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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Not a Ray of remorse

    UA interim head coach Larry Ray talks to the media at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium after the Wildcats 5-1 loss to Alabama on Saturday. Ray led Arizona to its 20th Womens College Wolrd Series berth.
    UA interim head coach Larry Ray talks to the media at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium after the Wildcats’ 5-1 loss to Alabama on Saturday. Ray led Arizona to its 20th Women’s College Wolrd Series berth.

    Women’s College World Series

    OKLAHOMA CITY – Larry Ray had history to contend with.

    The last time he took over the Arizona softball team for a season on an interim basis – when head coach Mike Candrea took 2004 off – he failed to lead the Wildcats to the Women’s College World Series after they had done so for every year since 1988.

    So naturally, when he grabbed the reins of the program at the beginning of this past season when Candrea announced he would take time off to work with the U.S. Olympic team, all eyes were on Ray.

    He led Arizona to the NCAA playoffs for the 18th consecutive year in 2004 and to its eighth Pacific 10 Conference Championship with a 55-6 record, 19-2 in the conference. But the fact remains that Arizona wasn’t one of the eight teams that made it to the WCWS at the end of the season.

    Would there be a “”2008″” marker on the walls of Hillenbrand Stadium in Tucson, signifying Arizona’s 20th WCWS berth, or would there be a vacancy like there was for 2004?

    It was a question that Ray had to contend with all season. He hid his emotions well, if there any, saying at the beginning of the season that the main change was that he would be the one penciling in the lineup cards on game days instead of Candrea. But in the end, the defending back-to-back national champions fought to get the Oklahoma City and were a No. 7 seed in the eight-team field.

    Alas, they made it and 2008 would be added to the list of WCWS appearances on the Hillenbrand Stadium walls.

    “”It was a very different year with coach Ray,”” said senior catcher Callista Balko. “”I think it was awesome and a great experience for him to get here because I heard him mention on TV that he saw that void in the outfield of him never making it to the World Series.””

    Ray got the monkey off his back, so to speak, by getting to the WCWS. But after losing 1-0 to No. 2 seed UCLA and 5-1 to No. 3 seed Alabama, the Wildcats suffered their first World Series sweep in 18 years. It also marked the first time Arizona failed to reach the championship series while defending one of its eight national titles.

    “”That monkey was just a minor goal,”” Ray said. “”It’s sort of like winning the Pac-10 (Championship). It’s just one step, you know. The big step was getting here but unfortunately we weren’t able to get to the last game.””

    Arizona finished the 2008 season 41-19 (13-8 Pac-10) under Ray, but it wasn’t like Candrea was completely absent. The head coach was on hand to see the Wildcats play at least one weekend every month, including their games at the WCWS. But Arizona’s coach of 23 years always watched from the stands, not the dugout. He kept in loose contact with his players by e-mail and text messages.

    “”I kind of just have stepped to the side and let Ray and the staff do their job,”” Candrea told ESPN during the Wildcats game against UCLA when he sat in the stands as a spectator. “”I don’t want them to think I’m looking over their shoulder. I have a lot of confidence in them and I’m just really proud of this group.””

    There was no question, however, that this year’s version of the team was in the hands of Ray.

    “”The players (were) used to me, they’re used to me maybe in a little different role,”” said Ray, who has been an Arizona coach for 17 years. “”I tried not to extend that role too broadly.””

    He did what a good coach is expected to do. He kept the group loose and jovial, full of laughter. And when the time came, he got on the players and made sure they got serious for games. He knew the routine well.

    “”We faced some very tough competition and I don’t think there’s anything that he could have done differently as a coach,”” Balko said. “”I, as a player, thought he made the right plays, the right calls at the right time.””

    Though they didn’t win the national title – let alone make it to the championship series – Ray said he is already looking forward to the 2009 version of the journey, this time as Candrea’s assistant once again.

    “”I can’t wait to get back on the field,”” Ray said. “”Every year that we don’t win the last game, I can’t wait to get back on and start all over again.””

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