Powerhouses meet yet again on big stage
The Women’s College World Series used to be called the UCLA Invitational.
Then Arizona arrived.
Since 1991, when an overachieving Arizona squad beat the big, bad Bruins in the championship game, it’s been the softball equivalent of Red Sox vs. Yankees, Lakers vs. Celtics, Duke vs. North Carolina. . . . Fans on both sides might even say good vs. evil.
There was a moment during the 1997 Series when UA coach Mike Candrea, after his team survived for an exhausting 14-inning, 2-0 victory over UCLA, sat down for the postgame interview and said:
“Best heavyweight fight I’ve seen since Ali and Frazier.”
That will work, too.
You will hear this week – as you have for several years – about the new parity in college softball, the rise of the SEC and the greater depth of quality teams in the postseason. We don’t come to dispute any of that.
It just makes the knockout job done by UCLA and Arizona, these college softball heavyweights, all the more impressive.
You have to go back, back, back to the 1986 Series – that’s before Arizona ace Taryne Mowatt was born – to find a final that didn’t feature at least one of these teams.
They have met for the championship six times.
“It’s been a joke among the Pac-10 teams when others complained that we didn’t have a (postseason conference) tournament,” said UA interim coach Larry Ray. “We said, ‘Yes, we do. We just host it in Oklahoma City.’ ”
Amid increased competition this decade, UCLA won national titles in 2003 and 2004. Arizona earned rings in 2001, 2006 and 2007.
Strange thing, though. UCLA and Arizona have not met since the 2001 title game – when Lindsey Collins hit a home run and Jennie Finch pitched a four-hitter for a 1-0 victory.
The teams renew postseason acquaintances Thursday in an epic first-round game in Oklahoma City.
“It used to be just these two teams had a legitimate shot at winning,” Ray said. “But all eight teams for the past several years have had a real good opportunity.”
There’s that parity talk again. It definitely wasn’t like that back in 1991.
UCLA had won three consecutive national titles, routinely made mincemeat out of Candrea’s young program and featured Lisa Fernandez, well on her way to becoming the best player in fastpitch history.
Arizona had a speedy team and a transfer pitcher from the University of Texas-Arlington who Candrea has referred to as “recruit zero” – Debby Day.
All good things flowed after her arrival, as she allowed the Wildcats, really for the first time, to battle UCLA straight-up on the field and then for southern California recruits.
“I suppose deep down we had respect for UCLA and an appreciation of their talent,” said Day, who just finished her sixth season as the head coach at Cal-Lutheran.
“But on the surface we had an absolute distaste for them – as they had for us. There was no mistake.”
Arizona and UCLA met in the second round of the 1991 Series. UA freshman Susie Parra and then Day – who had pitched 13 innings in a Series-opening win against Fresno State – shut out the Bruins over nine innings as the Cats won 1-0.
The Bruins battled back to reach the one-game final, but Arizona pounced for a 5-1 victory and its first national title. Day threw a four-hitter, allowing a Fernandez home run in the fourth inning.
“I remember after it happened, (catcher) Jodi (Miller) came out and I said, ‘It’s OK, she can’t come up four more times,’ ” Day said. “It was the absolute game you dream of when you’re a little kid.”
The rivalry was never the same.
The Bruins came back in 1992 to beat Arizona in the final, but Candrea now had his hooks into the nation’s best recruits and was building a dynasty that surpassed UCLA in the 1990s – especially when a scholarship scandal wiped out the Bruins’ 1995 national championship, won over the Wildcats.
“We overachieved and snuck in and won that national championship,” Candrea once told me about that 1991 title. “That kind of woke up the rest of the country because up until then, they didn’t take Arizona real seriously.
“And then pretty soon we started beating up on some people and, next thing you know, we had some real good recruiting classes. UCLA, back then, just kind of sat there, and everyone came to them.
“All of sudden, kids had some different options.”
Those kids, given the new parity and rapid growth of the sport, have maybe four or five times the number of options now.
And yet it almost always comes back to UCLA and Arizona.
Thursday will be just like old times.
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:
> 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.
Arizona and UCLA have played at the Women’s College World 12 times, including six meetings in the final. The Bruins won the first two games (both when the Series was held in Sunnyvale, Calif.), but the Wildcats have dominated since then.
Not counting the 1995 game, which was wiped off the books because of NCAA violations, the Wildcats have won the past six postseason meetings and eight of the past nine. The teams, which are near regulars at the Series, oddly have played only once since 1997:
2001: Arizona 1, UCLA 0 (title game)
1997: Arizona 2, UCLA 0 (14 innings); Arizona 10, UCLA 2 (title game, five innings)
1996: Arizona 4, UCLA 0
1995: UCLA 4, Arizona 2 (title game)*
1994: Arizona 5, UCLA 2
1993: Arizona 1, UCLA 0 (title game)
1992: UCLA 1, Arizona 0 (title game)
1991: Arizona 1, UCLA 0; Arizona 5, UCLA 1 (title game)
1989: UCLA 3, Arizona 0
1988: UCLA 5, Arizona 0
*Title vacated because of NCAA violations