By Tom Knauer
Claire C. Laurence/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Senior Crystal Farley lays down a bunt during Arizona's doubleheader victory over Hawaii Feb. 20. This season Arizona has adopted a small-ball mentality compared to past years when the Wildcats relied on home runs.
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, March 29, 2005
In 2001, the Arizona softball team averaged an NCAA-record 1.83 home runs per game, riding an odyssey short on space travel but rife with moon shots all the way to a national championship.
Four seasons later, the No. 2 Wildcats have lost their proverbial lumber, in favor of a small-ball game that has rolled for the team like a grounder hugging the foul line.
"I think we're finally getting into what we're capable of," senior first baseman Crystal Farley said last week. "We started off slow, but (against Oklahoma March 19) we got tons of hits, and we're a better team, too. I think we're starting to get where we need to be."
Arizona assistant coach Larry Ray said last week that the team's new approach came from a roster better suited for speed than slow trots around the bases.
"Last year, we could rely on a home run every now and then, with Wendy (Allen) and Mac(kenzie Vandergeest) and some of the (other) departing seniors," he said. "It's totally different (now), and it's more of a short game."
The Wildcats hit only 0.61 home runs a contest this season but have more sacrifice hits (28) than the 2001 squad squeezed out in 40 more games.
As a result, some players have seen their fortunes rise like an Alicia Hollowell fastball.
After going .437 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.080 as a freshman, sophomore center fielder Caitlin Lowe is hitting .520 in 28 games with a team-high 19 stolen bases in 21 attempts.
"I knew what kind of player she was from watching her quite a bit in club ball," Ray said. "But to be able to do it on the college level is awful impressive. I think she's going to be a lifetime .400, .500 hitter at this level. I think she's got a bright, bright future in softball."
Farley is finding success of her own in a new spot in the lineup. A move up to eighth, following three years mostly in the ninth hole, has led to a .342 average and a career-high five sacrifice hits.
A consistent producer as a Wildcat, she is on pace to set personal bests in hits, runs and fielding percentage after moving from the outfield before the season.
"Crystal, being a senior, she's a lot more confident than she has been, which is typical," Ray said. "She's putting up some numbers. You try to put the kids with the best numbers up first as many times as possible."
Junior left fielder Autumn Champion has been less fortunate under the team's new philosophy, though through no fault of her own.
Champion carried a NCAA-leading .489 batting average into last season's playoffs before tearing the ACL in her right knee going into third base.
Slowly returning to form in the field and down the first base line, Champion has inched her average closer to .400 (.370 in 28 starts) while showing improvement beating fielders' throws.
"I know it's frustrating for her. It's a little frustrating for us," Ray said. "But she's plugging away, and the injury's coming along okay. It's just going to be one of those years. The numbers she will have will be because of the injury."
Few Wildcats hoped to live as hit-by-hit as they have in series with Hawaii and Eastern Michigan. Arizona's power-hungry reality has forced players to be smart in every at-bat.
"Putting the ball on the ground, there's just a lot of better percentages getting on base that way," Lowe said last week. "(Head coach Mike Candrea) really stresses that we stay on top of the ball and make things happen."
A few of the team's new starters have headed that effort.
Freshman catcher Callista Balko hit three home runs and drove in 14 runs in 20 starts before being replaced by senior infielder Jackie Coburn a week ago.
Senior third baseman Jen Martinez, who played in limited duty in 2004 after transferring from Pima Community College, is second on the team in doubles (six) and is one of five players with double-digit RBIs.
"We sure like those pleasant surprises," Ray said.
More surprising for the team would be another early exit in the playoffs. Though the players no longer swing for the fences, they have kept their eyes on one target: Oklahoma City, home of the 2005 Women's College World Series.
"We have enough hitters to score runs and everything. We're getting runners on, and now they're starting to cash in," Farley said. "We don't need home runs to win games."