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No joy in Tucson as Cats hit the road

Citizen Staff Writer

When coach Mike Candrea began taking Arizona to the Women’s College World Series 21 years ago, the event was held in an out-of-the-way place in northern California.

Not San Francisco. Not even San Jose. Nearby Sunnyvale.

The venue for the event? If you’ve ever been to the Sports Park on the Northwest Side, you have the right image in your head.

“A four-field setup. Very basic,” Candrea remembered.

The infields in Sunnyvale had such a crown – designed to promote rain runoff into foul territory – that Candrea, standing in the third-base coaching box, had a hard time seeing plays at first base over the rise of the field.

“You couldn’t see the feet of the first baseman,” he said.

Let’s just say that two decades ago, college softball was just a half step up from the summer youth leagues.

Not exactly first class.

Since then – and Tucson can certainly attest to this – college softball has become one of the most visible women’s sports in the NCAA.

If the Wildcats navigate through the 2009 postseason – which begins at 1 p.m. Tucson time Friday in Louisville – they will end up in a world-class facility in Oklahoma City, in a game on ESPN, probably playing a team from the SEC.

That right there – the venue, the blanket coverage from the worldwide leader in sports and the rise of a powerful conference – are three reasons why softball has gone relatively mainstream in recent years.

Which makes it so frustrating when the NCAA continues to nickel and dime the sport.

“That will always be the case for this sport, no matter what,” Candrea said.

The local sports outrage of the moment is Arizona being sent to Louisville for a four-team regional. Nobody would appreciate having postseason home games more than Arizona fans.

The Wildcats have led the nation in attendance nine of the past 16 seasons. The school averaged a school-record average of 2,458 fans this year.

But the NCAA has 64 spots to fill in the softball postseason, including automatic qualifying spots to smaller Eastern conferences, whose teams have as much shot of winning the World Series as Harvard does the BCS football championship.

The NCAA is a slave to geography in arranging the regional sites, preferring to send one Western team east, rather than send three Eastern teams west. Save a few bucks on air fare.

Softball deserves better.

“From a coaching standpoint . . . I don’t worry about it,” Candrea said. “I just worry about getting the team prepared and going wherever you’re going. Like I tell the kids, at least you’re playing.”

Football and basketball have to pay the freight for everything else, but you would think there would be some loose change in the NCAA’s couch cushions from its TV megadeals.

The NCAA is in the midst of an 11-year, $6 billion deal with CBS to televise the men’s basketball tournament. The NCAA and ESPN reached an agreement in the fall on a four-year, $500 million deal for the rights to televise four of the five BCS bowl games, including the title game.

But, apparently, it is too much to ask for the NCAA to send Cal State Fullerton and San Diego State a little farther to Tucson rather than have them play in a regional at Arizona State.

The Sun Devils are seeded one spot below ninth-seeded Arizona and finished 3 1/2 games behind the Wildcats in the Pac-10 standings.

But ASU, not Arizona, gets the home regional because of geography.

Nickels and dimes.

Candrea shrugs.

“I’m too old to fight the battle anyway,” he said.

Someone asked me the other day about my favorite memories across two decades or so of being a sports reporter/columnist in Tucson. My answer was that there were too many to mention, but that, without question, I would rather cover softball than anything else.

Part of that is because the sport is charmingly small. You rarely find oversize egos. You find athletes appreciative of their opportunities.

There are chances to tell untold stories. But the sport isn’t as small as the NCAA makes it out to be this time of year. It’s a shame there is no softball at Hillenbrand Stadium this weekend.

Anthony Gimino’s e-mail:




UA’s games in the Louisville Regional won’t be on TV, but will be on 1290 AM. Go to www.tucsoncitizen.com/ua_softball for updates.

Friday – Game 1: ARIZONA (41-14) vs. Tennessee-Martin (38-22), 1 p.m. Game 2: Louisville (47-9) vs. Purdue (29-18), 3 p.m.

Saturday – Game 3: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 7 a.m. Game 4: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 9 a.m. Game 5: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner, noon

Sunday – Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 11 a.m. Game 7: Repeat, if needed, 1 p.m.

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