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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Commentary: Arizona softball’s unheralded players key to World Series

Perhaps the Arizona softball team is amidst a drought that has kept them from adding to their championship accolades.

“”We get there … we don’t fight,”” head coach Mike Candrea said of the past few seasons. “”There’s a brand of softball out there that’s really hard-nosed.””

But in consecutive weekends, the 2010 Wildcat team has alluded to a renewed sense of urgency, one that could push Arizona into the championship mix during its 22nd Women’s College World Series appearance in 23 seasons.

Championships are won with chemistry — something this team has prided itself upon. That fact was reflected in the box score in Saturday’s Game 2 against BYU, when the Wildcats finished off the Cougars to set up a WCWS slot.

When unlikely characters show up, Arizona has a good shot of winning.

Veterans Brittany Lastrapes, K’Lee Arredondo and Stacie Chambers weren’t knocking in runs at the top of the order. Rather it was the underclassman foursome of Kristen Arriola, Baillie Kirker, Lini Koria and Brigette Del Ponte drawing RBIs toward the bottom of the battling order.

Oh, and then there was the biggest surprise — senior pitcher Sarah Akamine.

Here’s how it went.

With a questionable decision to start BYU back-up pitcher Christie Zinanti, three walks in a row during the top of the first inning opened a wound for the Cougar’s psyche. After an 8-0 Arizona win back on Feb. 26 and then Friday’s 2-1 grind-out Wildcat victory, BYU was vulnerable.

But after a lead-off double by BYU’s Kristin Delahoussaye in the bottom of the first, a comebacker by J.C. Clayton struck pitcher Kenzie Fowler’s pitching arm.

That sucked the life out of Hillenbrand.

Fowler was replaced by Akamine, a pitcher who had an inconsistent season that left spectators questioning what to expect, to say the least.

It was the Wildcats who were all of a sudden vulnerable.

Candrea said it himself throughout the regular season.

“”I ask her everyday, are you ready Sarah?””

The Escondido, Calif., native’s reaction to witnessing Fowler’s injury said it all.

“”I was up out of the dugout,”” Akamine said.

That urgency was hard to see in Akamine during the regular season. But against BYU, she looked focused and poised.

And in a parallel to the NBA playoffs, her performance became a Rasheed Wallace-esque postseason moment.

Akamine, who came to Arizona as a freshman not expecting to be a pitcher, rolled from the start, ending the game with five strikeouts and four hits.

And how fitting was it that on the last out, the unheralded Akamine forced a pop-out on Angeline Quiocho, the nation’s RBI per game and home run leader. The Wildcats didn’t allow a hit to the third baseman in the two postseason games.

Arizona also saw young batters tear the game wide open, scoring the first two Wildcats runs via walks on Koria and then a two RBI chopper up the middle by Arriola. Arizona left the top of the third with a 5-1 lead thanks to a Kirker shot to third base that was mishandled by BYU.

Kirker would beat the Cougars again, earning an RBI in the fourth inning. This coming from a player who batted just .063 during Pacific 10 Conference play.

“”Something clicked,”” she said. “”It was just a building day and I’m just glad I produced for my team.””

When it was all over, Arizona’s eight RBIs came all from freshmen and sophomores, their stats set up by the four veteran batters in the top of the order.

“”Chambers had three walks, Lini had three walks. That’s good for us,”” Candrea said. “”The key is the other people swung the bats.””

Walking Arizona’s big bats “”backfired”” on BYU, Candrea added, bluntly.

Give credit to the coach too. Forget how he went into the office early in the morning to study game film, trying to decode BYU’s pitching signals. It was Candrea staying behind his players, through struggle, that helped them defeat BYU.

“”I’m grateful,”” Kirker said of her coach keeping her in the line-up.

Candrea also stuck with Akamine. Saturday it paid off.

You could see emptiness on the faces of the BYU players and head coach Gordon Eakin at the post-game presser.

“”We thought before Fowler was knocked out we had opportunity,”” he said. “”We had confidence.

“”Under the circumstances,”” he said of Akamine, “”she deserves a lot of credit.””

So when the lesser-known Arizona players took it upon themselves to win when Arizona was most vulnerable, it comes as a hopeful sign for Candrea that this team will be play with the grit of champions come Thursday — and beyond — when the Wildcats face Tennessee at 3 p.m. Tucson time.

“”I hope they’re damn ready,”” Candrea said of his players. “”I hope to go there and be there a while.””

 

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