By Eric Wein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
One glaring difference between this year and last year stood out when the Arizona softball team met at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium for Media Day yesterday afternoon Ä a lot more members of the media were around.
After the Wildcats scorched through their season in 1994 to capture their second straight national championship and third in the last four years, people have finally taken notice.
And yesterday, they had to answer more questions from more people.
It's not just their NCAA-best 64-3 record from last year that generates the optimism before this season. It's also because five of the six first-team All-Americans from last year return along with other experienced players.
The five All-Americans will be at their regular positions when the season starts: catcher Leah Braatz, first baseman Amy Chellevold, second baseman Jenny Dalton, shortstop Laura Espinoza and center fielder Leah O'Brien.
"Last year is over and done with," Coach Mike Candrea said. "This is a new page, a new group. They have to come out and re-prove it."
The Wildcats enter this season expecting to bring in more runs because of added speed on the basepaths, and not planning to count on home runs like they did last year.
"They have to hit the ball hard while not worrying about jacking everything out," said Candrea, who enters his 10th season at Arizona. "If they're home-run conscious, they're going to struggle at the plate."
The speed takes some heat off Espinoza, the NCAA career home run and RBI leader. She hit 30 homers last year and drove in 95 runs, but doesn't feel those kinds of numbers are as important this season.
"When we get runners on second and third, all I have to do is come up with a base hit," Espinoza said. "The pressure is off. It's difficult when they expect a home run from you when you come up and no one's on."
The only non-returning All-American is Susie Parra, a two-time first-team All-America pitcher who used up her eligibility last year and will spend the season as an undergraduate assistant coach.
The UA has never won the title game without Parra.
But with sophomore pitchers Nancy Evans (17-0 last year) and Carrie Dolan (11-2) both returning, the team is far from being short on pitching talent.
"These two pitchers can carry us anywhere we want to go," Dalton said. "If one pitcher falls short, the team will pick them up. We lose together, we win together, we fall, we rise Ä everything is done together. There's no one person that's going to cause the rise or fall for us."
Said Candrea: "My biggest question mark with the pitching staff is how mentally tough they're going to be. People are going to come out and hit the ball a bit and they're not going to get 13 strikeouts a game."
Espinoza and Chellevold are especially aimed at winning the national title again this season, and it's not just because they're the only seniors on the team. They are also the only returning players who remember getting to the championship game (in 1992) and losing.
"Unless you've been there, you don't know what it's like to lose," Chellevold said. "It's scary when you've gotten too much success too soon. You appreciate it a lot more when you realize it doesn't always happen."
In some fielding changes, Krista Gomez moves from left field to third base and might split time there with Evans. Sophomores Brandi
Shriver and Andrea Doty and freshmen Julie Reitan and Alison Johnsen are possibilities for left and right field. Freshman Lety Pineda is expected to be the backup catcher.
The Wildcats host an exhibition game against an alumni team Feb. 4 before its season-opening home doubleheader against New Mexico State Feb. 11.
"The only thing we have to discourage is that we don't become overconfident and we don't look past people," Candrea said. "We don't want the kids to sit back and be satisfied."
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