Jan. 12, 2004
TUCSON - 2004 Arizona Softball Outlook
With a few questions in hand, the 2004 Wildcats embark on a different sort of journey than they've usually faced since the club won its first national title in 1991.
A year ago a youthful 2003 version of the team proved it could compete with any team in the nation, just as its predecessors had for more than a decade. The Cats ended the year with a 56-7 overall record, winning a seventh Pacific-10 Championship with a 19-2 conference record. Head coach Mike Candrea led the squad to a 16th consecutive trip to the College World Series.
This time around, Candrea will be partly absent, as he turns his focus to his prestigious position as head coach of the USA Softball Team that will tour the country this spring and play in the Olympics at Athens, Greece, later this summer.
Candrea, in his 19th year at Arizona, will turn over considerable control of the Cats to acting head coach Larry Ray and acting associate head coach Nancy Evans. Ray has worked with Candrea for a dozen years, and former national player of the year Evans has been involved with UA softball for a decade as a star player and young coaching talent.
The 2004 squad will enter the season short two players from last year's squad: All-American senior Lovie Jung and senior second baseman Lisha Ribellia. The Cats will also lose the services of All-American junior outfielder Courtney Fossatti, whose off-season ankle surgery will require her to sit out for a redshirt season in 2004.
But the team has gained six newcomers from around the country to help fill the gaps, and whether with senior-laden squads or those dotted with newcomers the Wildcats have always had the drive and talent to win games and compete on the national level. This year should be no different.
Newcomers a year ago made a huge contribution. Freshman pitcher Alicia Hollowell set the season record with 40 victories and 394 strikeouts, breaking Evans' twin victories total of 36 in 1997 and 1998 and Jennie Finch's 2002 record of 366 strikeouts. Freshman outfielder Autumn Champion took over the leadoff spot, hit .434 and joined Hollowell as one of four Wildcat All-Americans - departed senior shortstop Lovie Jung (1st team) and Fossatti (2nd team) were the others. All earned All-Pacific Region honors along with junior designated player Wendy Allen. Jung earned NCAA Region I Most Outstanding Player honors, while Hollowell was named the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year. Five players earned All-Pac-10 honors, including catcher Mackenzie Vandergeest (2nd team) and Candrea was the league coach of the year.
Hollowell will lead the pitching rotation for the Cats, and will bring a year of front-line experience as the No. 1 hurler into the mix. She posted a 40-5 record in 2003 with an ERA of 0.94, allowing just 138 hits out of 1002 batters faced.
Senior Wendy Allen, who underwent wrist surgery in the offseason to correct tendonitis problems that plagued her pitching efforts last season, will follow Hollowell in the rotation. Allen posted a 2.52 ERA in the 2003 season, earning a record of 12-2 in 17 appearances. Allen struck out 62 of the 298 batters she faced.
Sophomore Leslie Wolfe will be given more opportunities to pitch this season, following her recovery from corrective knee surgery. Wolfe posted a 3.66 ERA, with three wins and no losses in 22 appearances.
Sophomore Shelly Schultz and freshman Annalyn Hollingsworth round out the pitching staff. Schultz made one appearance as a relief pitcher last season, posting a 3.00 ERA and earning a win versus Pac-10 rival Washington. She contributed in the field as the starting first baseman for most of the year.
Senior Vandergeest is one of two sluggers the 2004 club will rely on, and enters her third year as the Cats' top catcher. She has 45 career home runs. Moreover, she led the club in fielding percentage and threw out 11 runners in 28 stolen base attempts. Junior third baseman Jackie Coburn has 29 career home runs in two years and can back up at catcher but turned in a .964 percentage in the field. Junior reserve Candace Abrams, a top pinch-hitter in 2003, also can catch or play in the outfield.
According to co-head coach Larry Ray, the duties at first base will largely be determined by offense. Schultz, Allen and senior Erin Palomarez will battle for the spot. All three are defensive equals, says Ray, and the position will likely go to whoever is the best offensive player at the time. Palomarez came on to contribute as a regular in post-season play a year ago, while Allen and Schultz were in the lineup throughout the season.
Schultz, who Ray calls the most versatile player on the team, will also contend for a place at second base. Senior Samantha Quintero, who started four of five games at second during the Cats' preseason exhibition tournament in the fall, also will compete for the spot. Departed senior Ribellia had held down the position for two-plus years, generally contributing defense and base running ability.
Graduated senior Jung - a member of the 2004 U.S. Olympic team -- leaves a big hole at shortstop, but incoming freshman Kristie Fox has talent that coaches feel will prove she belongs. Fox started all fall exhibition games at shortstop for the Cats, in which she hit .273 and performed in the field. Fox started at shortstop for the 2003 U.S. Junior Olympic squad. Coaches say projected backups in the hole include Schultz and Quintero.
Coburn will enter her third year at third base this season. In 2003, Coburn started all 63 games at the hot corner, notching a .249 batting average, including 15 home runs. Also in contention at third is junior Jen Martinez, a transfer from Pima Community College. Martinez backed up Coburn in preseason play, hitting .333 and notching four assists and a putout.
Sophomore All-American Autumn Champion should get the starting nod in left field for the 2004 season. Champion had the second-best batting average on the squad last season, hitting .434 and leading the team with 89 hits. Champion's speed on the bases and consistency as a slap hitter will likely place her first or second in the batting order.
Newcomer Caitlin Lowe, a key freshman, is the projected starter in center this season. Lowe posted a .500 batting average as a member of the 2003 U.S. National Team, and in fall play hit .357, scoring seven runs and stealing three bases in as many attempts. She may take over the all-important leadoff spot for UA - a role where All-Americans have held sway for more than a decade.
Junior Crystal Farley, who held down another pivotal spot in the batting order for a Candrea team - the set-up spot at No. 9 usually reserved for a lefty slapper, likely will start in right field in 2004. She posted a .356 batting average in 2003, improving considerably during Pac-10 play. She earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 honors along with Allen and Coburn. Juniors Allyson Von Liechtenstein and Abrams also saw action in right field in 2003and both batted over .300.
Freshman Cortney Nix gained experience in the infield during fall exhibition play, maintaining a perfect fielding percentage at second base and notching a stolen base. According to Ray, Nix's future at Arizona could be as a catcher.
Freshman walk-on Betsy Wilson also gained experience in fall play, mostly as a pinch runner. Wilson will look to back up Coburn and Martinez at third base.
Winning is hardly a novelty for the Arizona Wildcats. The National Fastpitch Coaches Association seems to agree, placing Arizona atop its All-Time Top 50 poll in the off-season. Arizona has been ranked in every NFCA poll since its initiation, finishing in the top five every year the poll has existed.
Arizona aims at one overall goal in its softball program -- the national championship. Over the years the Cats have been a model program in that regard, though the ascension gets more difficult each year as the sport continues to flourish on the national level. Pacific-10 Conference play remains a springboard to elite status, however, as 21 games annually against the best competition extant is the best preparation.
Armed with an offense that boasts speed, consistency and power, and expected improved pitching plus a defense to match, the Cats are out to prove they remain at the top of the game.