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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “1997, 2006 banner years for Arizona sports”

    1997, 2006 banner years for Arizona sports

    Championships are immortal. Winning seasons may come and go, personal awards may look nice on a shelf, but winning a national championship at the Division I level of intercollegiate athletics ensures your name will live forever.

    Taking a stroll down National Championship Drive just east of Arizona Stadium, it’s easy to see that 14 teams at Arizona have achieved immortality.

    And each team has a story. Beginning with baseball’s 1976 title and continuing last year with the softball squad winning a school-record seventh national championship, each tale is different. But not as different as you may think.

    Talentwise, each of the 14 teams may not have been the best team, but in the end it didn’t matter because everything that led up to the moment they ultimately won their respective championships fell perfectly into place.

    “”It’s the team that gets hot, gets the breaks, the balls that bounce your way,”” said men’s basketball assistant coach Josh Pastner, a member of men’s basketball’s lone national championship team in 1997. “”When it comes down to March, you get hot – and we got hot in those six games, that was the bottom line.””

    Even the softball team’s dominant run through the Women’s College World Series this past June couldn’t erase the fact that they struggled at the onset of Pacific 10 Conference play, falling to 5-6 in the conference after an 8-2 loss to then-No. 1 UCLA at the end of April.

    “”We had some serious downs this year,”” said pitcher Leslie Wolfe, who was a senior. “”There was a point in the season where I think not only (the players) but our coaching staff was just beyond frustrated.

    “”From then on, we just kind of started to slowly turn it around, but it really wasn’t until towards the end of the season where we said, ‘OK, we really do have a chance at this.'””

    Softball’s sweet seventh

    When Autumn Champion, a senior left fielder on head coach Mike Candrea’s 2006 team, got up to speak at the team’s annual Lead-off Luncheon in early February, she announced to the team what the rest of the world would soon see.

    “”This team,”” she said, “”is a lot different than any other team.””

    No, it wasn’t a Joe Namath-esque prophecy. The future-champion Champion was referencing the unique bond the team seemed to share.

    “”Everyone got along really well,”” she said. “”We were small in numbers, but that kind of made it nice because there were less cliques – I mean we’re girls, there are cliques, there are fights – but I think everyone just really meshed well on the team.””

    Fast-forward to June 2, with No. 2 seed Arizona already two weeks into its postseason journey.

    After taking out Pac-10 foe and No. 7 seed Oregon State a day earlier as WCWS play began, No. 3 seed Texas and senior ace Cat Osterman, the three-time national Player of the Year and Team USA ace, was seemingly all that stood in the way of a seventh softball banner on National Championship Drive.

    That’s when sophomore catcher Callista Balko delivered.

    Her single through the left side for the lone Arizona hit of the day proved Osterman was human and also scored then-junior center fielder Caitlin Lowe from second. A double steal later, the Wildcats had a 2-0 lead they never relinquished.

    “”Honestly,”” Wolfe said, “”it was after we beat Texas that we knew we had it.””

    Though the Cats lost their next game – a 1-0 decision to No. 8 seed Tennessee – senior pitcher Alicia Hollowell didn’t allow a run the rest of the tournament, and Arizona was again on top of the softball world.

    Basketball’s ‘amazing’ run

    Looking at the Arizona men’s basketball program now, it’s hard to imagine that it only has one championship tucked away in McKale Center’s rafters. But if there was ever a year to have that championship take place, 1997 was it – in picture-perfect fashion.

    The march through March saw No. 4 seed Arizona take out three No. 1 seeds – first Kansas in the Sweet 16, then North Carolina in the Final Four and ultimately Kentucky in the national championship game.

    “”To beat three No. 1 seeds – and Kansas that year, where everyone was expecting them to be a sure lock to win it all,”” Pastner said, “”it was an amazing, I mean an amazing run.””

    But there wasn’t one game that made Pastner, then a freshman walk-on to head coach Lute Olson’s ’96-’97 squad, see how special the 1997 team would become, because, as he said, he “”automatically thought we were winning the whole thing,”” upon arriving on campus.

    “”I remember when we won the championship, I was like, ‘This is easy, we’re going to win every year,'”” Pastner said. “”And my dad told me, ‘Savor your moment, because it’s not that easy.'””

    As it turns out, his father, Hal, was right. Though the Wildcats have since returned to the Final Four – and ultimately the championship game in 2001 – and to the Elite Eight in 1998, 2003 and 2005, they were unable to taste the same glory as the 1997 team.

    ‘There are no words’

    After the softball team returned home from Oklahoma City a day after declawing the Northwestern Wildcats, the hometown Wildcats were greeted by a limousine and a welcome-home bash in a McKale Center filled with thousands of fans.

    “”I had no idea there was going to be that many people,”” Wolfe said. “”Even now, everywhere I go, I still get people saying ‘Congratulations’ and ‘We watched the games.’

    “”Whether you were one of the starting nine or not, it’s just the coolest feeling, and it’s such an honor.””

    Champion said: “”It was such a good atmosphere to come back to. They really treated us like we were famous.””

    But those famous Wildcats struggled to put their respective championships into words, even with some time to let them settle in.

    “”It’s unexplainable,”” Champion said, before coming close to proving herself wrong. “”You can’t sleep that night.””

    Pastner added: “”There are no words. And now that I’ve been in the Division I athletics starting my 11th year, you appreciate it that much more because you realize how hard it is … everybody is going for it, and you only have that one chance.

    “”We might never win again. We don’t know, you never know. To say you have won it, you’re in the .00001 percent of people in athletics.””

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