Harvard softball coach Jenny Allard last came to Hillenbrand Stadium in 2011 when the Crimson were gearing up for the NCAA Tournament.
Eight years later, her team is in the same spot but the view is totally different.
“To see the renovations when we were driving up to begin warmups, it was just so impressive,” said Allard, whose team opens the Tucson Regional Friday against Arizona. “Clean, crisp, just a world-class facility.”
The veteran coach’s thoughts were echoed by players from the other visiting teams—Auburn and Colorado State—who were in awe of the $8 million construction and the storied tradition it represents.
“I’m really excited because when I was younger my dad brought me out here for a softball camp and I met Mike Candrea and I practiced on their field,” said CSU first baseman Ashley Ruiz. “So being able to see where it has come from such a young age till now, I’m really excited to be a part of starting the new legacy.”
“Seeing it rebuilt, that’s really exciting,” added CSU pitcher Bridgette Hutton, who played at the old Rita last season. “It really just builds that excitement to want to go out there and play. I wish we were playing today.”
That kind of praise only reinforced what Arizona players already knew.
“I don’t need feedback from other people to know this place is amazing,” said ace Taylor McQuillin.
Still, Candrea has to be happy to hear those glowing comments. All season he has tried to bring attention to the new stadium, doing things like calling up the game’s biggest names to making sure sports information director Danny Martinez is posting a steady stream of photos on social media.
Fortunately for him, the Wildcats will have ample opportunity to show off their new digs in the postseason. Being the No. 6 seed means Arizona will host Regionals and Super Regionals where Hillenbrand will welcome teams, players, and viewers from all over the country.
Friday’s game against Harvard, scheduled to air on ESPN2, will mark only the second time all season the Wildcats have been featured on the ESPN family of networks.
“Personally, I’m really proud of it,” Candrea said of the remodeled stadium. “I mean, it took 34 years to get it to this point. It’s a lot of gratification to finally see it and be able to play in it, and I think it’s been a great tool for us. Hopefully, recruiting-wise, it’s going to be a benefit. But I think it’s a great place for our fans, a great place for our alumni, a great place for the players to play. I can’t think of a better place I’d rather be right than here.”
Candrea said there is always pressure to perform at a high level and earn a top-8 seed, but it was amplified this season, knowing how significant it would be to host multiple rounds of the postseason in their sparkling new stadium.
“The postseason atmosphere in general is huge, it’s crazy, it’s electrifying, it’s everything you could ever want in a college softball game,” McQuillin said. “But to be able to play at the new Rita, to get to show her off loud and proud, it’s what our fans deserve, it’s what this stadium deserves, it’s the legacy and traditions that all of the alumni left.”
But having a home-field advantage is one thing. Capitalizing on it is another.
“I love this place more and more every day. It’s something that we should be proud of and something that I can’t wait to show off to ESPN and to national TV,” Candrea said. “But the main thing is what happens between those lines.”