The Arizona softball team is entering the Tucson Super Regional with two Cs on its mind.
“One is for Coach, the other is for championship,” said Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin.
Because as badly as the Wildcats want to play in the Women’s College World Series—they only need two wins against Ole Miss this weekend to get there—they want to be the team that sends Mike Candrea back to Oklahoma City even more.
“He deserves it,” said centerfielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza. “I’m biased but he’s the best in the game and he does a lot for us and this program. To get him back to Oklahoma City is something we’ve wanted for years, so we’re going to do everything we can.”
Now in his 34th year at Arizona, Candrea once led the Wildcats to 22 Women’s College World Series appearances in a 23-year span, starting in 1988 and ending in 2010.
Arizona has not returned to OKC since, an eight-year drought that has been hard to explain for a storied program with eight national championships.
No better example than in 2017.
The No. 2-seeded Wildcats were leading 15th-seeded Baylor 5-3 heading into the seventh inning of a winner-takes-all Super Regional game, needing just three outs to punch their ticket to Oklahoma City.
But McQuillin served up a three-run homer and the team that always seemed destined for the WCWS had been eliminated on its home field.
“The past is the past. There’s nothing you could do to change it,” McQuillin said. “We had to move forward. And I think for the most part, we’ve done a very good job with that. It stings and it always will, but it’s part of the game. Coach always says every loss takes a little chunk out of his body and so that one definitely did for us, but this is a new year and this is a new team.”
And it has as good of a chance to end the drought as any.
- The Wildcats are a 6-seed hosting an 11-seed.
- They lead the nation in homers.
- They have a pitching staff that ranks eighth in the country in ERA.
- The remodeled Hillenbrand Stadium will be jam-packed with 2,700 raucous fans.
- They are fully healthy now that Reyna Carranco is back from a broken hand.
- They are mostly led by juniors and seniors who have plenty of postseason experience.
- They are playing an Ole Miss team that has never advanced past Super Regionals.
“I like this team, I like where they’re at,” Candrea said. “I would go to battle with them anytime, anywhere. And it’s not so much about their performance but their ability to buy into the process. I think this team has a lot more to it than what you see on the field.”
With McQuillin graduating after this season, no clear ace waiting in the wings, and star catcher Dejah Mulipola possibly sitting out next season due to her involvement with the U.S. Olympic team, 2019 could be Arizona’s best chance to reach the WCWS for at least a couple of years.
Even knowing that and how long it has been since Arizona was last in OKC, Candrea said he is treating this Super Regional like he would any other three-game series.
“To be very honest with you, I’m not that type of person,” he said. “I’ve never lived in the past and I don’t live in the future. Yeah, (the drought) is disappointing and I have disappointments, but if you coach for 40 years, you’re going to have many of those, and I think sometimes you learn a lot about yourself in the tough moments.
“And I’ve been through a lot in my life that has kind of kept this game in perspective. And I think that’s kind of the only way I’m going to live my life is it’s not life-threatening. I’m going to do my job and I’m going to do it to the best of my ability and we’re going to go out there and we’re going to play a game. And yeah, we’re there to win and we always are there to win, but it takes a lot to be able to walk away as a winner.”
No matter what happens this weekend, McQuillin considers herself lucky to play for Candrea.
“He treats people the way that they need to be treated and that’s awesome,” she said. “The biggest thing that I’ve learned is there are more important things in life than softball, and we’re going to get prepared for life after softball. ... It’s so much more than a game, it’s life. This is what we do, and after college life goes on whether you’re going with it or not.”