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Candrea stops by Hillenbrand to check on UA squad

KEVIN B. KLAUS/Arizona Daily Wildcat
UA sophomore pitcher Alicia Hollowell delivers a pitch the fourth inning of the Wildcats' 3-1 win over ASU at Hillenbrand Stadium. Hollowell struck out nine Sun Devil batters, to improve her record to 33-1.
By Christopher Wuensch
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday, April 29, 2004
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A pair of watchful eyes looked over the Arizona women's softball team last night as the Wildcats battled it out with rival Arizona State.

Those eyes belonged to USA/UA head coach Mike Candrea, who stopped by Hillenbrand Stadium to watch Arizona drop ASU 3-1 behind a 9-strikeout performance from Alicia Hollowell.

After the game, the hugs and kisses were plentiful for the coach, who is taking time away from the Wildcats this season to manage the USA Olympic softball team. Surrounded by a throng of his former players, Candrea was quick to dole out a hearty dose of congratulations and advice to his beaming players, and even took jokes about his gaining weight in stride.

The coach said he likes what he sees in his old squad, which improved to 46-2 (10-1 Pacific 10 Conference) on the season with the victory over the Sun Devils.

"Outstanding," Candrea said. "I think they've made tremendous strides since I saw them in the fall."

Candrea will be in Tucson through the weekend and plans to make an appearance at the Wildcats' practice facility today after a speaking appearance in town. The popular coach has plans to return to Tucson next week, when the softball team will celebrate Senior Week. During his time in the Old Pueblo, Candrea plans on taking some time and working with Arizona's hitters on improving their offense.

Although Candrea had planned to make a clean break from his squad this season, he said the temptation to come out and watch them play is too strong.

"It's been very tough," Candrea lamented. "It's the most difficult thing I've ever done."

While overseas with the Olympic squad, Arizona is never far from Candrea's mind. On a recent trip to Italy, the coach admits to being awake as late as 3 a.m. searching the Internet for scores and updates on the Wildcats' games.

"It's been killer," Candrea admits.

Acting head coach Larry Ray has done an admirable job in Candrea's absence, guiding Arizona to No. 1 in the nation. Still, having Candrea and his 982 lifetime wins around only benefits the Wildcats interim coach Ray admits.

"There is so much admiration between our team and him; they just love it when he's here," Ray said of Candrea. "Any time he shows up, we appreciate it."

Ray says Candrea has taken a backseat since arriving back in town, offering a suggestion only if a glaring problem is evident to the coach. Even after Arizona's win, between the hugs and hellos, Candrea could still be seen offering hitting advice to players such as Jackie Coburn, who has struggled at the plate lately.

"You've just got to swing through it," Candrea told the Wildcat third baseman.

The players said they appreciate having Candrea, but if they've learned anything from the Hall of Fame coach, it's that winning comes first.

"It's always exciting to have him around again," Wildcat left fielder Autumn Champion said of Candrea, "but we still have to go out and play our game. We can socialize with him after the game."

As for Candrea's other team, preparations for the Olympic squad are coming along as planned, said the coach. Recent trips to Europe have been aimed at acclimating the players to the time and cultural differences they'll encounter at the 2004 Olympic games in Athens, Greece. During that three-week tour to Italy, Candrea's squad faced off against the Italian National Team.

"I think this team can be a very special team," Candrea said of this year's U.S. Olympic squad. "I think better than any other team that's ever played the game."

The prospect of having his Wildcat players competing on a similar team in the future is an idea that excites Candrea.

"There's a good nucleus that will have their opportunities," Candrea said of players such as outfielder Caitlin Lowe, Hollowell and Champion.

"They have to continue to keep working."

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