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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Arizona softball closes storied chapter as it opens brand up new stadium

Arizonas+Jessie+Harper+%2819%29+runs+towards+home+plate+after+hitting+a+home+run+during+the+fourth+inning+of+the+Arizona-St.+Francis+game+of+the+NCAA+championship+Tournament+on+Friday+May+18+at+the+Rita+Hillenbrand+Stadium+in+Tucson%2C+Ariz.+The+run+scores+the+cats+the+first+point+of+the+game.
Sofia Moraga
Arizona’s Jessie Harper (19) runs towards home plate after hitting a home run during the fourth inning of the Arizona-St. Francis game of the NCAA championship Tournament on Friday May 18 at the Rita Hillenbrand Stadium in Tucson, Ariz. The run scores the cats the first point of the game.

If you haven’t heard, the Arizona softball program is going through a little bit of a facelift. The storied program that set the gold standard over two decades ago with the construction of the original Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium is renovating. 

Eight national championships later, Arizona is closing the chapter on the most storied era of its program and transitioning into the new world of college softball, joining the facility arms-race that has swept athletic departments nationwide.

“Hillenbrand Stadium has been good to us,” head coach Mike Candrea said. “In ‘93, when we built it, it was the Taj Mahal. Kids would walk in here and kinda stare at it and look at it, and I think the ‘New Rita’ is going to be a lot like that too.”

The “New Rita” is coming together, with the framing and structural integrity starting to take shape, the people in and around the Arizona softball program can barely contain their excitement — including the guy in charge.

“I don’t think people understand the stature of the stadium right now,” Candrea said. “When you look at a picture, it looks nice, but when you walk out here and you see it … I think the fans will be louder, and I think the fans are gonna enjoy the experience a lot more, because there are a lot more amenities.”

For Arizona, the facility upgrade comes at a crucial time. In recent years, schools like UCLA, Oregon and ASU have taken extreme measures to try to get an advantage by upgrading their facilities. The flow of blue-chip prospects that have made Arizona a national powerhouse has started to slow, with the last time Arizona playing in a College World Series being in 2010, and other teams caught up. 

UCLA has made the College World Series four times since 2010, Oregon has made it to the big stage five times this decade, and ASU has made it four times. 

The gap that Arizona had on its opponents during the late 80s, 90s and 2000s, where they made the College World Series 22 times out of 23 years from 1988 to 2010, has quickly evaporated. Candrea thinks the stadium might be the thing to get them back to where they belong. 

“It’s going to be a remarkable addition to this program,” Candrea said. “Not just for right now, but for the future of the program. We are just really excited that the ‘the new Rita’ will be at the very top of the list now.”

Part of that is the way image can influence fans and recruits. 

“I just think it’s one more step to looking a little more professional. Any time we can take softball and move it a notch or two around the country, I think it will influence people to follow and do the same thing,” Candera said.

For longtime Arizona softball fans, the return to the glory days could be a lot closer than they appear, as the familiar face of Candrea mixed in with a shiny new home could be the exact remedy for propelling the Wildcats back into standing as a softball powerhouse.

After falling to longtime rival UCLA in last year’s Super Regional in Westwood, the Wildcats are poised to make another deep run into the NCAA Tournament, and hopefully their new toy will be right there with them.


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