The day after Labor Day was a busy one for Arizona softball. The players finally got to work with their coaches, two of whom are new to the program. If things work the way the new arrivals plan, Wildcat fans could be in store for significant changes in how the game is played.
The biggest move in the offseason was the change in pitching coach. Out went Arizona great Taryne Mowatt-McKinney and in came a young up-and-coming Christian Conrad. It wasn’t an easy change for head coach Caitlin Lowe.
“It’s hard,” Lowe said about parting ways with her friend and former teammate. “We are great friends. We’re still great friends. And I think a couple things can be true. It could be the right move and it could still be the hardest thing that you possibly have to do. And it was tough for me but she’s going to be great. She’s going to be great at Mississippi State and just truly happy for her.”
What Lowe wants to see from the pitching staff under Conrad is development from year to year.
“I just felt like we needed to grow in the bullpen and get better,” Lowe said. “From freshman year to senior year, I wanted to see them develop. And I must have interviewed anywhere from 12 to 15 pitching coaches, and I wanted to take my time get it right. And it was a tough process, to be honest. And I actually sat on the Zoom with him for I think an hour and 45 minutes and it probably could have been all day, and just had a good connection with where we saw our bullpen going and he did a great job of prepping for our pitchers and not really knowing them but going off the video. Just love what he has planned for them in the future and what he has planned in recruiting. Just really excited about it.”
For Conrad, it was a much quicker process. He said when the position opened, Lowe asked him to interview shortly after Loyola Marymount was eliminated from the postseason. Although he only knew her in passing, he decided it was something he wanted to do. He welcomes the expectations that come with being a part of Arizona softball.
“You can say it’s pressure,” Conrad said. “I don’t mind it. I mean, coming into I think any facet of the game knowing the history of Arizona, its legacy of softball, every facet of it needs to be at its best because that’s to me the standard of Arizona softball. We should be the top in hitting. We should be the top in fielding. We should be the top in pitching. So, I don’t see it as like a higher expectation for me because I think we’re all living under that expectation. But it’s something that I really appreciate and I value because you look at Nancy Evans on the wall, you look at Jennie Finch. I’m so proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish...even Taryne winning her own national championships...my job is just to try to live up to that, too.”
There was a hitch when Lowe made the hire, though. Conrad had already committed to helping his mentor Lonnie Alameda of Florida State with Team Canada this summer. So, he didn’t end up in Tucson until early August.
“I was gone for about two months,” Conrad said. “It was really fun. A lot of fun experiences. But I always tell people I don’t know if I would have done it the summer I was taking another job. But I am very happy I did the Team Canada. It was a fun opportunity.”
It was especially important to him because of the extra time he spent working with Alameda. He credits her with his focus on data.
“Lonnie is my forever mentor,” he said. “I love her. We keep in touch all the time. So, for her, it was learning a lot more of the data side. So during COVID I always joke that I had the best time being the volunteer coach at Florida State and we didn’t play games, because during COVID, we just sold out to learning data analytics with Nate Walker, who we actually are bringing in this week to just kind of learn more of the baseball side of it and one, how to read metrics but also how to actually use them and be successful with using a full staff mentality in your bullpen.”
In addition to the consultants, Arizona is adding more technology to the equation. The program is installing new Yakkertech performance tracking to gather in-game data on the pitchers. This is the technology currently used at the Women’s College World Series to show the break of pitches, heat maps, and other data.
“I think in order to be successful right now, you have to have analytics on your side,” Conrad said. “Just the way softball’s going. I think hitters are getting better. I think it’s crazy how we can just put up a machine in here and everyone could just face Devyn Netz for an hour. It’s crazy how cool that technology is on the hitting side. So, I think pitching needs to be able to adapt and evolve for it. And that’s something that even interviewing I said this is kind of something I want to do, and it was cool because Caitlin is all about it too.”
The changes won’t just be on the pitching side. Josh Bloomer was brought in as the third assistant to handle the offense. Bloomer is all about the running game, which has not been a part of Arizona’s repertoire in several years despite having a lot of speed on the team.
“We’re gonna run balls out of the park, but we’re really athletic,” Bloomer said. “And so, I think we’re going to increase the stolen bases. We’re gonna play a little bit more aggressive on the base paths. Honestly, I told Cait we’re gonna break the school record this year in stolen bases. So, 137 is our goal to break this. I just think we have talent. We’re gonna push the envelope. We’re gonna put pressure. We’re gonna make other teams kind of feel that pressure, play fast, and play with some tempo.”
Bloomer is willing to accept running themselves out of a few innings in order to accomplish the task of speeding up the opposing defense. He wants to get started when fall ball kicks off in early October.
Lowe joked that even catcher Olivia DiNardo is excited about stealing bases.
“I laughed because Liv texted me in the middle of the summer and she had played in the Florida Gulf Coast League and she had 10 stolen bases this summer,” Lowe said. “So, she made sure to text me that. I’m like, ‘Okay. Let’s see about that.’”
Bloomer wants that aggressiveness to be part of the entire offensive mindset.
“We’re gonna swing aggressively,” Bloomer said. “We’re okay with swinging and missing. Like I was talking to them today about just kind of how you approach your at-bat, that needs to be from a place of aggression. It’s called offense for a reason.”
With the addition of Bloomer, who is originally from Kentucky and has coached in both Carolinas, and Conrad, who is from Texas and spent some time in Florida, there may be opportunities to open up recruiting to more parts of the country. While all of the coaches agreed that Arizona and California will remain integral to the recruiting strategy, the growth of the game is making other areas important, too.
“I think for us, it’s just a matter of let’s just go find the best players and don’t pigeonhole ourselves in certain pockets,” Bloomer said. “And we know where our fundamental base is, but we also want to be open to just finding those kids on the East Coast who have always maybe dreamed of an Arizona and letting them know that now the talent level is there that we can bring you in and show you the great facilities in the program and I just think, at the end, find the best players that fit our culture, what we’re trying to do here. Continue to kind of grow the game here, but as the game grows on the East Coast, let’s find those best players and bring them in here.”
Once she had her coaching staff filled out, Lowe still had a hire to make. Operations is what makes everything run smoothly off the field so the team can achieve on it. That role went to someone with far more familiarity with the program.
Danny Martinez, who spent almost a decade as the sports information director under former head coach Mike Candrea, decided that he wanted back into the softball world after spending some time in another role with Arizona Athletics. The pull of Arizona softball was too much to resist.
“I got out of it for two years and I realized that I missed it,” Martinez said. “I missed the lifestyle. I miss being with the program. It’s a little bit different. I mean, [the current SID] will tell you. She is doing my old job. She has multiple sports that she has to balance at all times. So that was kind of a little bit too much for where I was at that time in my life starting a family and stuff. So this is just like, my springs are going to be full. I know that I’m going to travel a lot during the springs but don’t have to do the multiple seasons thing that I used to have to do.”
Like the newcomers, Martinez is where he wants to be, working with a program he is passionate about.
“It was something that for the last two years I have been trying to find my way back,” he said.
Everyone is finding their way back now. Time is already getting short. The Wildcats will start fall play on Friday, Oct. 6, and play a series of games on Friday evenings throughout October and early November.