Mike Candrea has been the head softball coach at the University of Arizona for the past 32 seasons. Last March he won his 1,500th game, making him the first coach to collect that many Division I softball victories.
He has won 80 percent of his games at Arizona, made 21 trips to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS), and collected eight national championships.
But one indicator of success often overlooked is player development. And this summer, there are four of his players from last year’s squad that are making a strong case for that aspect of his coaching resume.
Kaityana Mauga, Mo Mercado, Danielle O’Toole, and Mandie Perez are beginning their professional careers this summer after being selected in April’s NPF College Draft. The National Pro Fastpitch League, which used to be called the Women’s Pro Softball League, fields eight teams around the country and is the only opportunity college players have to play professionally after graduation.
Through the years, dozens of UofA graduates have gone on to play in the professional game, most notably Jenny Finch, whose high-profile career included a national title while at Arizona, two Olympic medals, and a five-year pro career that was followed by television appearances and celebrity fame.
But this year, Arizona hit the jackpot in the NPF draft.
Mauga, the home run leader in the Pac-12, was the first pick in the second round, going to the Texas Charge. O’Toole went third in that round to the Chicago Bandits (Finch’s team), and Mercado followed right behind as the fourth pick by the USSSA Pride, a Florida team. Perez also went to the Pride as the fourth pick in the fourth round.
A steady infield anchor at third base, the 5’2″ Mauga left her mark on the school, conference, and NCAA record books. Her .906 slugging percentage over 149 at-bats last season is the best in program history and the 21 home runs she hit as a senior brought her career total to 92, which makes her the all-time leader at Arizona and puts her second in the NCAA record books.
Mercado, one of the country’s best at shortstop, plugged the middle of the Wildcat infield and was the “iron horse” of the team, starting every game of her career at Arizona, 243 in all. She was named to the Pac-12 first team All-Defensive squad her junior and senior years, and this season, after finishing with a .396 batting average, was a finalist for USA Softball Player of the Year. All four draft picks were POY finalists.
With the selection of O’Toole, the Bandits will be getting one of the best pitchers to have come through the Wildcat program. After just two years on the field at Arizona, the San Diego State transfer earned first-team All-Pac 12 honors both seasons. She became the first 30-game winner for the Cats since 2010 and posted the lowest ERA in 11 years. That 1.21 ERA also ranked ninth nationally among D-I pitchers.
Perez will give the Pride a lead-off hitter that excels at getting on base and scoring. The speedy outfielder led the Pac-12 in runs scored during her senior season with 66. Her .387 batting average as a senior was second on the team and her 74 hits led all players.
With a roster last season loaded with this kind of talent, it was disappointing to see the Wildcats eliminated by Baylor in the Tucson Super Regional. Arizona finished the regular season ranked No. 5 in the nation and closed out the 2017 campaign with a 52-9 record, but failed to get to the WCWS for the seventh straight season.
But next year will once again begin with promise as Candrea re-loads with more top talent.
That’s how he builds his championship-caliber teams. And why he’s still on top after 32 years.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)