Jan. 7, 2010
By Matt Alvarez; Arizona Athletics Media Relations
The road ahead of the Arizona Wildcats softball team is not getting any easier. In a game that is now rich in parity and features competitive teams from coast to coast, the quest for a ninth NCAA Championship will take more than dedication and hard work. It will take the right attitude, consistency, and most importantly, trust.
"When it all comes down to it, you have to be able to look right and left and trust that the people you see have done everything they need to do to be prepared to play," said Head Coach Mike Candrea.
"You have to be prepared so that when you walk out there, you can trust yourself and react to certain situations."
What Arizona's skipper witnessed in the fall was a pleasant change from recent years past. He saw camaraderie, and more trust among the team.
"The chemistry and the atmosphere were a little bit different. The last few years we've struggled getting our team to a point where they trusted each other and enjoyed playing the game with each other. I saw a little bit more this fall than I have in a while."
The 2009 softball season saw some record-breaking performances by a number of the Arizona student-athletes, but Candrea was quick to point out that the best teams will win, not the best players.
"Last year, we had to put numbers up to win, and we did to a point. But as you saw when you got to the World Series, for you to win those games, you have to be able to play great defense and match opposing pitchers pitch for pitch to give yourself a chance for that timely hit."
In 2010, the Wildcats will employ a mix of power and speed that could send their offensive numbers through the roof for the second straight year. But, as last season showed, the game of softball is like a puzzle. All of the pieces must come together in order to play a complete game.
"My goal is to try to put nine out there that can play the complete game and play it consistently," Candrea said.
"I want to be able to win the 1-0 ballgame. In order to do that, you have to be able to match people pitch for pitch when your offense isn't quite there."
With seven returning starters, four high-school standouts, and one of the most heralded recruits in Arizona's history ready to take the field, the Wildcats may have all the tools necessary to bring home their ninth NCAA Championship.
Lastrapes led the Pacific-10 conference with a .481 batting average last season, hitting a career-high 17 home runs and 64 RBI in the process. The Laguna Niguel, Calif. native also collected over 100 hits last season as the leadoff hitter, and cemented her name on the UA single-season doubles list with 19, tying her for third place with K'Lee Arredondo.
Schutzler put up career numbers in almost every offensive category, hitting at a .421 clip while tallying 26 RBI near the bottom of the batting order. She led all UA hitters with a .632 average in the fall from the two-hole, a spot in the lineup where she could see most of her time in the upcoming season.
Buchanan's speed helped her nab a team-high eight stolen bases and account for 30 putouts - most were of the "on-the-run" variety - in the '09 campaign.
"The (outfield) returners...did a good job. They worked hard and made some improvements."
"Right now I think they will see some playing time, but they've got a ways to go to be able to play defensively on a day-to-day basis," said Candrea.
Though originally recruited as a shortstop, freshman Matte Haack had to adjust to a new position in the fall. But the Katy, Texas native showed her versatility in hitting a grand slam in the bottom half of the lineup and accounting for 18 assists at the hot corner. About her relative inexperience at third base, Candrea noted that "It's going to take some games for her to get under her belt and feel comfortable."
One of only two experienced seniors on the team, K'Lee Arredondo anchors this relatively young group of Wildcat infielders. The vocal leader of the team was plagued by injuries in 2009, but the Tempe, Ariz. native still managed to hit a career-high 13 home runs with 42 RBI, at a .345 clip. Her 96 assists in 43 games put her outstanding range on display, and her bat should compliment the top two hitters in the lineup, as she hit .389 with three home runs in the fall out of the three-hole.
"She's feeling much better," Candrea said about Arredondo's health. "Our biggest concern is to make sure we keep her healthy. She did a nice job supplying some leadership in the infield."
Platoon second basemen Victoria Kemp and Kristen Arriola are the only other infielders with game experience. Kemp finished with a .270 average and seven home runs last season, after hitting near the top of the UA charts during conference play. She also saw plenty of time at shortstop when Arredondo went down with a hamstring injury, tallying a total of 94 assists on the season.
Arriola had a spurt midway through the season, but finished with a .212 average and 21 RBI on 21 hits. The Wildcats will rely on her sound defense (60 assists, 4 errors in 62 chances) when she is in the lineup.
"(Kemp) and (Arriola) are playing with much more confidence and it was good to see."
Freshman Baillie Kirker surprised Arizona observers with her offensive prowess in the fall. The La Crescenta, Calif. native hit three home runs and five RBI, hitting 1.000 in the slugging percentage department. Her 47 putouts were second on the team, and she will certainly supply some power to the middle of the order.
"I thought Matte and Baillie showed that they can contribute and play on a day to day basis... Athletically, both of those kids have a chance to be pretty good," said Candrea.
Sophomore first baseman Alicia Banks provided some pinch-hit pop as she blasted a grand slam for her first hit of the fall campaign. The Sierra Vista, Ariz. product should provide some sound support when called upon as a situational hitter.
PITCHERS AND CATCHERS
The 2010 season will feature one of the most decorated recruits in Arizona's history, four-time high school All-American Kenzie Fowler. The Tucson native cemented her name in 13 pitching records at Canyon del Oro High School, and led her team to three consecutive 4A state championships. She impressed in the fall with 58 strikeouts and five hits allowed through 31 innings pitched, with no runs allowed. Offensively, Fowler knocked in seven RBI on four hits in the middle of the order.
Senior Sarah Akamine enters the season as the most experienced pitcher on the team. Though she was originally recruited to play third base, Akamine provided invaluable support as a stop-gap pitcher in both her freshman and sophomore campaign, and then rose to become the team's ace last season. The Escondido, Calif. native compiled a team-low 2.52 ERA with a team-high 136 strikeouts in 186 innings.
After walking on in the fall of 2008 to become the team's bullpen pitcher in 2009, senior Ashley Ralston-Alvarez will look to provide some relief in the upcoming season. The Tucson native appeared in five fall games, going 2-0 and compiling a 2.19 ERA.
"I think Kenzie will get the ball a lot, and I think Sarah will get the ball a lot," said Candrea.
"We walk in right now with two very different pitchers which is a good thing. I think they compliment each other. Throughout the year you have to keep people healthy and spread out the innings, but as you get down to the end you go with the hot hand. Whoever has the hot hand is who's going to have the ball."
In 2009, then-junior Stacie Chambers filled the void left by Callista Balko behind the plate. All the Glendale, Ariz. native did was slug the most home runs and RBI in the nation, while adding an NFCA third team All-America commendation to her name. After being granted a medical redshirt, but sitting out the fall, Chambers looks to improve on her already-stellar career numbers in the 2010 campaign.
For the second straight fall, sophomore Lini Koria handled the catching duties. The Carson, Calif. native slugged 12 home runs and knocked in 49 RBI in 2009, while hitting at a .352 clip as the designated player. She will more than likely provide much of the same in 2010.
Though she did not play in the fall, freshman Brigette Del Ponte will add some depth to the team as a utility player. The Peoria, Ariz. native comes highly regarded, with three high school state championships to her name and an All-American citation.
"(Brigette) brings us some flexibility; she's a good player that can play a lot of different positions," said Candrea.
Freshman Shannon Tinsley was added as a walk-on in the fall to help bolster Arizona's catching depth after playing three years of varsity softball in Lake Forest, Calif.
Up Next: Arizona will open official spring practice on Monday, Jan. 11 at 1 p.m. at Hillenbrand Stadium.