When it comes to motivational strategies, Arizona Wildcats softball coach Mike Candrea is the king.
He once promised his team that he would shave his head if his team won the College World Series. It did, and he did.
His postseason theme in 1997? “Operation Victory.” He had T-shirts made with the players’ initials forming a flying V formation. Arizona won the national title.
Before his team’s 2006 championship, he used lessons he found in a book at the airport: “Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game.”
He once compared his team’s postseason run to a car race. His players, as they vanquished opponents, would smash toy cars with the end of their bats, sending parts flying through the dugout. Arizona won it all that year, 1994.
Simply, and quite effectively, after the game that preceded the 1993 title game, he went around in a postgame circle and pointed to every player. “I believe in you,” he said, moving on to the next player. “And I believe in you, and I believe in you …”
Inspirational videos, inspirational sayings, inspirational stories, inspirational themes … Candrea seemingly has an endless bag of tricks.
Until, maybe, this year.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said after Saturday’s game.
“I’ve yelled at them. I’ve patted them on the back. I’ve screamed and hollered. It’s just not sinking in right now. It really comes down to them now.”
The Wildcats lost 6-3 to Cal on Saturday, ending the regular season on a two-game losing streak. The game was filled with a lot of what has ailed Arizona down the stretch — shoddy defense, impatient hitting and shaky pitching.
Kenzie Fowler took the loss, allowing 12 hits and six runs — five earned — in six innings.
Arizona finished the regular season with a 40-16 record, 11-10 in the Pac-10. Candrea said he expects that the Wildcats will be sent on the road when the NCAA announces the 64-team postseason field at 7 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
“We didn’t help ourselves,” he said of losing two of three games to Cal.
The bigger picture is whether this team has what it takes to make a long run in the postseason.
Fowler, as she proved last season, is ace material, capable of carrying a team into the championship round of the World Series.
Senior outfielder Brittany Lastrapes is one of the college’s finest hitters. Senior catcher Stacie Chambers is tied for the most home runs in school history (85). Sophomore third baseman Brigette Del Ponte has 37 home runs in two seasons. Senior outfielder Lauren Schutzler is a .400 hitter.
But the raw talent isn’t the issue.
Candrea clearly is frustrated that his team has been resistant to all his attempts to light a fire, to have a championship-level competitiveness. Recently, he had his players fill out evaluations of themselves and each other to gauge the temperature of the team.
“I’m searching for answers right now,” he said.
“Some of it is maturity, some of it is personality. Some of it is we don’t have someone to ruffle feathers. We don’t really have a CEO — a Chief Energy Officer. We just don’t have someone. It’s crazy.”
Candrea calls this a “feel-good” team. The players would rather feel good then to be that person who yells or scolds other teammates when things need to be done right. Last season, senior shortstop K’Lee Arredondo was that person.
“I think at this point, it’s like, what can we say sometimes?” Lastrapes said. “Everyone knows what they need to do. We’ve said it over and over again. So, we just have to kind of do it now.”
Arizona certainly has played stretches of high-quality softball this season. UA teams of the past have entered postseason without momentum … and then got hot.
It was about this time of year in 2006 when Candrea was bemoaning his team’s lack of maturity and chemistry — and then pitcher Alicia Hollowell (who was one of those CEOs Candrea was talking about) carried the team to the national title.
So, Arizona can, somehow, still flip that switch.
“The good part, like I told them, we have a few days to get ourselves physically, mentally and emotionally ready to move forward,” Candrea said.
“We’re going to find out a lot about this team — what kind of fight, what kind of passion, what kind of heart, what kind of desire they have. …
“Now, it’s just amounts to, let’s see what it’s like when their backs are totally against the wall.”