As the University of Arizona softball team gets ready for Thursday’s first game of the 2021 season, head coach Mike Candrea will be focused on getting his Wildcats off to a good start to a new season, just as he has for more than three decades now.
But who could blame him if this year he also keeps one eye on the University of Michigan softball program? That’s where head coach Carol Hutchins is getting ready to open the Wolverines’ schedule.
Candrea and Hutchins, who have a combined 71 years as head coach at their respective schools, are jockeying for position as the winningest coach in NCAA softball history.
Candrea enters his 36th season as Wildcats’ coach with 1,633 wins. Hutchins, who begins her 37th season leading UofM, is just two wins behind Candrea going into this season.
The two hall-of-fame coaches have built two of the top NCAA softball programs in the country. Candrea has won eight national championships and 11 Pac-12 conference titles. Hutchins owns a national title and 21 Big Ten conference crowns.
Hutchins arrived in Ann Arbor before Candrea found his forever home in Tucson. Hutchins began in 1983 as an assistant on the Wolverines’ coaching staff, and was elevated to head coach in 1985. Candrea was hired in 1986 to take over the Wildcats’ program after five years at Central Arizona College where he won two national junior college titles.
The two teams won’t meet in the regular season, but there’s always that possibility in the postseason. Candrea’s postseason record is 173-63 and he will be trying to get an Arizona team to the Women’s College World Series for the 24th time.
He is working with a roster that returns seven starters from a squad that finished 22-3 last season. And he adds to that a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the nation.
That’s why the Cats will enter the 2021 season ranked third in the nation in the preseason polls, the program’s highest preseason ranking since the Cats were ranked No. 1 by USA Softball prior to the 2011 campaign.
Leading the way this season will be four players who were named NFCA All-Americans in 2019, the last time the awards were given out, including Dejah Mulipola, the 2019 Johnny Bench Catcher of the Year. The other three returning All-Americans include second baseman Reyna Carranco, shortstop Jessie Harper, and center fielder Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza.
Year-in, year-out, Arizona is challenged by one of the toughest schedules in the nation. This season is no exception. The Wildcats are scheduled to play 21 games against teams ranked in the top 16 of the NFCA preseason Top 25.
Fourteen of those games will be against top-10 opponents. The Cats open the season against No. 6 Texas.
And, as the 65-year-old skipper has done for more than three decades, Candrea will work his way through that gauntlet and come out the other end with another successful outcome.
You can take that to the bank. Mike Candrea has never had a losing season.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)