Cats Head for 20th Series

May 27, 2008

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The Pinnacle: Arizona (41-17) put together its game at the right time of the year and closed the regular season with five victories, then pushed through NCAA Softball Championships preliminary rounds with a 5-1 record to earn its 20th berth in the Women's College World Series. Arizona has been to every Series but one (2004) since 1988. The Wildcats get a chance to defend their reign as two-time defending NCAA titlists, having won in 2006 and 2007. Arizona will play long-time WCWS nemesis UCLA in its Series opener, in Game 4, with first pitch at 8 p.m. CDT (6 p.m. Tucson time). The game and every game of the Women's College World Series will be shown live on ESPN from ASA Hall of Fame Stadium.

How UA Did It: The Cats, the NCAA's No. 7 seed in the tournament, swept through the Hempstead, N.Y., Regional with victories of 11-0 over Canisius, 10-0 over Hofstra and 5-0 over host Hofstra to earn host status for a Super Regional. Arizona beat No. 10-seed Oklahoma 3-1 in the opener, lost the next morning 2-0, and then came back in the Regional championship game with a 5-2 victory for the trip to Oklahoma City.

Arizona's NCAA Appearance: Arizona is appearing in its 22nd consecutive NCAA Championships and 22nd overall since 1987, all under the aegis of coach Mike Candrea or - as is the case this year and in 2004 - under the tutelage of assistant coach Larry Ray. Softball became a Division I sport in 1982 and Arizona did not qualify for the first five tournaments but has thereafter. Arizona has now won a regional 20 times to advance to the Women's College World Series, an event it has won eight times, including the past two seasons. Arizona has been host 17 times - 1988, 1990, 1992-95, 1997-2001, 2003-07, and the Super Regional this year. The team traveled to NCAA Regional sites five previous times - 1987, 1989 and 1991 in Tempe, 1996 in Tallahassee, Fla., and 2002 in Minneapolis. UA has been host each of the four years the NCAA has held Super Regionals

Arizona Overall in the NCAAs: Arizona has a record of 129-36 in NCAA play, including a mark of 64-8 in preliminary Regional action. In early-rounds Regional play away from Tucson the Cats have a 15-3 record -- 0-2 in 1987, 3-0 in 1989, 2-0 in 1991, 3-0 in 1996, 4-1 in 2002, and 3-0 in 2008. Arizona is 8-2 in Super Regional play and 57-25 in Women's College World Series action. Arizona is 20-2 in its first games of the 22 NCAA Championships in which it has played. The two losses came in 1987 to Arizona State at Tempe, 4-3, and to Arizona State in Tucson in 1990, 1-0. In 2004 the Cats played host under the previous eight-team Regional set up and were bumped from the WCWS by losing to Oklahoma and ULL in Tucson.

Arizona vs. The WCWS Field in '08

The Cats played nine games in 2008 against the WCWS field, and posted a 3-6 record against those squads. UA was 0-3 against Arizona State, 1-2 vs. UCLA, 1-0 vs. ULL, 1-0 against Virginia Tech and 0-1 against Texas A&M.

Previous NCAA Marks Against the WCWS Field

Arizona played previous NCAA games against most of the teams in the WCWS field. UA is 8-4 against UCLA in NCAA action, all played in WCWS games. UA is 9-3 against ASU including a victory over the Sun Devils in the 2002 WCWS. Arizona is 2-2 against ULL including a 1-1 mark in Series action. UA is 1-0 against Alabama, beating the Tide in the 2003 WCWS. UA is 4-0 against Texas A&M, all in earlier rounds. UA has not played UF or VTU in postseason play.

Arizona vs. the Entire NCAA Field: Arizona played to a 20-15 record against teams selected for the NCAA Championships in 2008. In fact, the only other team to beat Arizona in 2008 was the UTEP Miners in the first game of a mid-week doubleheader March 18 in El Paso. Arizona played 21 different teams selected for NCAA play this year, one testament to the Wildcats' strength of scheduling. Of the fellow Pac-10 teams in the NCAAs, UA was 3-0 against Stanford, 3-0 against Washington, 2-1 against Cal, 1-2 against Oregon, 1-2 against UCLA and 0-3 against ASU.

World Series Introduction - Arizona will participate in a news conference at ASA Hall of Fame at 12:15 p.m. (CDT) Wednesday, May 28. The team will also hold practice on the stadium field (4:30 p.m.) and at the practice field (5:35 p.m.) that day. The team will quarter in the Bricktown area downtown during its stay in Oklahoma City.

Arizona Head Coach Mike Candrea

Certainly one story line for the 2008 Arizona softball season has been the absence throughout most of it of head coach Mike Candrea, on leave since this winter working with his defending world champion U.S. Olympic team. Candrea is in his 23rd season at the helm of the Arizona softball program. He boasts a 1,131-228-2 (.832) record in 21 seasons in the dugout. This year, he is taking an eight-month partial leave of absence from January onward to serve as head coach for the U.S. Women's National Team. He was named a finalist for USOC Coach of the Year on March 19. His USA squad beat Arizona 16-0 in Tucson Feb. 19. Candrea has earned 19 coach-of-the-year honors, including 10 Pac-10 Coach of the Year citations. Last year, the Pac-10 tabbed Candrea as its coach of the year, and the NFCA named Candrea and his assistants its national staff of the year. Similar to this season, Candrea took a leave of absence in 2004 to coach the USA Olympic softball team to a 9-0 record and a gold medal in Athens. Candrea also was awarded the Olympic Shield award, the U.S. Olympic Committee's most prestigious award, marking the first time in history the award was given to an Olympic coach. He has led Arizona to eight national championships, 10 Pac-10 titles and is one of just five Division I coaches to have won over 1,100 career games. Despite his leave of absence he will be on hand periodically to infuse the leadership that has taken the UA softball program to the top of the game. He crossed paths at tournaments in Tempe and Palm Springs, and already and was in Tucson for games a few weeks ago - of about 17 games he'll witness home and away.

Interim Head Coach Larry Ray

Without Candrea on duty, 17-year assistant coach Larry Ray has taken the reins of the Arizona softball program and assumes the historical record in 2008. Ray has an interim record of 96-23 leading Arizona in 2004 and this year during Olympic year. He is 265-129 (.671) overall as a head coach, and has five NCAA Championships as an assistant at UA Ray possesses a powerful combination of head coaching experience and familiarity with Arizona softball. He spent five years as Florida's first head coach, and in 1998 he was named the SEC Coach of the Year after leading the Gators to an SEC Eastern Division title and a trip to the NCAA Regional Championships. He returned to Arizona in 2002, and in 2004 he led the Wildcats to a 55-6 record and a Pacific-10 Championship. Ray is assisted by Dave Feinberg and pitching coach Gale Bundrick.

More on Coach Larry Ray

An albatross flying over the interim coach's head since 2004 is the streak of Women's College World Series appearances that ended with UA's 2004 top-ranked club that finished the year 55-6 but lost two of those games in its own Tucson Regional against Oklahoma and ULL. Otherwise, the Cats might claim this year as a 21st consecutive WCWS trip. Hard to think of a 55-6 season as a disappointment, but that's reality at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium in Tucson. The outfield fences are cluttered with national, regional and conference championship placards. Even Ray admitted to reporters that the missing 2004 notation as Regional Champion on the fence was something he's noticed at every turn. Suffice it to say that Arizona's run this season has gone a long way toward ameliorating his frustration.

More on Coaching

Another change to UA's modus operandi this year (besides Candrea's absence) was the departure of former Honda Award winner Nancy Evans as pitching coach. She departed the program in late fall and gave way to pitching coach Gale Bundrick, a noted pitching instructor at local Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson for 23 years. Another coaching factor for Arizona this year is volunteer student assistant Kristie Fox, an All-American shortstop for Arizona in 2005-06, who's helping the staff while completing degree requirements. Her role in helping UA win the title a year ago and in 2006 brings player awareness to the equation.

Last Week in the NCAAs: The four home runs mentioned in the previous paragraph came against Oklahoma in the showdown Game 3 of the Super Regional in Tucson. After OU ace D.J. Mathis beat UA 2-0 to force game three, UA came out smoking and had back-to-back two-out jacks by Jenae Leles and Sam Banister to get things going in the top of the first. Later, Callista Balko (solo) and Leles (1 on) added other shots to give a margin. UA won the Super Regional opener, 3-1, behind a 13-strikeout two-hitter by Taryne Mowatt and some long balls from Leles and Brittany Lastrapes. OU won game two with solid pitching from Mathis and a key leadoff homer in the first inning by Sooner slugger Amber Flores. A week earlier Arizona traveled to Long Island to participate in the Hempstead Regional hosted by Hofstra University. UA came out swinging in the opener against Canisius, with Balko, Lastrapes and K'Lee Arredondo each hitting long balls in a four run third, and seven more in the fifth was enough to run-rule Canisius, 11-0. Taryne Mowatt struck out nine and allowed only one hit. In game two against Hofstra, Arizona quieted the crowd with a three-run shot from Sam Banister to make it 4-0 before Hofstra had an at-bat. Stacie Chambers and Balko hit homers in the third as UA went on to run-rule the Pride, 10-0. Mowatt allowed two hits while whiffing five, and Sarah Akamine had an identical fifth inning performance to Sisk. In the finale against Hofstra, the Pride hung around for a while, but three runs in the fourth and two in the fifth propelled UA to a 5-0 victory. Mowatt (27-12) went the distance in allowing three hits, while striking out five and walking two. Arizona left the Regional having outscored their opponents 26-0.

Big Time: The lineup of teams in Oklahoma City is daunting, as usual. For Arizona it will be like its nastiest stretch of the 2008 season - when it played in order, No. 1 ASU, No. 23 Washington, a pair against No. 4 UCLA and a pair at No. 2 ASU. That period marked UA's most atypical skein of the year - five losses in seven games, something it hadn't done in years. The good news for Arizona is that since then Arizona has outscored opponents 73-17 and put up a 12-3 mark in the W-L department. Notably, the team had a nine-game winning streak snapped in Game 2 of the Super Regional. In the nine-game streak the scoreboard was Arizona 51, Opponents 2.

Recognizing the Surroundings: Thanks to eight different NCAA title runs, Arizona has averaged 7.4 NCAA games per year in the past 21 seasons. The school record - last year's 13-game total derived from a three-game sweep at NCAA Regional level, a two-game Super Regional sweep, and a remarkable staying-alive 6-2 piece of work in Oklahoma City - having to win twin victories against two teams in the WCWS - Washington and Tennessee after losses put the Wildcats' backs to the wall. Not many teams in the country can match Arizona's experience in postseason play.

Experience Factor: The previous paragraph mentioned experience. Arizona has three seniors (Taryne Mowatt, Adrienne Acton, Callista Balko) who have been part of UA teams that have played in 39 NCAA games; a senior (Danielle Rodriguez) with 31 NCAA games behind her; four juniors (Sam Banister, Laine Roth, Jenae Leles and Jill Malina) with 31 NCAA games under their belts; a senior (Cyndi Duran) with 19-games playoff experience (plus an NJCAA championship run the year before), and two sophomores (K'Lee Arredondo and Sarah Akamine) with 19 NCAA games behind them. Not all of them played every one of those games, but they know the drill and have been-there, done-that.

Pac-d Field: The Pac-10 qualified seven of its eight teams for the NCAA tournament, a clear indication of why UA's 13-8 conference record helped it climb to a No. 7 overall seeding. All eight Pac-10 teams played in the 1999, 2000 and 2003 tournaments. The other selected Pac-10 teams were hosts Arizona State and UCLA, Washington (at Houston), Stanford (at Amherst, Mass.), California (at Fresno, Calif.) and Oregon (at Norman, Okla.). Cal and Stanford reached Super Regionals as did UCLA, ASU and Arizona.

Hitting in OKC: A year ago in its 2007 NCAA title run, the Wildcats averaged seven hits and just under three runs per game in going 6-2 in Oklahoma City. That included four games against the college game's top pitcher, Monica Abbott. Lots of hitting juggernauts find the going a bit tighter in WCWS action - like UA's 1995 (.383), 1998 (.385), 2000 (.336) and 2003 (.329) teams, just to name a few examples in Arizona's own lexicon of WCWS experience. You have to be happy with your three or five hits occasionally, and hope one of them is a big one. In the Super Regional game that sent UA to Oklahoma City, four of its eight hits were homers, big enough to earn a berth in the Series.

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