UA softball hopes riding on Kenzie Fowler’s back – literally

Which Kenzie Fowler will be on the mound this season for the Arizona softball team?

As the University of Arizona Wildcats begin spring practice this week, that’s the question that hangs heavy in the air over Hillenbrand Stadium.

Fowler had surgery on her back last October, which her doctors figured to be early enough in the off-season to allow her to return to the diamond in time for the 2013 season, her senior year.

The imposing hurler from nearby Canyon del Oro High School wasn’t her usual highly-effective self last season.  She hurt her back in January and had to live with the discomfort, despite repeated attempts at physical therapy.  The Cats made it through the Super Regionals and finished 38-19, but the 19 losses were the most since 1983 and it was the first time since 1986 that they failed to get 40 wins.

Fowler landed on the college scene like a comet, immediately staking her claim to a place on the national stage.  She threw 18 strikeouts in just her second college appearance and finished her freshman year with four no-hitters, including a perfect game, and six one-hitters.

Her inaugural season ended with a 38-9 record as she became just the second freshman in school history to record a 30-win season.  She pitched the team to a No. 3 national ranking and to the national title game with UCLA.

During the Women’s College World Series the youngster pitched 36.2 innings over a six-day span.  She has been a workhorse throughout her career.

In high school, she was twice named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and the 2009 NHSCA National Player of the Year.  She set 13 pitching records with the Dorados, piled up 1,449 career strike-outs, threw 14 no-hit games in a single season, and topped it off with a .048 ERA in her senior season.

That’s the kind of pitcher Arizona head coach Mike Candrea hopes will emerge from the rehabilitation that has followed the surgery.  But there are no guarantees – not even for an athlete as strong and enduring as Fowler.

Back surgery can be a tricky proposition.  After the physical therapy is done, there can be a period of re-learning to use the back.  Some patients find they have to learn to use their back in completely different ways.  And then there is the susceptibility to injury after she returns to the field.

Fortunately, the microscopic lumbar discectomy she underwent is not the more invasive kind of surgery.  The special microscope used in the procedure enables the surgeon to use a smaller cut, causing less damage to surrounding tissue.

And Candrea is playing it cautiously, allowing just overhand throws right now and no plans to put her on the mound in practice for a couple of weeks anyhow.

Fowler is not the only top-notch pitcher on the Arizona staff, but she and Shelby Babcock were a fearsome duo last year, and it takes that kind of one-two punch to get through the playoffs – as well as a little depth to get there in the first place.

Babcock, a junior right-hander from Colorado, actually had more starts than Fowler last year, although her senior mound partner accounted for more strike-outs and a slightly better ERA.  Fowler posted a 2.85 ERA in 24 starts and Babcock finished her 31 starts with a 3.02 ERA.  Fowler fanned 180 and Babcock struck out 164.

Also a high achiever in high school, Babcock was a two-time Colorado Gatorade Player of the Year and set school records for strike-outs, ERA, and home runs while leading Legacy High School to three state titles.

The depth this year will come from a freshman and a junior-college transfer.  Both bring something to the party.

Estela Pinon is another local athlete.  She graduated from Tucson’s Sunnyside High School and then spent two years playing at Yavapai College in Prescott where she was named the conference player of the year and MVP last season.  She posted a 51-6 record over her two years with the Roughriders, put up 481 strike-outs, and finished with a 1.64 ERA.

Nancy Bowling, a freshman from California, came out of Royal High School in Simi Valley as the No. 7-ranked prospect on ESPN’s Top 100 list.  She went 25-3 as a senior, with 246 strike-outs and a 0.43 ERA.

So the Cats have some pitching talent in the fold this season.  But there’s no substitute for the seasoned experience and senior leadership that Fowler would bring to the challenge of getting back to the Women’s College World Series again this year.

There’s a lot riding on the back of Kenzie Fowler right now – quite literally.