With ESPN televising the battles with the top college softball teams trying to make it to the College World Series, it appears the new sport for the local print media type is to question whether Mike Candrea is still the right coach for the Wildcats.
Excuse me while I get up off the floor. The mere fact that ESPN is even spending valuable airtime on softball (at any level) can be directly attributed to Candrea.
With that out of the way, let’s take a real (and lengthy) look at Arizona softball more closely. But, in order to do that, you need to look at the general health and issues with youth and high school softball.
Candrea, himself, has stated that major colleges can no longer wait until a high school or youth player has proven herself with a few national competitions under her belt. The feeling is, if you are an unsigned senior, then you may only be available for junior colleges or smaller D-I or D-II, D-III or NAIA programs because the “cream” has already been spoken for and that’s a shame.
It was easier to know what you had with a 17-year-old but it is now a guessing game when looking at a player who is barely 14. Candrea was the best at getting those older girls and he was away from the program when the game slowly shifted to younger and younger talent.
Candrea and his coaches are now recruiting that younger talent. They have been seen on the local recruiting trail evaluating freshmen athletes and this cannot be good for other college programs. Arizona is no longer waiting for kids to come to them – they are now going out to get them.
True, some local top athletes feel hurt because they were part of the group that was overlooked by Arizona in the recent past because they were too young but opportunities have been opened up to them elsewhere.
But, recruiting young players has been problematic for college softball programs that are serious about their sport because, until recently, pitching distances were different and some of the equipment and participation rules were geared for an age long ago passed by.
The pitching distance for 16U club and high school was only 40 feet up until a few years ago. The college distance is 43 feet. Pitchers such as current Arizona pitcher Kenzie Fowler and ASU pitcher Dallas Escobedo dominated (terrorized) high school and youth batters at that shorter distance.
17 strikeouts a game was very common in that era and only a few pitchers remain with that sort of domination at 43 feet like Mesa Mountain View senior Valerie Kaff, who is third in the nation with 431 strikeouts but still had seven losses, and Scottsdale Horizon sophomore Tamara “T” Statman who finished with 286.
Kaff is on her way to Michigan State and – get this – Statman is coming to Arizona.
There may never be another Jennie Finch to take the circle in college. The pitchers who come in to college programs now must learn to control a game with changeups and other junk pitches and work on getting outs via contact. It is now a hitting game.
And, how could a coach guess on the game-speed of a 16-year-old when the governing body of softball itself (Amateur Softball Association) forbid then from wearing metal cleats at that age? Thankfully, that rule has been changed and it may need to be changed again to allow metal cleats at the 14U and 12U levels.
Also, youth baseball is way ahead of the game as far as exposing their talent to college coaches and this one can be partially blamed on parents and coaches. Youth and high school baseball players often play for several different teams in the summer in many different leagues with little to no questions asked.
Softball? It would be a scandal for a player to even think about playing for another team in a tournament and many softball coaches don’t even allow it. Play for another team even for one weekend and you might suffer the wrath of various message boards.
ASA, itself, is not doing well in Southern Arizona for the age groups above 12. What was once a strong recruiting field has been relegated to a few great Tucson-area teams having to play in Phoenix or in California with many top players actually driving to Phoenix to play for Phoenix teams.
Much has been made about former Canyon del Oro and the 2012 Arizona State Player of the Year Kayla Bonstrom getting away and playing for Stanford where she was recently named All-Conference as a freshman.
I know Bonstrom personally and she is a great kid and one of the best players I have ever seen. I would have loved to see her in a Wildcat uniform but there was an early indicator (which I will not go into) that showed that she was not going to play here.
Forget about how much scholarship money may have been available for Bonstrom, in 20 years she will look back with a Stanford degree and I say that as an Arizona alum. Besides, Arizona’s “failures” this year have nothing to do with Bonstrom playing in California. That is too easy and lazy.
Salpointe standout and All-Arizona player Tairia Mims played for UCLA. I think we won a few games with her playing in California.
For my money, the academic failures attributed to pitching “great” Amanda Williams set in motion a domino effect that brought about a recruiting and pitching rotation disaster that ultimately led to Arizona having Shelby Babcock as their ace in the circle.
Although Taryne Mowatt was able to help stall the pitching bump created by Williams, the injury to Kenzie Fowler brought it back quickly.
This was also supposed to be Bri Matthews’ freshman year at Arizona but she committed suicide during her sophomore season at Mater Dei High School. While the club softball community knew Babcock was not PAC-10 pitcher material, the pending arrival of Matthews was seen as a major recruiting victory.
Like ASU’s Escobedo, Matthews rarely played her age group and dominated much older batters when she was just 10.
Had Fowler remained healthy there might have been some competition for pitching time from Matthews this year. Freshman pitcher Nancy Bowling and incoming pitcher Michelle Floyd might have gone elsewhere to play under that scenario because there would have been no playing time available. But we have just the opposite.
I started off talking about how Candrea put softball on the map and it is now on ESPN. Well, like Lute Olson before him, Candrea forced the rest of the league to catch up. But, unlike Olson, Candrea also forced the country and, some might say, the world to catch up.
With all his clinics, videos, championships, Olympic medals and ambassadors such as Finch, Candrea created parity in the game. All of those standouts at ASU were not created by Clint Myers – they came to his doorstep partially due to what was happening in Tucson.
You cannot overlook the Finch factor either. Mia Hamm caused an explosion in girls wanting to play youth soccer and Finch did the same for softball but that is now fading.
So, where does this year lead us? The year that a few beat writers have called a failure?
Alabama won the NCAA title last year but they will not be playing for the title this year. Since college athletics is now totally geared towards postseason, Alabama and Arizona are in the same boat. Imagine that.
Take the case of the Stanford basketball team of 2004. They were 29-1 and the top seed in the NCAA tournament yet they lost in the second round while 9-seeded Arizona lost in the first round and the local “fans” and media went nuts – not on Stanford but on Arizona and Lute Olson. Which team recovered?
Candrea, again like Olson, will reload. This year was not so much as a failure but a wakeup call as far as recruiting goes and Candrea has acknowledged that. Players will transfer in and out like they do at all programs. The trick is to make the right guesses.
As far as softball goes, I trust Candrea’s guesses.
NOTE: I coached softball for 16 years, many of those at the highest club level with the Desert Thunder program. I helped coach against Escobedo, Matthews and Babcock when they were younger. Also, Candrea was one of my college professors back when Arizona required coaches to teach a class.
Now, I’m just a dad and a writer, questioning other coaches….