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The Daily Wildcat

 

Redemption

Ernie Somoza / Arizona Daily Wildcat

Softball Practice February 11, 2010
Ernie Somoza
Ernie Somoza / Arizona Daily Wildcat Softball Practice February 11, 2010

Head coach Mike Candrea’s 2009 Arizona softball team ended the year under the spotlight of history.

It set — blew away, really — the NCAA record for the number of home runs in one season.

But in their final game, the Wildcats gave up a record 14 runs to the Alabama Crimson Tide at The Women’s College World Series. They didn’t score a single run themselves.

“”I’ve never lost 14-0 in my life,”” said outfielder Brittany Lastrapes. “”I can handle losing, that’s part of the game, but to be embarrassed like that is just something I never want to feel again.

“”Coach (Candrea) reminds us, we remind each other; we never want to feel that again.””

Arizona now has a chip on its shoulder.

And it also has a large portion of the record-setting offense returning. Arizona lost key seniors third baseman Jenae Leles to graduation and utility player Sam Banister to exhausted eligibility but returns the entire outfield as well as seasoned senior K’Lee Arredondo at shortstop.

Refocused and ready for another World Series appearance, the Wildcats have a highly touted freshman class, which includes pitcher Kenzie Fowler, a veteran core and a rekindled team-oriented dugout.

Whether they finish first, second or 10th, the Wildcats don’t want to have regrets.

“”Obviously, I’ve thought about (last year),”” Candrea said, referring to the two embarrassing losses that ended Arizona’s 2009 season. “”I (had to) look down and see how much ass I have left after those two games and I’ve decided to come back and get after it.

“”That’s what the game’s all about is you learn and hopefully you take that feeling,”” he added. “”You can’t just show up and expect things to happen. It’s been a little bit of a motivation.””

Fowler the phenom

For those who like rounding numbers, UA freshman pitcher Kenzie Fowler had a .00 ERA during her senior season in high school. It was actually a .048 ERA that warranted her two-time national Gatorade Player of the Year awards, making her one of the most highly-regarded softball recruits in history.

“”She deserves every piece of (credit). Whatever she gets, she deserves,”” said freshman first baseman Baillie Kirker of Fowler. “”Having that coming into our program is great. It gives us a lot of attention, and she deserves that attention.””

Fowler brings a large contrast to last year’s one-dimensional, offense-reliant team. Senior Sarah Akamine struggled through injuries last year, and the inconsistent bullpen behind her was only more detrimental.

Now, the senior is pleased to take a backseat to Fowler as she recovers from offseason back surgery.

“”This will probably be my most exciting year just to watch and actually take in everything,”” Akamine said. “”I’ve been waiting for this. You know what, (Kenzie) is a great pitcher. I think we’ll be a good combo together. We both have different styles. We both have different go-to pitches.

And the humble Fowler, who has been clocked throwing fastballs at speeds higher than former UA great Jennie Finch, is happy to have the support.

“”I think Sarah (Akamine) and I compliment each other really well,”” she said. “”It’s always nice when you have more than one pitcher that can get the job done.””

Depth of field

Arizona won’t use its newfound pitching as an excuse to lose low-scoring games.

The Wildcats want to score.

Despite losing two of their top-four home run hitters, the speed and depth of the bench has improved over last season due to a strong recruiting class.

“”Our one-through-nine could be very scary,”” Arredondo said. “”Our entire bench could pinch-hit for everyone.

“”Maybe one person hits curve balls better than screwballs,”” she said. “”It’s nice we have that person that we can throw in (and say) ‘This person’s throwing screw balls, we’ll throw you in,’ and knowing that they can probably get a hit for us.””

Candrea pulled in Peoria Sunrise Mountain High School’s Brigette Del Ponte, who could serve time at second or third base, and Matte Haack, a shortstop converted to third baseman out of Katy, Texas. He also recruited first baseman Baillie Kirker out of California’s Crescenta Valley High School to take over for departed senior Sam Banister.

The versatility and talent of his 2009 recruiting class will give Candrea options if injuries hit.

“”We simply have more pieces to the puzzle this year than we did last,”” Candrea said. “”But still it comes down to performing when you need to.””

Chemistry concerns

Subtle comments have alluded to regrets about last year’s flawed ending.

“”We’ve gotten closer as a team,”” Akamine said. “”We’ve had team barbeques, we’ve all gone to the movies together. We’ve done a whole bunch of stuff together that we didn’t do last year.””

Then there were the comments from the Hall of Fame head coach.

“”One of the big things that I found with the last couple years (is) I don’t feel like we’re that good of a team,”” Candrea said. “”We performed at times very well, but when it came down, I don’t think there was a lot of trust with one another.

“”If you look at the finals in the World Series, you’re going to see things that happen and how kids respond in a positive way, those teams are there for one reason, (and) that’s trying to win that ultimate goal,”” Candrea said. “”I just felt that we were a little bit selfish.””

During the fall, Candrea’s concerns were heard loud and clear throughout the dugout.

He stressed the importance of team camaraderie during that time and even held a team session with a sports psychologist. So far, the results have been positive.

Candrea said the players had some of the better fall classroom performances that he’s seen in past years. Also, the team’s veterans have experiened a change in attitude.

“”We all get along very, very well this year,”” Arredondo said. “”That’s just so great to come out to the field knowing that there’s nothing going off the field that’s going to affect how we play on the field. It’s just nice to know this early in the year that we are getting along and that everyone is doing their part.””

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