No one wanted to get here to the NCAA softball tournament more than Mike Candrea.
It couldn’t get here soon enough. Of course, Arizona had to go through the ups and downs of a season with a team still going through some growing pains.
But here the Wildcats are at 40-14 overall.
It’s been nearly 353 days since Arizona was just feet away from getting back to the College World Series for the first time since 2010. But two runners were left on base in the final inning in what would have been a dream season with a return to Oklahoma City.
Baylor proved to be too tough in what was a gritty 6-5 win over the No. 2-seed Arizona and at Hillenbrand, no less.
“I did reflect on that; I had a lot of time to reflect on it,” said Candrea, on the eve of his 14-seed Wildcats officially beginning its 32nd trip in the postseason. It faces St. Francis (39-17) Friday night at 8:30 at Hillenbrand Stadium.
“There comes a point when you have to move forward and there’s nothing you can do about it. But I was very anxious to get started this year.”
Heck, had he been given the choice – just knowing the competitor he is – he would have liked to have done it the next day.
“Most certainly, but (losing) is part of putting on a uniform,” he said.
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It’s easy to say given Candrea’s Hall of Fame background, he’s handled some of the biggest wins with the most grace and humility and has done the same in tough losses, just as he did in last year’s sudden end.
“If you don’t do that,” he said, “you’re going to be short-lived it this business. Not that I like it and that it makes me feel good, but I have learned how to deal with it.”
It’s also those tough times that have helped him appreciate his job, those around him and his team.
“What helped me appreciate this entire experience is when you go through things in life that are much tougher than this,” he said. “If I was 25 years old and had nothing (to compare it to) or put in perspective with it probably would have eaten me up. I’ve learned that I agonize over losses much more than I enjoy wins.”
All the good – heck, great – coaches do. It’s the what-could-I-have-done-differently mindset. But as Candrea said he’s gone through enough tough times in his life – a wife suddenly dying, a player suddenly dying and health issues that came from seemingly nowhere – that they keep him grounded, “this is me (even) as bad as you feel, and this is a game. You can’t make it more than that.”
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In the same breath, he said he’s chosen to make it his profession so, well, it IS more than that.
Still, the rearview has been tossed and destroyed and the playoffs are his new venture, as he called it. His young team has played up and down but well enough to finish fifth in the Pac-12.
“What I preach the whole year is that we’ve got to play our very best softball all the time,” he said. “We’ve made some strides mentally, emotionally, physically.
“(When) you go into postseason hopefully you’ve done everything you can to get them prepared and games will take care of themselves.”
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We will know more over the weekend, but entering the season, he was hopeful his group would get back to its rightful place: the postseason.
In his 30-plus years at Arizona, Candrea’s expectations are “always the same” in playing the best it can every day.
“I’ve preached the whole year that we’ve got to play our very best softball all the time,” he said. “We’ve made some strides mentally, emotionally, physically.
“(When) you go into postseason, hopefully you’ve done everything you can to get them prepared and games will take care of themselves.”
That could be said for the regular season, as well. It did that at times this season. To its credit, Arizona goes into Friday’s game having won nine of its last 10 games.
“Hopefully they understand there is a sense of urgency that has to take place at this time of year,” he said, “because there is (a possibility of) an ending tomorrow. I think they are ready. I hope they are ready.”