O'Brien lends talent, smiles to UA

is, Leah O'Brien always seems to be smiling.

She might be standing on second base getting ready to sprint off the bag. She could come to the plate in an intensely close game or be standing in the outfield during a blowout.

O'Brien may be the center fielder for the top-ranked Arizona softball team and a first-team All-American last season, but no matter what she always seems to be having a good time.

"That's how I am as a person. I'm pretty easy-going. That's when I play my best when I'm happy and when I'm confident," O'Brien says. "I think everybody who sees me is just like, 'Why do you smile so much?' I don't know. I'm just happy."

Says UA coach Mike Candrea, "A big part of life is to have to be able to laugh and have a sense of humor. She definitely has that."

On a team loaded with talented players, O'Brien lends not only her skills but also her positive attitude. She'll lighten up practices by cracking jokes and giggle about random things with other outfielders during games. It's just that she enjoys the game even when she's in clutch situations.

"It's not like a 'who cares' attitude. It's to have fun, but at the same time you have to get the job done," she says. "I've never been sick of the game. I've never once said, 'Oh, I don't want to play today.' I've never had that attitude."

Candrea says, "Leah's the type of kid that keeps people loose. You never know what's going to come out of her. She's very predictable in one sense because it's very consistent with her attitude. But it's very unpredictable because sometimes she'll do things off the wall."

Her performance this year and in her previous two seasons has left her coaches and teammates smiling. Most importantly, she's been getting the job done while batting second in the order.

O'Brien, a 5-foot-9 junior from Chino, Calif., falls in behind speedster Amy Chellevold who is a potent scoring threat and in front of power

hitters Jenny Dalton and Laura Espinoza.

"Leah's role is two-fold," Candrea explains. "One, is sometimes to advance the runner. The second is a hitter that can drive in runs."

Candrea calls her one of the best outfielders in the country and the best center fielder he's seen in a long time.

He also considers her leaping, home run-saving catch during last year's College World Series as one of the best plays he's ever seen in both softball or baseball. On that play, O'Brien ran back to the center field fence and leaped to snag what would have been a home run. That play was instrumental in leading the Wildcats to the national championship.

"It was probably the best play of my life," O'Brien remembers. "I knew it was over and I was at the fence so I just jumped as high as I could. It just went in my glove and when I brought it back in, I was like, 'Oh, yeah.'"

When Susie Parra, who pitched in that game and is now a student assistant coach, overhears O'Brien describing that catch while walking by after practice. Parra lets out a grunt and then the two start giggling. This requires further explanation.

"When I made that catch, the first thing that came to my mind was that I was embarrassed because I had run back for the ball and gave it everything I had and then I went, 'uhh'," O'Brien recalls. "I was more embarrassed about what the people behind me were thinking than happy about what I had done."

After she had made that crucial grab, her teammates rushed over to congratulate her and, at the same time, see if she been injured. Still embarrassed, O'Brien simply said, "Oh my gosh, I sounded so funny."

While her defensive play may be superb, she has also proven herself as an occasional pitcher. She had a 19-5 record with a 1.82 ERA over the past two seasons and has appeared in two games this year, winning her only start. If the Wildcats' pitching rotation was not set this season and was not so phenomenally successful, O'Brien would get more turns on the mound.

"Leah is kind of our insurance policy in case anything does happen," Candrea says. "We're not devastated by a loss of a pitcher because she is capable of competing at this level."

O'Brien is not the only UA player with a jovial attitude. Even though the stakes may be high, the players' enjoyment for the game still coexists with their serious nature.

"One of the girls on Oklahoma asked a girl on our team, 'You guys are the national championship team are you just serious the whole time?'" O'Brien says. "(The UA player) was just like, 'Yeah, right. Our whole team goofs around. We play relaxed.' I think that's seriously the key to our success. We don't get on each other's nerves. We have fun together."

It's not as though O'Brien changes once she gets away from the field either. She generally shows off that attitude in her everyday life. But her selection as an Academic All-American last year proves that she takes class seriously.

"I'll laugh at things that happen but I won't be loud and obnoxious," O'Brien says. "I could be walking down the street or walking to class and think about something funny that happened, and I'll start laughing. That's my sense of humor. I always have a smile on my face."

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