As the Arizona softball team attempts to defend its back-to-back NCAA Championships this spring, opponents and fans alike can expect to see a more balanced Wildcat team with the exciting prospect of seeing stars emerge ?C as they have throughout Mike Candreaˇ?s 23-year reign as head coach of the premier softball program in the country.
For the first time since 2003, opponents will not have to face Olympic-hopeful Caitlin Lowe in the leadoff spot, and opposing pitchers no longer will?cringe as they see former two-time All-American Kristie Fox step to the plate.
Just as Lowe and Autumn Champion had to replace Lauren Bauer and Nicole Giordano, who stepped in to fill the significant void of Alison McCutcheon, after she filled the shoes of four-time All-American Amy Chellevold, among a plethora of Wildcat legends ?C a new star will emerge to take hold of the spot.
This seemingly inevitable procession of new Wildcat stars makes the process more of a succession than a search for a replacement.
Additionally, in the old days, when Arizona regularly placed five or more of its players on the NFCAˇ?s All-America team, Candrea recalls that one of the most critical characteristics of those teams that sent UA to eight consecutive title games between 1991 and 1998 was that each player took turns at being the hero, rather than wait for one of its stars to come back up to the plate.
"This will be?a team that people are going to have to take their turns, and someone is going to have to get hot every game," Candrea said.
"Iˇ?ve been around long enough to know that you wonder, ˇ®How are you going to replace this person or how are you going to replace this person?ˇ?" UAˇ?s skipper continued, "But, thereˇ?s always someone that steps up and there are new heroes."
The 2008 offense will feature six returning starters ?C each of whom has shown flashes to demonstrate that she could be the next impact player ?C accompanied by several newcomers who come in highly touted as potential stars in the making, as well.
In the outfield, senior right fielder Adrienne Acton will move to center field and?is joined by freshmen Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler. The trio is projected to occupy the first, second and ninth slots in the batting order; undoubtedly, interim head coach Larry Ray likely will shuffle the three left-handed hitting outfielders around in the order until he finds the right combination to catalyze rallies for the heavy hitters.
At .294, Acton brings the highest returning batting average to this yearˇ?s squad after the Wildcats lost its top three hitters from 2007. Her speed, which accounted for 12 stolen bases in as many attempts last year, also tops UAˇ?s 20-player?roster.
Lastrapes enters the program having been named the Most Valuable Player at the ISF Junior Womenˇ?s World Championships, where she hit .548 with 17 hits, six RBI and five stolen bases for the U.S. Junior National Team.
"Both Brittany and Laurenˇ?s roles will be defined throughout the season," Candrea said.
"This fall, I was very pleased with Brittany and what she brings to the table," Candrea continued. "I think she is going to be a very good player, who has improved a lot defensively."
Schutzler will complete the Wildcat outfield, as the Monterey, Calif., native is penciled in to be UAˇ?s right fielder.
"Lauren has the potential to be a good offensive player, but sheˇ?s in that stage where she is growing mentally. More than anything, I would say that she has a tendency to be her own worst enemy. High expectations are good, but when they become unrealistic you can get down on yourself."
While it is unfair to compare anyone to a former All-American, particularly before playing a single inning in college ?C Lastrapes and Schutzler both come from strong softball backgrounds. Lastrapesˇ? older sister, Dominique, was a two-time All-America second baseman at Washington and a career .342 hitter. Meanwhile, Wildcat fans do not need to look far into the memory bank to recall Schutzlerˇ?s elder sister Lindsay, a three-time NFCA All-American at Tennessee, who played shortstop and outfield.
The UA infield has some familiar faces, starting with third baseman Jenae Leles. The 2007 All-WCWS selection is coming off a season in which she hit 10 home runs with 45 RBI. Perhaps the two most impressive tidbits about Leles are her vast improvement defensively last year and her 13-game postseason tear. At the hot corner, Lelesˇ? fielding percentage jumped from .933 in 2006 to .972 last year, as she cut her errors in half. At the plate, the junior from Fair Oaks, Calif., hit just .235 with 32 RBI in 52 regular season games before batting .389 with three home runs and 13 ribbies in a bakerˇ?s dozen worth of NCAA Tournament contests.
This spring, sophomore Kˇ?Lee Arredondo will make the move to shortstop after serving as UAˇ?s left fielder last season. The switch-hitter from Tempe batted almost exclusively from the left side of the plate in the second half of the year and is poised for a breakout year as she returns to her natural position following the departure of Fox.
Blending speed and power, Arredondo is coming off a postseason, in which she hit .289 with four extra-base hits and nine runs scored in 13 games. After struggling at the beginning of 2006 as UAˇ?s two-hole hitter, Arredondo thrived in the back end of the order. At the plate, fans should expect to see her in the top half of the order with a much-improved bat, and in the field, Arredondo will bring quick hands and a strong arm at shortstop.
"Kˇ?Lee is a competitor who?likes to play the game and works hard at the game," said Candrea. "She will do a very nice job at bringing some leadership to the infield. From what Iˇ?ve seen right now, as long as she doesnˇ?t try to do too much and stays within herself sheˇ?s going to be very good at shortstop."
UAˇ?s third departure from 2007 was second baseman Chelsie Mesa. While it is yet to be seen who will take on the role as Arredondoˇ?s double play partner, itˇ?s safe to assume it will be either sophomore Sarah Akamine or freshman Victoria Kemp.
Akamine provided invaluable support in the circle last year as a stop-gap pitcher, and she showed uncanny pop in limited action at the plate. While UA is unlikely to call her number as a pitcher in 2008, Akamine could see significant time as the Wildcat second bagger. Last year, Akamine tallied 16 RBI in just 67 at-bats ?C that would multiply out to about 44 RBI over the course of a 185 at-bat season.
If her production in the fall tournament is any indication, Kemp is able. The frosh from Saugus, Calif., batted .500 with a pair of extra-base hits in eight at-bats, and should push Akamine for playing time ?C and if nothing else, Kemp would be as solid hitter off the bench as UA has had in recent memory.
As they did for the majority of games in 2007, Laine Roth and Sam Banister most likely will platoon at first base and designated player. Roth was an on-base machine last year, as evidenced by her?.306 in-conference batting average and team-leading?.458 on-base percentage in Pac-10 play.
Throughout the last two months of last season, Banister demonstrated the type of player she could be over her final two years. In the months of May and June, Banister batted over .300 with base hits in all but four of her 19 starts. Additionally, she posted two game-winning hits against Washington ?C one on Senior Day and the other in a WCWS semifinal ?C and registered a pair of multi-hit games against national player of the year Monica Abbott.
With an all underclass infield, Candrea undoubtedly is referring to this bunch when he says, "I feel very good this year that weˇ?ve had some kids really mature who are ready to step in and be a little more consistent than they were last year.
"Thatˇ?s going to be a huge key. The success is going to be finding people in the middle of the lineup who can be more consistent. Theyˇ?ve all shown flashes of brilliancy, and while this will be a different look; it could be an effective look."
Pitchers and Catchers
Behind the plate, senior Callista Balko brings a wealth of experience, as she has caught every pitch over the last two years ?C a remarkable span of 877.1 innings. The native Tucsonan threw out 32 percent of potential base stealers last year and tied for second on the team with 10 home runs. With 28 career round-trippers to her name, she belted four homers in just 14 at-bats during UAˇ?s fall exhibition games.
This season, Stacie Chambers should be able to provide Balko some relief behind the plate. Healthy after suffering head injuries that lingered throughout the 2007 season, Chambers projects to play a number of valuable roles for the Wildcats. The sophomore from Glendale, Ariz., could get some starts as UAˇ?s designated player, spell Balko or come off the bench as a feared pinch hitter.
Whoever is behind the plate, one thingˇ?s for sure: Taryne Mowatt usually will?be delivering her the ball. The senior pitcher is coming off a remarkable 2007 season, in which she earned All-America honors and was cited as the WCWS Most Outstanding Player. Saddled with having to replace four-time All-American Alicia Hollowell as UAˇ?s ace in the circle, Mowatt set Arizona single-season records for victories, innings pitched and strikeouts in 2007.
"Iˇ?m excited to see how Taryne approaches this year," Candrea said. "Sheˇ?s a kid that people knew about last year, but nobody knew a lot about.
"She showed moments when she was really good and moments when she wasnˇ?t so good. This year, sheˇ?s kind of a marked person, and personally I think sheˇ?s going to take the ball and run with it. There is no doubt that she can compete ?C she showed everyone in the world that she is a competitor. If sheˇ?s doing that, I think good things are going to happen for us," he said.
Having pitched in all but five of UAˇ?s 65 contests last season, Mowatt should be literally and figuratively relieved to have freshman Lindsey Sisk ready to eat some innings for the Wildcats. Sisk, who also hits and plays outfield, is described by Candrea as an athlete who will play a vital role for the Wildcats this year, but also someone with tremendous upside.
"We havenˇ?t even seen close to the capabilities of where she can go," Candera said, "and itˇ?s our job to develop that. She is going to give us a lot of quality innings that weˇ?re going to need."
Off the Bench
Jill Malina and WCWS pinch-running hero Danielle Rodriguez both provide speed on the basepaths and a team-oriented attitude in the dugout. Senior Cyndi Duran was hampered by a hand injury throughout the bulk of 2007, but offers a slap-hitting option or could platoon as an outfielder ?C both are roles that junior transfer Jessica McNamara could serve in as well.
If Arizona softball has one legacy it is executing on the sportˇ?s grandest stage with the same precision that is expected in every practice, non-conference contest and Pac-10 game. However, it is the succession of great players who continue to make the plays year after year to bring UA continued results. If nothing else, 2008 is a year wherein that ascension may come from new Wildcat stars.