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Arizona Wildcats fans make Hillenbrand Stadium a premier venue in college softball

Hillenbrand Stadium has aged, but it’s still a premier venue in college softball. Thank Arizona’s fans for that.

Hillenbrand Stadium
Photo by Ryan Kelapire

Two years ago, the Arizona Wildcats were in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for Super Regionals.

There, at Tiger Park, they were targets of a pro-LSU crowd which, like a typical SEC fanbase, didn’t hold anything back.

“They’re kinda intense,” recalled UA left fielder Mandie Perez.

And personal.

“Every time [the PA announcer] called somebody out, [the fans] would yell ‘tiger bait!’ after the name,” Perez said. “And then when I would be on deck they’d be like ‘don’t be scared. Don’t blink. Mandie, Mandie.’

“I’m like how do you even know my name?”

The Wildcats are accustomed to playing in front of sold-out crowds, but the UA’s home crowd operates differently.

“I think they are more about us, cheering us on,” Perez said. “They don’t need to heckle or cheer against the other team. They know that we can do it with our gloves and our sticks."

UA fans don’t have much interest in opposing teams. They live and die by the Wildcats.

Sometimes literally.

Recently, a late season ticket holder requested to have an autographed softball placed in their casket. The Wildcats obliged.

“We had a ball autographed this week and sent it over to the funeral director,” said Arizona head coach Mike Candrea said, who is in his 32nd year with the program. “That was a first.”

A first, sure, but not necessarily a surprise.

“[Fans] really feel that they can get close to these kids,” Candrea said. “It’s almost like their extended family. It’s tough to go to a football game or basketball game and get a chance to say hi to a kid after a game and have a conversation. Where, here, we have many people that look at these kids as their daughters and it’s part of the family.”

Essentially, weekends at Hillenbrand Stadium are oversized family reunions.

Before and after games, fans often approach players to wish them well, or even to strike up a conversation. During games, players and coaches can glance into the stands and spot people who have been attending games at Hillenbrand Stadium for years. Decades, even.

“It’s not just strange faces in the crowd,” said UA shortstop Mo Mercado.

And sometimes it’s not always a perfect crowd.

Occasionally, fans are over-the-top in their criticism of UA’s players and other times Candrea says he wants to “slap” UA fans for not filling Hillenbrand Stadium to the brim when the program has a down year.

Mostly, though, the fanbase provides little to complain about.

Arizona’s average attendance has been in the 2,000s in eight straight seasons, and Wildcat fans have led the nation in attendance nine times since Hillenbrand Stadium opened in 1993.

It’s why the 24-year-old venue remains one of the premier stadiums in the sport, even though Candrea says it’s in need of a “facelift.” It’s also why Arizona softball is among the nation’s top programs.

“I can’t think of too many other places that match it,” Candrea said.

And this weekend, aging Hillenbrand Stadium will be at its very best.

You won’t find many hecklers in the stands, but you will find a sea of red and blue-clad fans loudly supporting their beloved Wildcats as they host a regional to kick off NCAA Tournament play.

“There’s a lot (of coaches) that would love to have this fanbase,” Candrea said. “It’s a blessing.

“And it hasn’t happened overnight. It’s been developing since 1993, so there’s a lot of hard work and effort put into it. ... So every time I walk on the field and I see this place packed, it’s a special day for me.”

You can follow this author on Twitter at @RKelapire