For 16 years, seeing the Arizona softball team in the College World Series has been something you could set your watch by. But not anymore. This year, the UA was shocked at home and missed the series for the first time since 1987.
For the second year in a row, the Wildcats (55-6) were the top seed in the tournament but did not earn a national title.
After beating them 9-1 earlier in the season on a neutral field, Arizona lost to Oklahoma 3-2. Then, a day after shutting them out 4-0 in a near-perfect game by Alicia Hollowell (41-5), the UA lost 5-0 to Louisiana-Lafayette, knocking them out of the double elimination Tucson Regional without even reaching the title game.
"We played well really the whole season except for one day and it's a shame because this team really was extremely talented and unfortunately we didn't give ourselves an opportunity to play for a national championship," said UA acting head coach Larry Ray.
Arizona only lost three games in home Regionals prior to 2004.
"It breaks my heart to see the best team not play in Oklahoma City," said Ray after the loss.
After squeaking out a win over Centenary, assumed to be the lowest seed in the tournament, in the first regional game, sophomore left fielder Autumn Champion tore her ACL celebrating the win.
"The team really loves Autumn and kind of felt like they had lost a sister and I think it really hurt them more emotionally than physically," Ray said.
Ray is confident about the team's chance next year, especially with Hollowell, the runner-up for national player of the year.
"Well, I think we are going to be awfully good any time you have a pitcher like Alicia Hollowell, who will keep you in every game against anybody," Ray said. "I think our offense will be very good next year and our defense will be solid. We're just going to have to make sure that if we do have a bad day that it is during the season and not at the end of the season."
Of the freshmen coming in next year, none are expected to have as big an impact as Corona Calif.'s Taryne Mowatt, considered the best high school pitcher in the country. Mowatt has been dubbed the next "Jennie Finch," as she has been coached by the former Wildcat superstar's dad for a few years.
She went 86-16 with 65 shutouts and a 0.32 ERA in her high school career. Mowatt should finally be able to give Hollowell, who set the Pac-10 season strikeout record this year, a break.
"I think her best pitch is her changeup, so she is going to give us a lot of help in the circle to rest Alicia more than we have been able to the last couple years," Ray said.
To replace four-year fixture senior catcher Mackenzie Vandergeest, the Wildcats will call on Erin Slettvet, a transfer from San Diego State who was just admitted to school on Monday. Ray said Slettvet is an "outstanding defensive catcher with an extremely strong arm" who swings a "good bat" as well.
Slettvet was Hollowell's summer catcher in club ball and played with Champion and Lowe as well. Slettvet would be a red shirt freshman, as she enrolled at SDSU but didn't play.
The Wildcats also will bring in a duo of highly touted Tucson-area players: Callista Balko of Canyon del Oro High School and Adrienne Acton of Marana High School. Ray says Falko is "outstanding" at catcher and thinks she can step right in at second and provide power.
Ray is projecting Acton, who had a batting average of .712 as a junior in high school, will be an outfielder at the UA, even though the Wildcats are pretty crowded there. All-American Courtney Fossatti is returning from a red shirt year to compliment the All-American duo of Champion and Lowe.
"Adreinne is a speedster along the same lines as Autumn and Caitlin Lowe," Ray said. "She will be one of the top three fastest players on our team."