By R.P. Parsons
Arizona Summer Wildcat
How did it happen?
That's the question coaches, players, and fans of Arizona's softball team have been pondering since May 30.
That's the day that UCLA beat the Wildcats 4-2 in the final game of the College World Series, denying top-seeded Arizona a third straight national title.
Anyone who has competed knows that most athletes in team sports would love to simply get the chance to compete for a title Ä to be, like Arizona, a perennial favorite to win it all.
But Arizona players are faced with a dilemma few of us who play sports can identify with: How do you reconcile losing the national championship game in a season in which it seemed you would be unstoppable in your quest for third straight title?
Try to imagine:
You are one of the best college softball players in the country. You had to be to get a scholarship to Arizona, winner of the 1993 and 1994 NCAA national title.
Your team blows through the 1995 regular season with a mark of 60-4. NCAA records fall almost as fast as the teams you play. You don't just beat other teams; you flatten them. Most of your games are short, cut after the fifth inning because of the mercy rule Ä as if it's merciful to score nine runs in five innings while your opponent manages zero.
You host the NCAA regional, filling Hillenbrand stadium with nearly 1,700 fans each time you play. You crush your three opponents by a combined score of 32-0. In the final against Florida State, your senior teammate Laura Espinoza hits her 37th home run, adding to her NCAA record total.
At the College World Series, it's more of the same, as you roll over Princeton, Fullerton and UNLV. The team is playing loose, having fun, just the way coach Mike Candrea likes it.
The fans in Oklahoma City love the Wildcats. You are besieged by autograph-seeking children before and after every game and the 200 or so Wildcat fans who chant "threepeat" are a real boost at every game.
As you prepare for the final against UCLA, you are confident. Not overly so, since the Bruins did manage to take three of four games from you this season, but you sit back and think: We're Arizona. We're 66-5 on the year.
You look across the dugout at senior Amy Chellevold, the NCAA career leader in runs and hits. In four years at UA, Chellevold and Espinoza have compiled a 232-24 record and two national titles.
You look at head coach Mike Candrea, who in the past five years has transformed Arizona softball into a phenomenon.
You pick up a stat sheet for a look at your offense, and marvel at the NCAA records your team has broken: 629 runs scored, 100 home runs, a .383 batting average. There's Espinoza's name again, who set three more NCAA records this season: Home runs (37), RBI's (128), and total bases (1,216).
What about defense? Pitcher Carrie Dolan's record is 33-1. And you notice that your team fielding percentage is .979.
So, before the championship game, as you hear the chants of "U of A, U of A," and see the pom-pons waving, you think. This is destiny, you say, as you place your hand over your heart during the national anthem. There's no way Arizona can be denied, you say.
But you are denied. Tanya Harding, the Australian whose controversial transfer to UCLA caused grumblings before and after the series, does the unthinkable: She holds Arizona's power hitters in check, allowing just two runs from eight hits.
You sit and watch in despair as Harding time and again mows down the Arizona lineup, including Espinoza and Chellevold.
You cringe as the defense uncharacteristically commits two errors and mishandles a fly ball, allowing UCLA to score.
And you stand in mute sorrow watching the Bruins dance on the field after the victory, savoring the moment that everyone thought would be yours.
How did it happen, you wonder.
After the game, there are reporters' questions about Harding, about the fact that she spent a mere two months as a Bruin and that she would skip her final exams to re-join the Australian Olympic team.
Many other coaches and players have voiced complaints about Harding, but you don't. It doesn't matter, you explain. It could have been Nolan Ryan pitching, and you would have still bet on the Wildcats winning.
After its all over, you tell yourself that you shouldn't be disappointed with the season, that the Wildcats still had a great year. You look forward to next year, to another run at the national championship.
But you, just like the coaches and fans, are still wondering...
How did it happen?
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