Arizona coach Mike Candrea, when he was recruiting pitcher Kenzie Fowler, suspected some things about her softball character. But he couldn’t know. You can never really know.
That’s the way it is for any recruit, any sport.
In Fowler’s case, she was going from Canyon del Oro High School, where she was a two-time Gatorade National Player of the Year, to Arizona, her dream school. How would she react to being the immediate ace for a storied program, playing in the best conference in the country, pitching in the biggest games, being on the postseason stage?
It turns out that what Candrea suspected all along is true.
“She’s stable,” he said after Fowler and the Wildcats turned back BYU 2-1 in the first game of a best-of-three Super Regional on Friday at Hillenbrand Stadium. (Read our game blog.)
“She doesn’t get too high. She doesn’t get too low. She has maturity for a freshman. Game maturity.”
Fowler showed that maturity during the regular season, but now the stakes are higher. Way higher. Arizona’s rightful place is in the Women’s College World Series, and it is largely up to Fowler to make sure the Cats get back to Oklahoma City.
It was a big step to win the first game of the series, although it took a seven-inning high-wire act Friday against BYU, one of the top hitting teams in the country. Fowler needed all of that maturity.
BYU had runners on base in every inning. The Cougars had runners in scoring position in four of those innings. Arizona’s defense compounded the problem by committing three errors.
Fowler faced Angeline Quiocho — one of the nation’s top sluggers with 28 home runs — four times, each time with a runner on base. Quiocho went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.
“My heart beat a little faster when she was up,” Fowler said.
But it didn’t show. Fowler twice struck out Quiocho on a change-up. In the seventh, protecting that 2-1 lead, Fowler used high heat to sit down the BYU third baseman for the second out.
Clean-up hitter Andrea Ramirez, no slouch with 19 home runs, popped out to second to the end the game. She also went 0-for-4.
“Fowler is always good,” said BYU coach Gordon Eakin. “We hear a lot of stuff that she is hurt, and I’m sure she’s got her pains, but even when she’s hurt, she’s awfully good. … You have to give credit to Fowler. She picked it up when she needed to.”
Fowler was suffering from a pinched nerve in her neck, causing her pitching hand to swell, on the final weekend of the regular season. She said in Friday’s postgame news conference that she felt fine physically, a statement that prompted some hand-clapping from Candrea.
Later, Candrea was asked which of his other pitching greats had Fowler’s calm demeanor as a freshman.
“Alicia Hollowell was pretty sure. Nancy Evans. (Susie) Parra had a little bit of that,” he said.
It’s interesting to note that Fowler, at 34-6 with a 1.24 ERA — and with 322 strikeouts in 247 2/3 innings — has had a statistically superior season to Jennie Finch‘s rookie season in 1999.
“Finch was wound up like a rubber band,” Candrea said.
Fowler is not. She allowed six hits Friday, striking out 10, walking one and wiggling out of most of the trouble.
“I felt like I was strong through all the innings,” she said. “I did feel good about my performance.”
But she didn’t sound too excited when she said that. She doesn’t get too high or too low.
And, besides, there is much more work to be done Saturday.
Arizona vs. BYU, 1:30 p.m., Hillenbrand Stadium, NCAA Super Regional
Arizona vs. BYU, 30 minutes after first game, Hillenbrand Stadium, NCAA Super Regional (if necessary)
*Winner of the best-of-three series advances to the Women’s College World Series, where it would play Tennessee in a first-round game. The Vols, seeded 15th in the tournament, upset No. 2 seed Michigan in a Super Regional.