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Remodeled Hillenbrand Stadium ushers in new era of Arizona softball

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

A cacophony of drilling, clanging and beeping has been reverberating through Arizona’s softball field ever since the team started prepping for the 2019 season in September.

But a different kind of noise will shake the area Thursday when the Wildcats host New Mexico in the first-ever game at the remodeled Hillenbrand Stadium.

Eight long months of construction are over, which means the fun is about to begin.

“They’ve been busting their butts trying to get this thing done, so I can’t wait to hear the sound system and the lights on and the fans in it,” said UA coach Mike Candrea. “I think it’s going to be louder no doubt.”

To say Candrea is excited about ushering in this new era of Arizona softball would be an understatement.

“It’s just really been a dream come true,” said the longtime coach, “as was the first Hillenbrand Stadium.”

The historic softball venue was originally erected in 1993 after the Wildcats captured their second national championship. The sparkling 3,000-seat ballpark revolutionized the sport and helped Arizona assert itself as one of the two premier programs in the country (UCLA being the other) and Tucson as the softball capital of the world.

Using Hillenbrand Stadium as a recruiting tool, the Wildcats pieced together absurdly talented rosters that proceeded to win the Women’s College World Series six more times by 2007.

“25 years ago, that was the Taj Mahal,” Candrea said. “In 1993, I remember coming back from the World Series and drawing a stadium on a napkin and thinking, man, if we could build something like this, we would be the first one in the country and we would put people in the seats and it would really help our recruiting and everything else. And all that came to fruition when Bill Hillenbrand came into my office and offered to help me with a donation.”

Arizona’s triumphs inspired other big-money schools to pump millions of dollars into their softball programs, causing the Wildcats to fall behind the competition as the years went on and the luster of Hillenbrand Stadium wore off.

It helps explain how the eight-time national champions have not appeared in the Women’s College World Series since 2010 and have only won one Pac-12 championship since 2007.

“We knew that we needed some work and a remodel,” Candrea said. “And as we talked about the remodel and talked about the process and the monies and how much it would cost, to be very honest with you, I did not ever dream that it was going to look the way it does right now.”

The $8 million project is officially coined as a remodel, but it feels more like a total rebuild, one that will put Arizona back ahead in the never-ending arms race that is college recruiting.

“That’s the one thing that I’m excited about is it’s completely different, it’s completely new,” Candrea said. “Looking down the road, I think it’s putting Arizona softball in a really good place. We’ve got great tradition, but unfortunately today’s athlete what sells them is the glitz. You know, the great locker rooms, the beautiful facilities, the crazy-looking uniforms that they love, and the shoes and this and that. And this is going to do nothing but help us.”

He added: “If I’m a kid right now and I walk into this facility, there’s no way in hell I wouldn’t be ready to run through a brick wall.”

UA fans will appreciate the new digs, too. The renovations include, but are not limited to, a new entryway, concourse, press box, air-conditioned Club Level seating, bench-back bleachers and two enormous awnings along the first- and third-base sides that will provide ample protection from the sun.

“I’m really excited for the fans, because for so many years they followed this program with great loyalty without any shade,” Candrea said. “It’s amazing that we haven’t lost more people in May when it got hot and you’re sitting in an oven with those bleachers. So I’m excited now for people when they walk into this place and look at it.”

As for coaches and players, they will appreciate the upgraded bullpens, the new padding on the outfield and infield walls, and the enlarged dugouts that house a restroom and water station.

“Now I don’t have to run down the left-field line to go to the restroom in the middle of the game and (visiting teams) don’t have to go stand in line with the public,” Candrea joked.

But his favorite part of the new stadium is the Alumni Plaza up along the third-base side. It’s a standing-room only area where former players can congregate to reminisce about their glory days in the old Hillenbrand Stadium while enjoying the scenery of the new one.

“It’s just a great view because you look (behind you) and you get the Catalina Mountains and they look so gorgeous, and then it’s just a different view (of the field),” Candrea said.

Junior shortstop Jessie Harper thinks that section is a fitting tribute to the program’s history and cannot wait to see all the alumni cheering from their new perch when a new chapter of Arizona softball begins Thursday.

“Our whole motto this year is honoring our history, honoring our past, and embracing the future,” she said. “And the alumni are the ones that got us to this point and this big, beautiful new stadium.”