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Arizona softball hopes to get on track by having fun and managing expectations

COLLEGE SOFTBALL: MAR 07 Boise State at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the many Candrea-isms that you learn if you spend much time listening to Arizona softball head coach Mike Candrea is, “Pressure is a privilege.” Sometimes, that pressure can get to even the best athletes, though. It may well be one of the things causing Arizona to struggle against the best competition this season.

After last season was cut short by the pandemic, Candrea fought to get the senior class the opportunity to come back and end their careers on their own terms. That return was heralded by Arizona marketing. The team would do huge things with an extremely talented freshman class joining an accomplished group of fifth and sixth-year seniors. What could possibly go wrong?

Injuries could go wrong, as Arizona well knows. For the third straight season Reyna Carranco, one of the most reliable hitters in the country, missed considerable time due to injury. Then, another oft-injured Wildcat was sent to the dugout when Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza once again injured a knee in the second game of the ASU series.

The losses of key players to injury are as concerning as the losses to ranked teams on the field, including the hated Sun Devils.

When the ASU series came to a close last Sunday, the Wildcats had surrendered their first runs to the Sun Devils since 2019—and not just a few runs. They were swept in the three Pac-12 games, losing the first series to their rivals since 2015. They only managed to get some sense of accomplishment by run-ruling ASU 15-1 in the non-conference part of Saturday’s doubleheader.

It was more than just losing to their rivals, though. Arizona fell to 2-8 against ranked teams this season when all was said and done. In Pac-12 play, they stood barely above .500 with a 6-5 record. All of the conference wins have come against teams in the bottom half of the league’s standings.

The numbers tell the tale. Overall, the Wildcats have hit .323 as a team in 35 games this year. Against Pac-12 opponents, that number drops dramatically to .257.

In the circle, the team has even more problems. The team’s ERA is 1.97 overall and 3.23 against Pac-12 foes. When the teams last played both conference and non-conference games in 2019, the Arizona staff gave up 1.61 earned runs in non-conference play and 1.59 in league play on the way to their long-awaited return to the Women’s College World Series.

If the Wildcats hope to return to the peak of college softball, winning just 20 percent of their games against quality opponents won’t cut it. If they can’t turn that around, the celebrated senior class will exit with only one trip to Oklahoma City in their extended stay in Tucson.

Things are starting to look up for Arizona, though. Carranco is now back and seems to be as solid as ever. Palomino-Cardoza was given the good news that unlike her two season-ending knee injuries, she had suffered no structural damage this time. She will eventually return to complete her sixth season.

The bigger problem has been more difficult to pin down. It’s not something a trainer or a doctor can fix because it’s something swirling in the hearts and minds of the Wildcats: the pressure to be perfect.

“I think sometimes we’re just putting a lot of pressure on ourselves,” Candrea said. “And I think that’s kind of my goal right now is to take them back a step or two and just, they need to go out and they need to prepare themselves to play the game, but they need to also have some fun. And I think right now they’re so outcome driven that when the outcomes aren’t happening, the pressure gets even tighter.”

Candrea has taken some steps to help improve hitting by changing batting practice. Instead of throwing “fatties” for the hitters to drive as far as they can, they are facing live pitching that approximates actual game play more closely.

“When you’re at your best in this game, you’re playing with your intuitive mind and all you’re doing is reacting,” he said. “You’re keeping the game simple: see ball, hit ball. And I’ve been harping on them for the last, I don’t know, three or four weeks about just getting their eyes right and getting their eyes where they need to be, and hunting a pitch that they can hit. And I think sometimes we, in our process, we have not done a good job of making them have opportunities to instill that in batting practice.”

Candrea believes that the change in process has helped.

“I looked at them yesterday and their ABs were really good because they were relaxed, they were loose, they weren’t thinking about an outcome,” he said. “And I think it’s a mindset, and you would hope that these kids would have that over a four or five-year period. But let’s face it, many of them have not played in some big games for a couple years, and I think sometimes the moment has gotten big on us. And I think we also are just pressing a little bit and trying to be perfect at a game that isn’t perfect.”

The other problem that needs to be addressed is dealing with the expectations that came with the hype surrounding the return of the Arizona seniors. Those expectations are both internal by the players and external by the fans, and they feed on each other.

Fixing that also requires making some changes. The players must change their mindsets, but they also must tune out the external noise.

“All I want them to do is I want them to make sure they’re focused, to make sure they’re having fun and, and then to expect good things,” Candrea said. “I think that’s the bottom line... I think too many times I can almost see it that we’re expecting the bad thing to happen instead of anticipating the good thing to happen. And we’ve got to kind of change our mindset in that way and I think they’ll be fine. You know, we’ve got a lot of softball left. And I just want them to be the best version of themselves.”

The external noise is a growing problem in the internet age, but Candrea hopes they can tune that out simply by refusing to expose themselves to it. In addition to social media, the players may need to ignore the stats.

“I’ve said it all along that the toughest part about playing at this time... is social media,” he said. “It’s having to have people examine your performance, and if you’re stupid enough to sit there and read it, it doesn’t do anything but put bad thoughts in your mind if you’re not doing well. And so it’s kind of a double-edged sword where back in the day I didn’t even post stats at one time. I just didn’t want them to know what they’re hitting because every at-bat’s a new day, it’s a new at-bat. And so we got to kind of get back to that, take some pressure off of them. I mean, that’s my job. And to get them back to having fun and if they can control what they can control, then I can accept the outcome no matter what it is.”

A large part of those expectations were built up by the marketing of the “super senior” class. Both the fans and the players had expectations that were instilled by seven accomplished veterans returning for one last very special go-round. Softball would be over for many of them after this year, so they needed to seize the day together. They’re making every effort to do that.

After the final loss to ASU on Sunday, the group of seniors gathered together.

“We just want to get everybody on the same page and understand how we’re feeling because we know performances like that they’re not acceptable, and they won’t be in the future,” Carranco said. “So we just want to get on the same page so we can then communicate to our younger teammates where we can go from now and how we can grow.”

In the meantime, Candrea is trying to take some of that responsibility and pressure off of them. He wants them to look at the bigger picture beyond the game, to remember that this isn’t life or death.

“They all know that these moments are very precious and this team will never be together again.” Candrea said. “You got one shot at this. And I think the seniors...having gone through what they have, I think in itself has put pressure on them to be that perfect role model and that perfect person. And I think sometimes they’re the ones that are probably putting too much pressure on themselves to have to come through every time. And we kind of built up that super senior class and, like I told them, we’re not as good as everyone thought we were, we’re not as bad as we think we are. We just have to go and play. And I just want the best version of this team right now from here on out. And whatever happens is going to happen.”