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2007 Softball Outlook
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 01/17/2007
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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Growth.  According to Arizona head coach Mike Candrea, that is one of the primary reasons his Wildcats were able to finish out the 2006 regular season with 10 consecutive victories, before winning 10 of 12 postseason games en route to a seventh national championship.

            Now, Candrea looks for his team to carry that growth into the 2007 season, when the Wildcats will be a year older, wiser and more experienced than they were at the same time last year.

           

UA head coach Mike Candrea has won seven national championships.
Before the season starts, Candrea already knows that his team has something this year that it did not in 2006: depth.  The Arizona offense, which averaged 5.4 runs per game last season, returns all starters with the exception of Autumn Champion.  In addition to the nine returning players with 100 at-bats or more last year, Candrea will also have four newcomers who could see significant time and make an immediate impact in the starting lineup.

            Despite the new blood that inevitably will be injected into UA’s batting order, some things will not change.  For the fourth year in a row, opponents can expect to see three-time first team All-American Caitlin Lowe leading off.  The Tustin, Calif., native has led off all but 10 of UA’s 183 games since she first suited up for the Wildcats in February 2004 and has done so to the tune of a .458 batting average. 

            “With Caitlin in that spot,” Candrea says, “I think we have the best leadoff hitter in the country.”

            Candrea, who has coached Lowe the past two summers on the U.S. Women’s National Team, adds that her presence is noted not only by the nation’s top collegiate squads, but also by the best teams in the world.  “There was a great tribute to Caitlin this summer because she was the only player that other teams would try to devise different defenses to stop her,” Candrea recalls.

            After Lowe, someone will have to fill the shoes of a departed two-time All-American in Champion.  At the conclusion of fall camp, freshman K’Lee Arredondo appeared to have solidified the spot in the order for the time being.  Arredondo, a utility player who will most likely start in left field this season, will be the first switch-hitter Candrea has used in 22 years in Tucson.

           

K'Lee Arredondo can hit from the left or right side of the plate.

Arredondo’s versatility at the plate and in the field automatically qualifies her as a dangerous player for opponents.  In UA’s fall tournament she homered three times in 13 at-bats, including one bomb from the left side and two from the right.  A month later, she played for the U.S. Junior Women’s Pan American Qualifier team in Puerto Rico, where she hit .542 with 14 runs scored in eight games.

            Despite her raw talent, Candrea is enamored with what Arredondo brings to UA in the mental and leadership sides of the game.  “K’Lee is a throwback,” Candrea says.  “She’s a very hard worker, vocal leader and a smart player who will do a great job of preparing to play hard every day.”

            Arredondo will undoubtedly have the benefit of seeing a lot of pitches at the plate.  With the speedy Lowe on base half the time and two-time All-American senior shortstop Kristie Fox batting in the three-spot, opponents likely will have no choice but to pitch to the freshman.

            If the last few years are any indication, the opposition will not have much luck when Fox comes to the plate either.  Having started at shortstop all but one game in the last three years, the Wildcats have a sure-handed and experienced middle infielder, as well as a consistent hitter who is particularly effective in clutch situations.  After leading the country with 64 RBI in 2005 to go along with her .356 batting average, Fox increased her average by 30 points and tacked on two more RBI to the previous year’s total in her 2006 campaign.

Two-time first-team All-American Kristie Fox

“Kristie is a very good hitter,” Candrea says.  “She does a lot of things well, but she has to learn to become more patient because teams are going to pitch around her.”

            This is not to say that Fox has not demonstrated a keen eye at the plate.  In the last two years, she has drawn 58 walks while striking out only 33 times.  Another remarkable ratio, last year Fox struck out only once every 13.7 plate appearances.  By comparison, opposing hitters were punched out once every 2.4 times they stepped in the box against Wildcat hurlers.

            Behind Fox, some combination of senior second baseman Chelsie Mesa, junior catcher Callista Balko and freshman Stacie Chambers will likely make up the 4-5-6 spots in the batting order.  Last year, Mesa hit clean-up in 26 games and provided some much-needed power from the left side, while leading UA with 27 extra-base hits.

            “I expect Chelsie to be more consistent that she was last year,” Candrea says.  From what he saw in fall workouts, it appears Mesa has made the necessary adjustments.  “If there was a kid that grew more than anyone in the fall; it was Chelsie.  I’m looking for her to have a good year and have good at-bats with the same approach every time she comes to the plate.”

        

Chelsie Mesa led UA with 27 extra-base hits in '06
    If Mesa experienced the most growth this past off-season, then Balko undoubtedly won that award for mid-season adjustments in 2006.  Entering her third year as UA’s backstop, Balko went from hitting .177 through Arizona’s first 26 games to notching a .319 average with 31 RBI over UA’s last 39 contests.  Regardless of Balko’s drastic improvement at the plate, her experience in handling Wildcat pitching staff and proficiency in limiting opponents’ running game are just as crucial as the offensive numbers she puts up.

            Chambers, a freshman from Glendale, Ariz., could see time at catcher, third base, designated player or possibly first base.  In limited action during the fall tournament, the left-handed hitting newcomer displayed power that has not been seen at Hillenbrand Stadium since Leneah Manuma frequently tagged balls off the Ina Gittings building beyond the right field fence.  Despite only six at-bats at Hillenbrand Stadium, Chambers earned the distinction of being the first player to hit a ball off the state-of-the-art videoboard installed prior to the 2006 season.

            Going down the order, whoever occupies the corner infield positions should be penciled into the seven and eight spots, respectively.  Sophomores Laine Roth and Sam Banister, who both displayed power in their first year with UA, will both likely see time at first base. 

            At third base, sophomore Jenae Leles is a formidable option who started every game at the hot corner in 2006, but freshman Sarah Akamine from Escondido, Calif., will fight for time as well.

            Rounding out the order, junior right fielder Adrienne Acton returns to her spot in the nine-hole.  The speedy Acton often acts like a second leadoff hitter before Lowe comes to the plate.  The Marana, Ariz., native pestered defenses in 2006, as she reached via error a team-leading 12 times.

Adrienne Acton started every game for UA in '06

            “We need consistency out of Adrienne.   For us to utilize her speed, we have to be able to have her keep the ball on the ground,” Candrea says.  “When she learns that, she will become a very good player.  I hope she takes that next step for us this year.  If you look at her performance in the postseason last year, she has become the best nine-hitter in the country.”

            Off the bench, junior outfielder Cyndi Duran provides a left-handed bat and speed.  While Candrea says that Duran could start at times, she gives the Wildcats a pinch-hitting option with the ability to slap that UA simply did not have in 2006. 

 

***

            Despite the excitement projecting what an offensive lineup may or may not do, a softball team’s success always seems to come back to the circle.

            Arizona loses its first four-time All-American pitcher in Alicia Hollowell, but returns arguably the nation’s best No. 2 option in Taryne Mowatt.  The junior hurler finished the 2006 season with a 21-5 record and a 1.28 ERA.  Mowatt’s ERA was good for 28th best in the country, and her ratio of 10.7 strikeouts per seven innings placed her ninth in the nation.

           

Taryne Mowatt won 21 games for UA last year.
Mowatt’s ability to step up when called upon and challenge the toughest of hitters has always been apparent, but never as obvious than last March.  In back-to-back outings at Fullerton’s Judi Garman Classic, Mowatt no-hit UNLV with a 15-strikeout performance, before coming out and striking out 13 of the 15 Cal State Northridge hitters she faced in a perfect game just two days later.  The day after the perfect game, Hollowell went down to an injury after being struck in the face with a line drive.  Unfortunately for Arizona, Louisiana-Lafayette was coming to Tucson for a three-game series, and the Ragin’ Cajuns ended up leading the country by scoring just over seven runs per game.  By the end of the weekend Mowatt had surrendered just one run in 16.0 innings of work, while limiting the ULL’s potent offensive attack to a dismal .161 batting average.

            While the option of running Mowatt to the circle every day may be appealing, Candrea has knows that a team cannot survive with only one solid pitcher.  “We’ve learned you can’t go into a year with one pitcher,” Candrea says, “and I don’t think we’re going to do that.”

            Candrea says this with great confidence because in addition to Mowatt he has one of the best freshman pitching prospects in the country in Amanda Williams.  In 12.0 innings during the fall tournament, Williams gave up a total of one hit and no walks.  Forget the fact that she shut out opponents for the weekend, the opposition mustered all of a .027 batting average against her.

           

Amanda Williams allowed one hit in 12 innings this fall.
“Amanda needs to grow a bit for us, and there are a lot of things that have to take place,” Candrea says.  “For starters, we call games from the dugout, and for [assistant coach] Nancy Evans to get on the same page as her we’ve got to utilize Amanda’s strengths and understand her weaknesses.”

            With Mowatt and Williams slated to eat up the majority of the innings, Akamine could get some work in the circle.  “Taryne and Amanda will be our first options, but with Sarah we have someone who can pitch some quality innings for us.”

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