Mike Candrea has been here before. Oh, has he been here before, so many times it’s not even fathomable.
For a record 33-consecutive years, UA has been to the NCAA tournament, and, rarely has it disappointed. Thirty – with 31 coming up – have come under Candrea, the architect of Arizona’s success, save for the two he was away coaching Team USA in the Olympics.
Well, he’s back, with a different version of his past teams – strong hitting, good pitching – that have eventually got him to the College World Series.
Does it feel any different than in years past, given he’s been here so many times before?
“Every year feels different,” he said, talking to reporters in preparation for this week’s NCAA tournament. “It’s a different group of athletes (but) it feels different this year because of a new facility. The postseason is an exciting time. This is what you work for.
“This group did a nice job with the body of work (finishing 42-12) that was put in front of them.”
But now, as he said, it’s “a new season” and yet another one he and his team must get past to get to the Super Regional to get to the World Series, that nugget that eluded Candrea for a decade now.
Many times, it’s been as easy as just suiting up, getting on the field and blasting a few home runs. Arizona was that dominating through the years. His new journey will begin on Friday when UA faces Harvard at Hillenbrand Stadium.
He likes his team, given it is “battled tested” and in the right frame of mind, particularly coming off a series victory over powerful UCLA. But as Candrea has long known, it’s not always about the ability to play the game, but instead how to understand it. The mental part has always been important. It played a factor after UA fell three straight to Washington at home.
“I like momentum; we have momentum, right now,” he said. “We feel good where we are and what we represent, the work that we’ve done. I can’t think of us being in a better spot right now entering this post season.”
It could have been disastrous for UA had it not pulled off some sense of self over the weekend in Los Angeles, but it did, taking two of three. It helped them secure a crucial six seed with the chance to host a regional.
Handling UCLA surely beat the alternative.
“It could have flipped the coin very quickly,” Candrea said. “Had we gone in there and not done well, I’d be a little more concerned, but we’re in a good place. Now we just have to go in and do it.”
Now, he said, it’s about being able to “handle the tough moments.” That’s what separates the good teams from the Championship-caliber moments. It’s how you deal with things “when crap hits the fan.”
The weekend proved he has players who can deal with those moments. He also went into his bag of tricks – all good coaches have them, particularly when it comes to the mind games – when he solicited the help of softball goddesses Jennie Finch, Jessica Mendoza, Leah O’Brien-Amico and Lovie Jung, asking for their thoughts on how they dealt with the big moments.
He went to them after having “concern” after they lost three to Washington.
“I really felt it was a good opportunity for me to present some information and, hopefully, some of it would resonate with our players,” he said. “They all are a bit different. I thought it was a good exercise for us to go through, to talk about it and learn from it … some people have handled the moment much better than others.”
And, so here is yet another chance for Candrea & Company to advance … again.