That odd feeling of deja vu settled over the Lamson Park ball field at Louisiana-Lafayette University yesterday as the Arizona Wildcats softball team realized they were experiencing a re-run of the day before, when the Ragin’ Cajuns beat them in the opening game of the NCAA super regionals.
In Friday’s opener, No. 11 Louisiana-Lafayette had run up a 5-1 lead by the close of the third inning. Yesterday, the score was 5-1 again as the fourth inning wrapped up.
The Cats were able to tack on a couple more runs in the seventh before losing the opener, 5-3, but in yesterday’s game they never got past that one run that Katiyana Mauga gave them with a second-inning solo homer – her 20th of the season. The final 7-1 score was an embarrassment to a team long on power at the plate.
This was no time for one of the most formidable offenses in the country to go dark. The losses this weekend meant the 10th-ranked Wildcats (USA Today/NFCA) were done for the season, cutting short their bid to get back to the Women’s College World Series after falling short the previous three seasons. Another chance to make a 23rd trip to Oklahoma City will have to wait until next year.
But the really disappointing part of the story is that this year they had a better chance than most to get back to the WCWS. This team boasted an offense that was among the most powerful in the country and a stingy defense that ranked 11th in the country with a .974 fielding percentage. They led all Division I programs with 106 home runs (almost two a game), scoring with 7.69 per game, and a .645 slugging percentage – and they’re second in team batting averages with .355.
Apparently, however, all those glitzy stats didn’t faze Christina Hamilton, Lafayette’s ace right-hander that has lost just two games out of 31 pitched this season. She went the distance in both games, allowing the Cats seven hits in the first game and just four yesterday.
Arizona threw three pitchers at the Cajuns over the two games, and that’s when the void left by Kenzie Fowler was most apparent. The senior is a local standout after leading Canyon del Oro High School to three state championships and being named the NHSCA National Player of the Year. As a freshman at UofA, she led the program to the national championship series before falling to UCLA.
But after being plagued by injuries throughout her career, a bout of thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) in her left shoulder caught up with her before the final game of the regular season and brought an abrupt end to her college career.
The Cats got through the regionals without the familiar presence on the mound, but they could certainly have used her in the rotation this weekend.
Estela Pinon started Friday but was knocked off the rubber after three innings that saw Louisiana score five runs on five hits. Shelby Babcock, who has spent her entire career at Arizona pitching alongside Fowler, replaced her and finished out the game, but had some control problems. She allowed just one hit, but walked five and struck out two.
Yesterday, Babcock carried the load through all but the final inning, when Nancy Bowling stepped in to finish a game already out of hand.
This year’s edition of a tradition-rich college softball program finished the season 44-6 and with a super-regional appearance. That’s a step up from last year’s 33-26 record and elimination by Baylor in the regionals.
But it’s not what its fans consider a successful season. That comes with a trip to the World Series.
And, while most of the offense returns next year, head coach Mike Candrea will have to begin the process of re-building his pitching staff before he can hope for another WCWS berth. Pinon, Fowler, and Babcock all graduate this year. The depth of his returning experience will be Bowling, a junior next season.
The task is nothing new for the 58-year-old Candrea, who will enter his 30th season directing the program. But his 22 trips to the WCWS and eight national championships attest to the fact that he’s been able to do it in the past, and more than once.
His teams ruled the college game during the 80’s and 90’s. They picked up a national title in 2001 and won back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.
However, that’s beginning to feel like a long time ago. Arizona softball fans want a return to the glory days.
And, for much of this season, it looked like this could have been the year it might happen.
But Louisiana-Lafayette showed us that was an illusion.
(Photo: Louisiana-Lafeyette/ Buffy Massey)