Arizona Softball

Arizona Wildcats return to the Women’s College World Series

Arizona swept the best-of-three Super Regional by beating Ole Miss on Saturday.

I asked Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea several years ago about what he remembered about advancing to the Women’s College World Series for the first time, back in 1988.

He couldn’t recall much.

So, I then asked long-time assistant coach Larry Ray the same question. He recalled a few details. The coaches and their families — and even the umpires (can you imagine?) — came back to his place for some food and drink.

“We didn’t think it was the start of a dynasty or anything,” Ray said. “We just thought, ‘Man, that was great that we accomplished this and we’ll just see how next year goes.'”

But it was the start of a dynasty. For much of the next 22 years, Arizona kept going … and going … and going …

The Wildcats appeared in every Women’s College World Series from 1988 to 2010, with the exception of 2004, when Candrea was off coaching the U.S. Olympic team. UA was shockingly eliminated in the regionals after All-American outfielder Autumn Champion tore an ACL.

Arizona dominated the 1990s, winning national titles in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997. The Wildcats pushed their championships to eight by taking it all in 2001, 2006 and 2007.

So many memories. So many moments.

It’s time to make some new ones.

With Taylor McQuillin. Jessie Harper. Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. Dejah Mulipola. Reyna Carranco. Malia Martinez. Alyssa Denham.

And, of course, Candrea.

Arizona completed a sweep of Ole Miss with a 9-1 win on Saturday in a best-of-three Super Regional at Hillenbrand Stadium, advancing to its first Women’s College World Series since 2010.

The Cats will play either Washington or Kentucky on Thursday in Oklahoma City.

It was once a given that Arizona would make it there every year, but there has been a drought since the Wildcats swept BYU in a Super Regional in Tucson nine years ago. Arizona freshman pitcher Kenzie Fowler was knocked out in the first inning after being hit in the right forearm by a batted ball, but Sarah Akamine came in to pitch well in a 10-2 victory.

At the Series, amid a flurry of illegal-pitch calls against Fowler that had not been made all season — umpires in Oklahoma City were insistent that Fowler’s plant foot was losing contact with the ground — Arizona lost its opener, 9-0 to Tennessee in five innings.

Somehow, Fowler persevered.

She overcame a late-season pinched nerve in her neck that caused her pitching hand to swell, worked through her black-and-blue forearm and did her best to ignore the illegal pitch calls. Arizona won four consecutive elimination games to reach the championship round of the World Series against old rival UCLA.

The Wildcats were on the verge of winning Game 1, scoring three runs in the top of the seventh to rally for a 5-4 lead. But UCLA tied it in the bottom of the inning after Arizona outfielders Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler swerved to avoid a collision, allowing a potential game-ending fly ball to fall between them.

Megan Langenfeld hit a solo home run in the eighth to give UCLA the victory. The Bruins won the Series the next day with a 15-9 victory. Fowler, pitching her sixth game in four days and losing feeling in her arm due to the pinched nerve, was taken out in the second inning.

“I mean, my God, she has really done a miraculous job to get us here and I told you I was going to ride her as much as I can,” Candrea said at the postgame news conference.

“But when she can’t feel the ball, it’s time. I’m going to always put her health in front of the competition.”

And that was the last time Arizona was in Oklahoma City.

Fowler, who seemed destined to win multiple national championships, battled with health issues throughout the rest of her career. Arizona didn’t have a solid Plan B, because it was hard to recruit other ace-level pitchers to Tucson because they didn’t want to play second-fiddle to Fowler.

At the same time, the SEC was making the move from good to great in softball. At least one SEC team made the championship round of the World Series in every year from 2011 to 2017, winning three titles. In addition, Oklahoma made a similar jump to greatness, winning the World Series in 2013, 2016 and 2017.

Meanwhile, as the rest of the country kept on improving, the Cats relatively struggled, unable to find a true ace until bringing in San Diego State transfer Danielle O’Toole, who brought the Pac-12 champ Wildcats within an inning of the Series in 2017, before Baylor rallied in the seventh for a 6-5 victory.

Time was, there were only one or two teams other than Arizona that could realistically win the Series. Now, it’s so difficult just to get there.

But Arizona has done it.

The Cats are going back to their rightful place in the postseason.

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