Unsung hero

The cord extended out

from a socket near the dugout at Hillen-brand Stadium and went along the ground before reaching the home plate area.

That was where Larry Ray sat on a chair with his back to the field, with the entire UA softball team surrounding him and smiling.

A microphone picked up the whirring sound of the electric razor and, as the last remaining strands of his hair fell to the dirt, he too was laughing and making jokes about how his new haircut looked very military.

All of this took place last May, the day after the Wildcats won the 1994 national championship. The team had returned to their home field to finish shaving Ray's head, a job they started at the World Series in Oklahoma City, Okla. The idea to shave the assistant coach's head was not original UA head coach Mike Candrea was shaved bald after the team won the '93 title.

During the 1993 season, Ray and Candrea both promised they would allow the team to shave their heads if they went on to win the national championship. The players forgot about Ray the first time, but in '94, they remembered, and he became victim No. 2.

Most men in their forties fear going bald but Ray enjoyed every minute of it and he would gladly do it again this May.

"It was fun. It got a lot of notoriety. People see me on the street and say 'Oh, your hair grew back pretty nicely,'" Ray says now. "If that's all it takes to win a national championship, I'll do it every year."

That incident brought some recognition to Ray, who has been Candrea's top assistant since both men came to the UA in 1986. And while Candrea has been synonymous with collegiate softball, Ray has gotten a lot less notoriety even though he has made a major impact on the sport and has been behind building the Wildcats into a nationally prominent program.

But that lack of recognition has never really bothered him.

"The only thing Mike does that I don't is he has to speak at more banquets," Ray said. "He gives me all the credit for the short game I program. I basically feel like a head coach. He treats me like one."

Ray's contribution has been in all areas but is the most visible in the Wildcats' short game, which involves turning quick players into left-handed hitters and utilizing their speed to get on base. He shows them how to slap the ball into the dirt and beat out the throw.

"I think our short game is probably as good as any in the country," says Candrea, whose Wildcats (2-0) face Cal State-Fullerton in Phoenix tonight as part of the Coca-Cola Classic, a four-day tournament. "He's been a very integral part of the program and the success that we've had."

With his help, senior first baseman Amy Chellevold batted .504 as a slap-hitting leadoff hitter last season and was named a unanimous first-team All-American. The UA lineup is now loaded with quick slap-hitters Krista Gomez, Brandi Shriver and Andrea Doty.

"He's actually developed everything in my short game," Chellevold said. "He's pretty mid

much irreplaceable. He's a huge part of our program but he doesn't get enough credit."

Ray also works with baserunning, the outfielders on defense and twice a week, he takes the pitching circle and throws batting practice to the team. That can leave him with slight arm pain afterwards.

"I don't have to worry if my arm is sore on game day because I'm not the one out there," he says. "I'll get in shape."

His job is year-round. He works with Candrea in various softball camps and spends time scouting 16-and-under tournaments all over the country to help future recruiting. Most colleges ignore the players at that age but Ray has discovered some eventual Wildcats at that age, namely center fielder Leah O'Brien and pitcher Nancy Evans.

One would assume that with all the success Arizona has had, other college softball programs would be lining up to hire Ray as their head coach. But that hasn't been the case.

Through the years at Arizona, he has applied for four head coaching jobs but has never been offered an interview.

"I'm very happy here but I'd like to be a head coach at the right school later on," Ray admits. "It would take an awful lot to take me away from Arizona. I would definitely want good weather and some money to build a program."

Equity issues have created a push to hire qualified females for softball coaching positions. That has made it difficult for both coaches to gain acceptance in their field and, quite possibly, has denied Ray job offers.

"I think they ought to hire the best qualified and I think Larry is very deserving of a shot at a head coaching job," Candrea said. "Hopefully, he'll get his shot."

Both men's baseball backgrounds carry over to the softball diamond and have added to the program's success. However, they also recognize the differences mainly not allowing every batter to swing away and instead utilize the short game.

Still, Ray has no desire to go back to baseball. He got that sport out of his mind after trying out for the California Angels and being told he was too old. His age at the time: 22.

"I've been playing fast pitch ever since," says Ray, who serves as the first base coach during games. "It's really tough for me to go watch a baseball game, the whole game. It's a slower game and I'm used to now the quick pace of playing a doubleheader in the time baseball takes to play one game."

When Candrea was named the NCAA Coach of the Year last season, some said that would make Ray the assistant of the year.

As part of the three championship years, Ray has been a strong force in the Wildcats' march toward national recognition. And even though those trophies line the coaches' office inside McKale Center, Ray doesn't spend his time looking at them. He is more concerned with this season.

"All we want to do is go out there and be the best we can and put more of those NCAA national championship signs on the stadium and we're happy people," Ray said. "We're not hard to please."

Read Next Article