in 2006, when she could leave the collegiate ranks with the most victories and strikeouts in NCAA history. For a complete listing of records on the horizon for Hollowell, please see page 11 of the media guide.
Offensively, UA led the conference in batting average and was second in on-base percentage, but finished sixth in runs scored. To put Arizona's 261 runs on the season in perspective, 2005 marked the first time since the advent of the yellow softball that the Wildcats have failed to score more than 300 runs. Additionally, UA slugged under .420 (.399 in 2005) for the first time since 1992, as well.
The good news for the Wildcats is that All-American outfielders Caitlin Lowe and Autumn Champion, who batted first and second in all 57 games in 2005, should continue to catalyze rallies. Following that speedy duo, All-American junior shortstop Kristie Fox, who led the nation in RBIs last year, is back to drive in some more runs.
'Obviously our ultimate goal is to have balance between speed and power and throughout the lineup, and to score runs you have to have both,' Candrea explains. 'I feel good about Caitlin and Autumn at the top of the order. The key is having some people producing around Fox, so she's not the one who has to drive in a run all the time. I feel like we have some kids that can do that, but we're a team that's unproven.'
The difference between 2005 and 2006 should be what follows the All-American trio. Candrea has brought in yet another stellar class of recruits, this one made up of two transfers and three true freshmen.
Junior Chelsie Mesa comes to the Old Pueblo by way of Phoenix College, where she brought home some pretty heavy hardware. Over the last two years, Mesa led the Bears to back-to-back NJCAA Division II National Championships. Along the way, Mesa's efforts were recognized with 2005 ACCAC and NJCAA Female Athlete of the Year honors.
'Chelsie will add some pop to the lineup and will help protect Fox. Fox was as consistent a right-handed hitter as we had last year, but you need to have two or three of those bats so opponents can't pitch around her. I think it's going to be tougher for people to pitch around Fox when you have a Chelsie Mesa or another proven hitter around her.'
Mesa, a power-hitting middle infielder, swings the bat from the left side. With the promise she showed in UA's fall tournament, Mesa could be just the second left-handed hitter after Leneah Manuma to crack Arizona's top 10 list for RBI in a season.
Sophomore Callista Balko, who started 40 games behind the dish and 16 at second base, will continue handling the UA staff from behind the dish.
With All-Americans patrolling two-thirds of the outfield, all three freshmen are infielders with right-handed bats. In addition to Fox and Mesa up the middle, former second baseman Jenae Leles looks to take over at the hot corner. Sam Banister, who started all fall games at third base, could see time at third, designated player or fill in an outfield spot when needed.
Freshman Laine Roth, who started all fall games at first base and led newcomers in batting, is also competing for the first base and designated player jobs.
With just weeks prior to the beginning of the season, Candrea and his staff added three new players to the squad. Senior Kelly Nelson, who is a four-year soccer letterwinner will be the team's primary pinch runner, as well as an emergency outfielder. Additionally, freshman Jill Malina, who was originally slated to be a team manager will help out in the outfield as needed. Finally, Tucson native Danielle Rodriguez comes to the team as a sophomore infielder.
With the entire pitching staff and outfield returning, the biggest questions for the Cats are at the infield corners.
While the most noticeable difference entering 2006 for UA is a lack of depth, most coaches would take quality over quantity any day of the week, and quality is something the Cats have plenty of. When competing against Arizona, opponents should expect to face a three-time All-American in the circle, and a handful of All-Americans in the field. If the past two years aer any indication, Arizona will lead off with All-Americans Lowe and Champion, followed by a combination of the following: All-American Fox and 2005 NJCAA player of the year Mesa.
Ultimately, the major difference between the 2005 and 2006 squads will be seen directly in the column labeled 'slugging percentage.' UA slugged .399 in 2005, the first time since 1992 the Wildcats finished below .420 in the category. Although the Cats boasted a .378 on-base percentage, half the hitters in the order for any given game were slappers that could not drive base runners around to score. With the maturation of Balko and the addition of the four non-slapping hitters, UA could get back to what it did so well during the national championship years: get runners on base and bang them around.
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