A talented core of returners welcome a set of highly-regarded newcomers to form a team with championship aspirations
Jan. 25, 2012
2011 marked the first year since 1987 that the Wildcats, under Head Coach Mike Candrea, failed to reach the Women's College Series. Needless to say, this did not sit well with Candrea, entering his 27th year as the Wildcats' head coach.
"After last year's finish, we have regrouped and looked at where we feel we need to be and why we didn't get there," said Candrea. "Right now I feel extremely good about this group; they've worked extremely hard and they've come together really well. Practices have been very efficient, their energy level has been great and their commitment to our ultimate goal has been revitalized."
Changes were made. Both personnel and the team's approach will be severely different from the squad that exited the field after the disappointing 2011 Super Regional loss to Oklahoma. Gone are 10 players from that team, through graduation, transfers and cuts, and they take with them 47% of the team's runs scored, 44% of its hits, 41% of the home runs and 40% of the team's runs batted in.
Replacing the likes of Brittany Lastrapes, Lauren Schutzler and Stacie Chambers could prove to be a tall task, but the third-ranked recruiting class in the country (ESPN.com) should help ease UA's transition to life without the talented trio.
"It's awfully hard to replace good players who produced like those three," said Candrea. "I think we're going to have to wait and see who's going to step up but I feel, overall, our lineup is a lot deeper than it was last year. I think we had a couple of holes that we have filled and some kids have gotten better.
"It's going to be a different complexion this year and you try to find people that can produce and be consistent. That's our goal right now, not to replace people, but to try to find the best nine and put them out there. This team will have a little different look and offense will be one of our strengths," he said.
Back on the staff is Stacy Iveson
, a former Wildcat player and assistant under Candrea. Iveson spent the last 10 years in the junior college ranks, four of them winning NJCAA National Championships. Iveson led a pair of Arizona schools to a pair of national titles: Pima College in 2004 and 2006, Yavapai College in 2009 and 2011. The two-time National Coach of the Year will bring a positive disposition and plenty of championship experience and softball knowledge to strengthen the top-of-the-line coaching staff at Arizona.
"She brings, first of all, someone who put on the uniform at Arizona," said Candrea. "She has a great passion for the game and brings good energy to the ballpark. She knows how to win and is really going to be a valuable piece for our pitching staff and trying to get them feeling good about themselves. She's a very good motivator. I think she has a very good pulse on people and kids and will be a great complement for our staff. She'll make a huge impact."
Despite the roster being five players lighter than a year ago, the condensed team will carry quality depth many positions. Filling out the lineup card each game could be interesting task for the 35-year coaching veteran.
"We have flexibility among our 15 players," said Candrea. "I think you'll find that this year we'll be a little more sure of who's where. Our pitchers may see more at-bats than they have in the past. There will be some differences, but I think that ultimately we don't have as many question marks as we have had in the past and that's a good thing."
Four seniors return as the leadership core of the team. Second baseman Kristen Arriola, outfielders Karissa Buchanan and Nicole Bryan and catcher/first baseman Lini Koria possess the on-and-off the field experience to lead the squad. Their experience is matched by a high-profile, senior transfer from Tennessee. Jessica Spigner's experience came at a different perspective, playing three years in the highly competitive SEC. Together, the five UA seniors gives Arizona a steady base to lean on.
"I think our senior class has tasted a little bit of everything," said eight-time national champion Candrea. They've been to the championship game of the World Series and they've been on a team that felt what it was like not to make it to the World Series. I'm very pleased with our senior class; they're not only great players but great people. They've become really good leaders and I think they all can produce. It's always a nice thing to have seniors that are playing a valuable role on your team, which is our case this year."
Their tutelage will come in handy for the Wildcats' freshman class, which will fill major roles from day one. Hallie Wilson will likely inherit center field and the leadoff position, a hefty set of responsibilities for a player fresh out of high school. Chelsea Goodacre will likely set up shop behind the plate, splitting time with Koria. Offensively, Goodacre projects to be one of Arizona's best power bats this season. Shelby Pendley, recovering a summer knee injury, will be ready to go for the Cats come February and may start at shortstop. Wilson, Goodacre and Pendley all played on the USA Junior National Team this summer. Sam Davis will give UA depth at third base on a speedy option off the bench. A fifth freshman, Chelsea Suitos, is set to begin her collegiate eligibility after a shoulder injury forced her to redshirt 2011. Suitos will back up second base and should see plenty of offensive substitution opportunities, both at the plate and on the base paths.
The team's strength in 2012 will be its offense. The team will have to replace plenty of aforementioned offense from the departed seniors, but four new additions to the lineup, Spigner, Wilson, Goodacre and Pendley specialize in getting the ball over the fence and all project to register home runs in the -teens.
Add them to junior Brigette Del Ponte and Koria, who each slugged over .600 and collected a combined 102 RBI in 2011, and "potent" may not begin to describe the middle of the order. Del Ponte, with two years of eligibility left and 37 career bombs, could challenge the Arizona home run records.
"You're going to see a team that can do a lot of things offensively," said Candrea. "Our short game will be above-average. But our strength is going to be our ability to swing the bat. We have pretty deep power throughout our lineup. Our team is well prepared not only physically, but mentally to get after it this year."
On the opposite side of the ball, the team will hope to bounce back favorably from a sub-par season defensively. In 2011, the team put together its worst fielding percentage (.969) since 1999 (.963).
"We're better and we're getting better every day," said Candrea. "Our infield is going to be much better and the outfield will be good. Defense is definitely a key to winning championships. I've always felt like we need to be strong up the middle and I think we're getting back to where we want to be in that area."
In looking at Arizona's versatility and depth, check no further than the Wildcats' infield. Seven players will be competing for four spots. The malleable makeup of the infield gives Candrea plenty of options when he fills out the lineup card.
"I think the big question will be Pendley and whether she can come back and play every day and that will dictate how the infield will look," Candrea said.
A logjam of talent on the left side of the infield is a problem any coach would like to have. Del Ponte, the team's leading returning hitter, played third base her first two years in an Arizona uniform, but could move to short to make room for newly acquired Jessica Spigner at third. Complicating that is Pendley, the better shortstop. She is healthy and ready to fight for a spot in the everyday lineup. Backing up third will be freshman Davis.
"The left side of the infield can vary," said Candrea. "Spigner and Del Ponte are very capable of playing third. We have some great choices at third and that will depend on shortstop and whether Pendley can stay healthy. If she can, she's a very solid defensive player and a very powerful young lady. I think she will give us a shortstop that will be there for a number of years. If she's not healthy, we've worked Del Ponte at short and she's comfortable there."
Spigner can play either corner of the infield and may project to be the team's everyday first baseman. Her competition, Baillie Kirker, was arguably Arizona's MVP from the fall season. Also in the discussion at first is Koria. The senior will likely share action behind the plate with freshman Chelsea Goodacre and could spell Spigner and Kirker at first when not catching.
"Spigner is a young lady who's going to bring a lot of stability to our infield and is a kid that has played the game at a high level and embraces that," said Candrea. "She'll give us something that's pretty important for us to have this year. Baillie has done a nice job getting prepared for this year. We're looking forward to a better year out of her. (Pitcher Kenzie) Fowler can step in and play there, too. So, I think we're in pretty good shape there."
Unlike the other three infield positions, second base appears to be a lock for one of the most consistent players on the team. After platooning the position her first two years, senior Arriola is set to begin her second season with second base to herself. That's no discredit to Chelsea Suitos, who will back her up and likely see her fair share of action.
"Kristen Arriola is a lot better in a lot of different areas and one is her leadership," said Candrea. "I think people respect who she is and what she represents and I think that has made an impact on us. But both Arriola and Suitos are very good players and bring something different to the team."
The Cats will have to replace their two top outfielders from 2011, Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler. With only four outfielders on the roster, depth and experience may be an issue as the four have only five combined years of collegiate experience under their belts.
"If there was one deficiency I would say that it's our outfield," said Candrea. "We're a little bit thin."
One of five seniors, Karissa Buchanan, will move from right to left field. She possesses the speed and instincts to cover plenty of ground in left. Buchanan will likely move up in the batting order, bringing along her career .433 On-Base Percentage, the highest returning on the team, to give the meat of the order behind her plenty of RBI opportunities.
"Karissa is ready to have a good year," said Candrea. "I think she's matured a lot and is a lot more focused. We know that she can be a great asset when things are going well. I think the key for her will be her consistency and her ability to have good at-bats all the time. She's swinging the bat better. The only thing right now is that we're going to put her in left field, which is a little different from right field, but I think she can be really good there."
The other two positions will be filled by first-time starters. Freshman Hallie Wilson will play center field.
"Hallie's a very talented freshman, both offensively and defensively," said Candrea.
In right field, senior Nicole Bryan and sophomore Alex Lavine will battle for time. If necessary, the two could provide nice right/left platoon with righty Lavine seeing the majority of at-bats against southpaws and lefty Bryan hitting against righties.
"Right field will be the key," said Candrea. "Before it all ends, we'll probably be working someone else in that area."
Arizona enters the season with two offensively gifted catchers with the ability to combine for 30-plus home runs this season. Freshman Goodacre and senior Koria should split time behind the plate with the other likely filling the DP slot.
Goodacre will be responsible for filling the power-void left by catcher Stacie Chambers, UA's all-time leader in home runs.
"Goodacre is a kid that will amaze you with her bat," said Candrea of the freshman. "She's an extremely good hitter with very good power. She's getting better every day behind the plate; the thing I like about her is she's very active and vocal and should bring some energy."
Koria has shown flashes of brilliance in her first three years in a Wildcat uniform, and now will be asked to put it together for a full season.
"Lini has finally put things together and I see her having a very productive year," said Candrea. "I think Lini's defense has really improved a lot; her arm strength has improved and I think she's finally getting to the point where she can slow the game down a little bit and make good decisions.
"We feel good that we have two really good catchers."
The Wildcats return both pitchers from a season ago. Junior Kenzie Fowler and Sophomore Shelby Babcock will each look to have bounce back seasons from a year ago. Both immensely talented power pitchers, Fowler dealt with injuries last season while Babcock sometimes struggled with her increased workload due to Fowler's health.
Stacy Iveson will work with the pitchers this season and will aim to keep the grind and pressure associated with pitching at Arizona a fun experience.
"Our pitchers are in a good frame of mind right now," said Candrea. "They're both mentally in a good position right now. They're throwing the ball with some authority and being very effective. I'm very excited about those two; I think they've worked very hard. Both of them have picked up some different pitches, but primarily we're going to go with their strengths."
Fowler, a 26-game winner last season, hopes to return to the form she displayed as a freshman when she was one of ten finalists for the USA Softball Player of the Year.
"Kenzie is feeling much better about herself," said Candrea. "She's ready to compete and not have to take the burden on her shoulders all the time."
Taking the burden off her shoulders will be Babcock, who hopes to improve on an up and down freshman year. Babcock pitched 170.2 innings as a freshman, a high number for a team's No. 2 pitcher, and struggled with her control at times. A change in Babcock's pitching windup should give her more comfort in the circle this season.
"Babcock is ready to step up and be a little more consistent this year," said Candrea. "I think that's going to be the key for her."
"We have very high expectations, but we can't just sit around talking about things, we have to get out there and do it. I think this team is committed to that purpose," he said.