The series win at ASU was a turning point in Arizona’s season, and you can credit a flock of geese for helping the Wildcats get back on track.
Before they won two of three in Tempe last weekend to snap a six-game Pac-12 losing streak, UA head coach Mike Candrea handed his players a story to read during practice.
It was about geese and how they fly together in a V formation. It seemed bizarre.
“At first we were laughing, like what the heck is this about? Geese? Really?” recalled left fielder Carli Campbell.
The message Candrea was trying to convey is it’s easier to achieve a common goal when everyone is working together in unison.
And when the geese up front get tired, they rotate to the back so a fresher one can take the lead.
“When someone’s falling behind, someone else is going to pick them up or two people are going to pick them up,” explained UA outfielder Aleah Craighton.
Candrea has been the head coach at Arizona for 33 years, and he’s talked about geese before.
It’s been a while, but he felt this was the ideal time to dust off that story. This year’s team, a young squad that only plays two seniors, has lacked leadership, camaraderie, and energy at times.
“I think it’s been on and off a little bit,” admitted freshman Ivy Davis.
Even worse, Arizona had been getting rattled when faced with any semblance of adversity.
“I think the game is probably 90 percent mental at this stage,” Candrea said. “Physically, everyone has the tools. It’s how you can react to tough situations and how you can keep your composure, and your positivity, and your confidence.
“I think it’s not so much our opponent as it is ourselves. So my measurement is how well we’re playing. Sometimes you get beat and sometimes you don’t play well and you win, but there’s a certain level that you have to play at in big games.”
Arizona wasn’t playing at that level and the losses piled up. Candrea searched far and wide for a solution, so in flew the geese.
“We’ve done some crazy things over the years, but sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it’s not,” he said. “They’ve got to buy into it and that was my big thing, just trying to find something that they would buy into.”
At first, the Wildcats thought Candrea’s tactic was strange, but eventually it clicked and by the end of practice they started to sound like an actual flock of geese.
“We started saying ‘honk’,” said Campbell, trying her best to imitate a goose. “We thought it was the funniest thing ever. We broke (the huddle) and said ‘honk on three.’ It gave us a little pump-up, something to laugh about, something to bring into the weekend.”
Arizona softball is using a story about geese to improve their teamwork — and it helped them win the series at ASU.— Ryan Kelapire (@RKelapire) April 25, 2018
Carli Campbell: “It gave us a little pump-up.” pic.twitter.com/JULDZ0QL93
The results in Tempe spoke, err, honked for themselves. After losing the first game of the series to the eighth-ranked Sun Devils, the Wildcats rebounded with two straight wins.
Even in the loss — which was in walk-off fashion — Candrea was pleased how his team competed.
“We competed as well as we’ve competed all year,” he said. “And it was just a different feeling in the dugout, on the field, after something happened. It was the way we have to play to win big games.”
For once, the Wildcats got the timely hits and outs they needed, and their cohesion was evident.
The proof? Just listen to their raucous dugout.
“All game, all weekend, we were just honking,” said Campbell, who assured the honking will continue Wednesday against New Mexico . “... When someone hit a home run, we were honking. People in the crowd were probably like, ‘what the heck are they doing? What is going on?’ But we knew as a team what it was and it was really fun.”
Candrea loved the noise.
“You gotta have a little fun,” he said. “Anything you can do to bring people together, have one common goal.”
Aside from a good time, the victories over ASU also provided the Wildcats a much-needed confidence boost. They had lost seven straight conference games before the Game 2 win, slipping from 6-3 in the Pac-12 to 6-10.
Plus, those were the Wildcats’ first conference wins over a team above them in the standings. They had been 0-10 in that department.
“It reassures us that we really are a good team,” said right-hander Alyssa Denham, who was stellar in the second game of the series. “Because sometimes when you take hard losses, you forget how good you really are. But coming out and beating someone that’s ranked higher than us, [it showed] that we got this.”
Now the question is how far the Wildcats can take it.
The ASU series capped off a grueling portion of their conference schedule. They played No. 1 Washington, No. 22 Cal, No. 5 Oregon, No. 4 UCLA, and No. 8 ASU in succession.
Arizona went 5-10 in that stretch, including a few ugly losses, but at least managed to finish on a positive note.
“It was good to get the momentum on our side,” Denham said. “I think that pumped us up for the rest of the season, but I think we’re just going to push through it and finish out strong.”
The 10th-ranked Wildcats are in a favorable spot to do just that.
This week, Arizona (31-13, 8-10) hosts New Mexico and fifth-place Oregon State. Next week, it hosts Grand Canyon, and the week after that it faces last-place Stanford on the road to close out the regular season.
Denham said you can expect to see “lots of wins” during that cushy stretch.
“You don’t look past anybody. Anybody can sneak up and get you, but I think we’re going to be strong,” she said. “We struggled but now we’re through it. And it’s going to be really good for us to have these teams at the end to get lots of wins under our belt before the postseason.”
Candrea hopes the ASU victories serve as a “springboard” for the rest of the season, and he said he likes where the Wildcats are right now. Just two weeks ago — after they were swept by UCLA — he said they were “not in a good place.”
“It shows that it only takes one game to flip things around,” Denham said. “You can go loss, loss, loss and then have a really good game and your whole season is turned right back around in the direction that you want it to go.
“It was tough thinking that we kind of had our backs against the wall, but now we got it over with, so we’re just chugging along.”
Or, in other words...
“We’re just going to stay in formation and keep sailing,” Denham said with a smile.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire