No. 2 UA shouldn't falter without coach
It is the spring semester, and once again the Arizona softball team is a favorite for the national championship. Once again, it has a dominant pitcher and potent offense.
But this season, there is one key difference.
The Wildcats, who open the season ranked No. 2 and 3 in the two national polls, will have to play the season without head coach Mike Candrea, who is taking a leave of absence to prepare the USA Olympic team. In his 18 years at Arizona, Candrea has won six national titles, gone to the College World Series 16 years in a row and has coached 43 first team All-Americans.
Candrea, a Hall of Fame inductee eight years ago, the national Coach of the Year three times, and a seven-time Pacific 10 COY (including last year), has coached five national Player of the Year winners, has a 871-172 record and has won the Pac-10 Conference seven times.
"We miss him, but we're doing our very best to run the show in his absence. Every time we make out a schedule, we think, 'What would Mike do?'" said interim co-head coach Larry Ray, who is leading the team along with interim associate head coach Nancy Evans this year.
The Wildcats (56-7, 19-2 Pac-10 in 2003) were conference champions and were ranked No. 1 for most of last season.
"It's been tough, but we're making good efforts and have to know (Candrea) is not going to be here and just take of business," said senior catcher Mackenzie Vandergeest.
But the Wildcats won't be lacking in leadership. Ray built Florida's program from scratch into Southeastern Conference champs and an NCAA tourney team. He was also Candrea's top assistant in his early Arizona years, led the Gators to a 169-106 record from 1996 to 2000 and was SEC coach of the year in 1998.
Ray said there is not much difference between his coaching style and his mentor's.
"I was telling the girls, probably the only difference this year is that I may put runners in motion a little more often," Ray said. "Other than that, we're going to rely on our talent and speed and our ability to hit the long ball and score a bunch of runs. It's not going to be a whole lot different."
The Wildcats will look to a pair of talented freshmen - center fielder Caitlin Lowe and shortstop Kristie Fox - to replace graduated All-Americans Lovie Jung and Courtney Fossatti, both members of the junior Olympic team last year.
The coaches said they have been pleased with the rookies.
"(For) Caitlin, the best is yet ahead of her. She's going to be awesome," Ray said. "Kristie Fox is doing a great job, provides a better offense than I anticipated, and she's working really hard on the defensive side of her game."
Once again, the UA figures to lean heavily on sophomore pitcher Alicia Hollowell (40-4, 0.94 ERA in 2003), who broke Evans' school record for wins and former Wildcat Jennie Finch's strikeout record last season.
Ray hopes to give Hollowell more rest this season. Senior Wendy Allen, sophomore Shelly Schultz, sophomore Leslie Wolfe and freshman Annalyn Hollingsworth are expected to compete for the No. 2 pitching spot.
Ray said Allen needs rest because of her wrist tendonitis and Wolfe is coming off knee surgery. Last year, Allen, the 2002 Big Ten Player of the Year at Ohio State, went 12-2 with a 2.52 ERA.
"Wendy's doing good. You have to be very careful not to throw her too much because we need her more as a hitter and as a player than as a pitcher, but we can't go into the season with just one (pitcher)," Ray said. "As long as they throw strikes, I think I will be happy because our defense is very supportive."
Arizona begins play Friday in the Arizona Pepsi Classic.