Wildcats make it a banner season for Ray
Larry Ray could never avoid what wasn’t there. He would go to Arizona softball practice, or a game, look at the outfield wall . . . and experience that wretched feeling all over again.
Every day. For four long years.
Arizona has painted on the outfield wall, in right-center field, the years of its Women’s College World Series appearances. They start in 1988 and go uninterrupted through 2003. There’s no physical gap, but the years skip a beat, jumping to 2005.
That’s when Ray was serving as interim head coach, as Mike Candrea was off coaching the U.S. Olympic team. Ray led Arizona to a 55-6 record, a Pac-10 title and a No. 1 ranking.
But all that seemed to matter was one horrible day at a postseason regional when Arizona, trying to recover from the shock of NCAA batting champion Autumn Champion’s torn ACL a day earlier, lost twice and didn’t make it to the World Series.
“It’s been four years of coming out here and looking at it, and how it was a direct reflection on me,” said Ray, filling in again this season for Candrea.
“I have always looked at it. Always. It sat with me. That is why this is so sweet.”
The sweetness was a hard-fought and completely nerve-racking 5-2 victory Saturday over Oklahoma in the third and deciding game of a super-regional at Hillenbrand Stadium.
One of the happiest pieces of news from this UA athletic year is that the Wildcats are going back to the World Series – and Ray is leading them. He deserves it.
He didn’t have to say a word Saturday to fully reveal for the first time the depth of the impact from that day in 2004.
It was in his eyes and in his choked-up voice, and the outpouring of emotion even surprised his wife, Dawn.
“I wasn’t expecting that. He is pretty low key, so you can tell by that how much this really meant to him,” she said. “As a family, this is huge for us.”
Candrea was traveling with the Olympic team Saturday while UA was playing Oklahoma, receiving messages or using the Internet on his cell phone for updates.
The Wildcats lost 2-0 in Saturday’s first game – “it was déjà vu all over again,” Ray said, fearing a repeat of the 2004 postseason – before slugging to victory in the final game.
“The first thing I felt was jubilation for Larry,” Candrea said in a phone interview.
“Larry does an outstanding job, and it’s just nice to see him – I don’t know if I should say it this way – get that monkey off his back.”
That’s exactly how Ray put it, too, although he added that it was a “big, big” monkey off his back.
It was so bad in 2004 that after losing in the postseason, Ray couldn’t even leave his house. Couldn’t watch any more games. Couldn’t do much of anything.
“It was just devastating. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I didn’t even go to the store for like a week and a half,” he said.
“Eventually, I said, ‘Hey, I have to get over this. I’m a grown man, and you have to be able to take the good with the bad.’ And there is so much good I have experienced with this program.”
Ray has been with Candrea almost every step of the way, starting when Candrea came to Tucson in 1986. Ray was there in 1991 when UA won its first NCAA title. He was there for more championships in 1993 and 1994.
He left after the 1995 season to become the head coach at Florida, which was starting a new program. He went 169-106 in four seasons of competition, eventually returning to UA in 2002.
For all the good that Ray has done at Arizona, it always came back, thoroughly unfairly, to that one lousy day in 2004.
Most teams would love to have Arizona’s talent, but that doesn’t mean Ray was able to sit back and set this season on cruise control.
With Candrea gone, Ray has had to operate with a short-handed coaching staff. And when pitching coach Nancy Evans left in December, Ray suddenly had no full-time assistants.
The team promoted volunteer Dave Feinberg to a paid position and brought in Gale Bundrick to work with the pitchers.
So, the players had to adjust to a new boss, a new hitting coach (Feinberg) and a new pitching coach. How’s that for an increased degree of difficulty?
It might have taken about three-quarters of the season, but it is to Ray’s credit that he corralled everyone onto the same page in time for Arizona to be playing its best ball at the most important time.
Now, win or lose at the Series, Ray will never have to go to Hillenbrand Stadium again and be mocked by the year that doesn’t appear.
Finally, 2004 is over. There will be a 2008 on the wall.
SOFTBALL COLLEGE WORLD SERIES THURSDAY
> UA (38-17) vs. UCLA (47-7), 6 p.m.
> Arizona State (58-5) vs. Alabama (53-6), 4 p.m.
> Texas A&M (51-7) vs. Va. Tech (46-16), noon
> Florida (64-2) vs. La.-Lafayette (48-13), 10 a.m.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
NUMBER OF THE DAY
Combined NCAA titles by UCLA (10) and Arizona (8)
Read Gimino’s notebook, 5C