Mike Candrea is nearing the close of his 34th season as the head coach of the University of Arizona softball program.
He has won eight national championships during that time. But none since 2007.
That may change this year.
This year’s squad is burning a path to Oklahoma City, where a berth in the Women’s College World Series awaits. The 2019 edition is just the second team in program history to win its first 15 games on the Pac-12 schedule and has been drawing capacity crowds at every home game.
Two weeks ago, Candrea collected his 1,600th win when his Wildcats run-ruled Stanford, 9-1, for their 19th straight victory. That game against the Cardinal marked No. 2,013 for his coaching career, which made him the fastest in NCAA history — in any sport, any division — to reach 1,600 wins.
The Cats went on to string together 21 victories before California broke the chain in a game that went nine innings before the Golden Bears pulled out the 1-0 win. However, Arizona took the series by winning the other two games. Arizona’s 17-1 start to conference play marks the best start since 1994 when that team got off to a 23-0 start.
And now they face perhaps their biggest test of the season. This weekend the Cats (40-8) host No. 3 Washington (39-7) and the next week will have even more of a challenge as they close out their regular-season schedule against No. 2 UCLA (43-2) — on the road.
Arizona and UCLA are tied atop the Pac-12 Conference, so that game could have even more on the line.
On the plus side, Arizona is ranked No. 6, but these final two opponents give them an opportunity to ascend into the top 5.
On the defensive side, this team has the one requirement it takes to get to the WCWS, and then advance through the tourney – a one-two punch in the circle. Candrea has the top two pitchers in the Pac-12, based on ERA stats. Senior Taylor McQuillin boasts a 0.67 ERA in conference play and junior Alyssa Denham is just off the leading pace with a 0.69 ERA. The Cats lead the league with a team 0.68 ERA.
Offensively, Arizona packs the big punch at the plate that can win a ball game with a single swing. The Cats have hit 90 home runs this season, which is second-most in the country, and have the top two home-run hitters in the Pac-12: shortstop Jessie Harper (22 homers) and catcher Dejah Mulipola (20). Both are juniors and Harper’s total is second in the nation (behind Mississippi State’s Mia Davidson who has 25), while Mulipola ranks 7th in the NCAA.
Over the last 23 games leading up to these final two weeks, Arizona’s pitchers have allowed just 15 total earned runs, while its offense has racked up 48 home runs and 191 runs.
This team appears poised to make a deep run in the postseason. And, with an experienced coach like Candrea who knows how to use the talent he has, a run through the World Series isn’t hard to imagine.
And a couple of opponents like Washington and UCLA will help them prepare for the challenge.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)