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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “2006 Softball Season Preview: Chemistry set, Wildcats a family again”

    The Arizona Wildcat softball team comes into their 2006 season with high expectations and a No. 5 ranking in the polls to prove it. Due to academic issues, the Wildcats have had to call on the services of Wildcat soccer player Kelly Nelson, who will be used in a backup role.
    The Arizona Wildcat softball team comes into their 2006 season with high expectations and a No. 5 ranking in the polls to prove it. Due to academic issues, the Wildcats have had to call on the services of Wildcat soccer player Kelly Nelson, who will be used in a backup role.

    Of all the factors that contributed to the No. 5 Arizona softball team’s 45-12 record last season – the program’s worst since 1987 – the most important one may have been the least obvious on the field.

    In the midst of a season that threw a few shovel loads of dirt on the Wildcats’ reputation for power – 33 team home runs, its fewest since 1992 – some players said the clubhouse took on a disturbing hierarchy.

    Athletes ended up grouping themselves by academic class, leading to a playing environment short on peer support.

    “”This year, there’s a lot more meshing,”” said sophomore catcher Callista Balko, a first-time starter last season. “”It’s not like different classes. It’s one team, rather than being a junior, a senior. … We learned from that (division) last year.””

    Seniors Jackie Coburn, Crystal Farley and Allyson Von Liechtenstein became the team’s first set of four-year seniors since 1990 to graduate without a national championship, as Texas defeated Arizona 1-0 on June 5 to eliminate the Wildcats from their 17th Women’s College World Series in 18 seasons.

    As it stands, more than half the roster – nine players, including two other seniors and redshirt junior Courtney Fossatti – will be absent in ’06.

    Remaining are 14 players head coach Mike Candrea has no choice but to bank on for the long haul.

    “”I would prefer to have people who can play two or three positions versus having 18 people out here,”” he said. “”The numbers don’t scare me. If you look back at history, there’s been three championships that have been won by (Arizona) teams with less than 15 players.””

    Candrea cited the 1996 title team as inspiration. That squad won 58 games despite having only 12 active players, as mainstays Leah Braatz and Nancy Evans redshirted and Leah O’Brien competed with the U.S. National Team.

    “”We’re not talking right now about a national title, we’re talking about getting better every day,”” Candrea said. “”If we can stay healthy, I think we have a chance to stay with anyone.””

    Staying together will be the first challenge. Arizona welcomes six newcomers, including new starters at three infield spots and Wildcat senior soccer player Kelly Nelson.

    Balko, who made 50 infield starts in 2005, said the process has already started to get freshmen Laine Roth (first base) and Jenae Leles and junior college transfer Chelsie Mesa (second) acclimated to Arizona’s demanding style of play.

    “”Just through practicing, we’re learning how to play with each other,”” Balko said. “”I think that’s the main key, just getting to know each other and getting to know each player and their throw and how they think. My job is to keep everybody in the game.””

    The rest of the leadership duties fall on a relatively slim but accomplished group of seniors: pitchers Alicia Hollowell and Leslie Wolfe (1.00 combined ERA in 2005) and left fielder Autumn Champion (two-time first-team All-America selection).

    With question marks in the batting order, players and coaches said they agree that the veteran pitching staff, with all three hurlers returning, will anchor the team as its constituent parts form a cohesive whole.

    “”We’ve got three weapons we can use at any given time in games we’re playing, and that’s going to be very important and crucial for our team,”” said Nancy Evans, an Arizona assistant coach. “”Pitching keeps you in the game defensively, and our offense will score some runs.””

    That may not happen the old-fashioned way, with increased national parity – preseason No. 1 Michigan is the first non-Pacific 10 Conference team to hold that distinction. That parity is showcasing top power hitters like Louisiana-Lafayette’s Danyele Gomez and Central Florida’s Stephanie Best farther and farther away from the Pac-10.

    Instead, the Wildcats will again look for production from the top down in the order.

    Junior center fielder Caitlin Lowe, a finalist for two national player-of-the-year awards last year, returns as the leadoff hitter, and Champion and junior shortstop Kristie Fox remain in their No. 2 and 3 spots, respectively, in the order.

    Coaches said they are hoping Mesa, a transfer from Phoenix College who led her team in slugging percentage and RBIs during its fall tournament, will keep teams from pitching around Fox (nation-best 64 RBIs) as the clean-up hitter.

    “”You have to find a way to be solid one through nine. That’s the whole key,”” Candrea said. “”The great teams are the teams usually where you’re not depending on one kid to do it all. You have a different hero every game.””

    Arizona may need more than a little heroism to survive its schedule, in which at least 29 of 53 regular-season games will be played against teams ranked in the preseason top 25.

    Once the team moves into Pac-10 play at the end of March, the ratio gets even tougher (15 such contests out of 21).

    “”For me, if I have the choice of playing good competition or bad competition, I’m going to play good competition,”” Candrea said. “”We just have the luxury of being able to bring some people in who have good programs and good tradition and are going to be up in the top 20 year this year.

    “”It’s going to be nothing but the best.””

    Expectations are understandably high for Arizona, which hasn’t won a national championship since 2001. The four seasons since make this title drought the Wildcats’ longest since they won their first in 1991.

    “”If we don’t go all the way, we’ve failed. That’s kind of our outlook,”” Champion said. “”Some people are happy to get there, but we’re not just happy to get there. We need to win.””

    By many accounts, the 2006 edition of Arizona softball will be trimmer and leaner than its predecessor – but will it be better?

    “”I think the chemistry is a lot more important in some cases than talent,”” Balko said. “”I think that if we’re behind each other a lot, I mean, we have the talent already. Just as long as everyone stays healthy and keeps in shape without injuries, I think we’ll be on the road for the last game.””

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