When the Arizona Wildcats huddled after their first loss of the season, Mike Candrea could tell there was something special about his team.
The Wildcats had just lost by one run to the top-ranked Florida State Seminoles, but their faces weren’t in dismay, they weren’t disheartened, nor were they in despair.
“It was a look of determination,” Candrea said.
FSU won 1-0 and scored the game’s only run on a defensive miscue by the Wildcats, while Arizona left nine runners on base, failing to get a timely hit.
It was a heartbreaking defeat, but a statement was made.
The Wildcats proved to themselves — and the rest of the college softball world — that they belong in the same conversation as the nation’s top teams.
After all, they outhit Florida State 5-3, drew two more walks than the Seminoles, and put more runners into scoring position than FSU.
“There’s two ways you can go with a game like that,” Candrea said. ”It’s a big game, it’s a big opportunity and if you win it, sometimes those teams think you’ve arrived and you’re good and they quit working. Or they get beat and you use it as motivation to say you know what, we’re right there and we know what we need to do to beat a team of that caliber.
“And I think we are a team of that caliber. In my eyes, it was one given day in one given moment.”
There’s no reason to think it wasn’t. Arizona has all the ingredients needed to be on FSU’s level. The Wildcats have an ace in Danielle O’Toole, a deep lineup, and a plethora of sure-handed fielders.
“In the past,” said senior shortstop Mo Mercado, “we’ve definitely had strengths and weaknesses and we’ve had to grind a little more on one side than the other, but this year we definitely have strong defense, strong pitching, strong offense. Palm Springs was really exciting because we got to see it come together.”
At the same time, Arizona also got a taste of just how razor-thin the margin of error is against the top teams in softball.
Talent is one thing, execution is another.
“We had lots of opportunities to get runners in scoring position, we just couldn’t get the key hit and like I told the kids: in championship play it usually comes down to pitching, defense, and timely hitting,” Candrea said.
“I thought the Florida State game was a College World Series-type game and normally at the College World Series it’s the team that makes the mistake that gets beat.”
This time Arizona was the team to make the costly mistake, and its 15-game winning streak was snapped as a result.
But it’s better to make that mistake now than in May in Oklahoma City, where the Wildcats hope to be playing in their first Women’s College World Series since 2010.
“That was a big growing game for us,” Mercado said of the loss to FSU. “We have a lot of young girls and we have a lot of girls that have been there before, but we walked out of there and coach even said in the huddle that he could see in our eyes that it was a different team than last year.
“We didn’t look defeated or upset, we looked like we fell short and we knew it, but we’re ready to get after it this week and we know we’re going to be in games like that in the future so it’s definitely a learning experience.
“It was good for us.”
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