OKLAHOMA CITY — Arizona’s seven seniors didn’t get the storybook ending they were hoping for when they returned for the 2021 season. They got heartbreak.
After the Wildcats rallied to tie the game, Cassidy Davis hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to lift Florida State to a 4-3 win in Saturday’s elimination game.
Arizona finishes the season 41-15 overall, going 0-2 at the Women’s College World Series. When the Wildcats return to the field next spring, they will have a young roster and, possibly for the first time since 1986, a new head coach.
When asked about rumors of retirement, Mike Candrea said he will take some time to evaluate the situation and come to a conclusion on on his own terms.
“Right now, I’m not in any position,” he said. “Right now I feel bad for these kids.”
As the Seminoles poured out of the dugout to dogpile Davis and celebrate the victory, Arizona’s seniors, whom Candrea has called the Gold Standard because of their excellence on and off the field, trudged off the field for the last time. Many were in tears, but they can depart knowing they fought until the very last pitch.
Trailing 3-2 in the seventh, Reyna Carranco chopped a grounder through the middle, it rolled all the way to the wall, and the speedy Janelle Meoño, who had reached on a fielder’s choice, scored easily from first to make it a 3-3 game.
That run came just a half-inning after Dani Morgan gave Florida State the lead with a two-out, three-run homer.
“We wouldn’t go down without a fight,” a tearful Carranco said. “That describes our senior class. We were going to do everything that we could.”
Arizona had a chance to add more runs but Dejah Mulipola and Sharlize Palacios were retired to leave two runners in scoring position, the seventh and eighth runners the Wildcats stranded on the day.
Those missed opportunities came back to haunt them.
After Florida State led off the seventh with a single, Carranco’s flip to Jessie Harper on a fielder’s choice went high and skipped into the outfield, putting runners on the corners with one out.
Davis fouled off a 1-2 pitch from Lopez before sending a fly ball into deep left, easily deep enough to score Kaley Mudge from third. It was an especially tough ending for Lopez, who also surrendered the go-ahead homer in the sixth.
Before that, it was all Arizona.
Malia Martinez hit a solo home run in the third inning, Carlie Scupin added a sacrifice fly in the fourth and Lopez relieved Alyssa Denham with the bases loaded in the fifth and escaped the jam by getting Morgan to fly out to center.
Eventually, too many free passes came back to the bite the Wildcats. The Seminoles only had four hits but Arizona pitchers walked four batters and hit two others before Carranco’s throwing error in the seventh.
And it was a two-out walk and hit by pitch that set the stage for Morgan’s homer.
“When you get to this level, you can’t afford to give people unforced bases, and I feel bad for Mariah, but Mariah has been through so much and has done such a wonderful job,” Candrea said. “You can’t get mad at that.”
And that’s how Candrea ended what might have been his last postgame press conference: with the big picture in mind.
“Yeah, today’s tough. It always is when you get here and you fall short of your goals. But there’s so much for this group to be thankful for,” he said. “And a lot of it is just their body of work getting through the season and protecting the bubble and doing all the little things just to play the game that they love to play.
“This is a good group of young ladies that have made me proud by the way they represent our program and our university, and I couldn’t be prouder of them. You know, it hurts right now and unfortunately when you get to the World Series, there’s a fine line to winning ballgames. We had some opportunities today. We just couldn’t finish it. And I tip my hat off to Florida State for the job they did, and I think each one of these young ladies will learn from this experience as they move forward. It’s not life-threatening. No one died today. But it feels life-threatening when you’re going through it. But at the end of the day, I was just proud of the job they did to get us here.”
The players had dedicated the team’s postseason run to Candrea. “For Coach,” was the motto. Carranco’s postgame comments echoed what hundreds of UA softball players have said about Candrea before.
“I’m just so grateful to play for him; that he gave me the opportunity, and yeah, he’s like a second dad to our team,” Carranco said. “We know he’s going to be here throughout the rest of our lives and we’ll be able to count on him, and we’re so grateful to be able to have him as such a big part of our lives.”
The 2021 season was Candrea’s 36th at Arizona. He has guided the Wildcats to eight national championships and an NCAA-record 1,674 wins. He was won two Olympic medals and coached 105 All-Americans.
When Candrea first started coaching, he said he let wins and losses determine his worth as a coach. If he lost, he felt like a failure. As the years have gone on, it’s not the wins or losses Candrea remembers but the relationships he’s built.
“Not often do you get to do something that you love to do and surround yourself with people that you never want to see leave,” he said. “Every athlete that I’ve ever been a part of at Arizona, it’s a lifelong relationship. And as a coach, that’s what you hope. I hope that I treat them well. I hope I treat them like my daughter. And I hope that I can continue to be a part of their life, because when you spend this much time together, it’s awfully hard not to be that way.
“And so, I told the kids, the one thing that I realized in my career, you’re really only the gatekeeper at the end of the day, and I just hope that this program is stable. I’ve tried to do the right things the right way, and I hope that it has an impact and influence on the kids that I coach. Because I think the one thing that I take very seriously is being a mentor and being a role model. I always tell them everything I do, I always think about how it’s going to affect them for all these years. So I’m honored and blessed that I’ve been able to coach so many great young women.”