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Pair of freshman walk-ons getting rare opportunity with Arizona softball

Alex Lavine tags out New Mexico State's Tiare Jennings on a stolen base attempt in the NCAA regionals. Photo by Mark Evans, TucsonCitizen.com

Arizona Wildcats softball coach Mike Candrea hasn’t had to worry about the shortstop position for much of the past decade — from Lovie Jung to Kristie Fox to K’Lee Arredondo.

Those are three players with some sort of All-America honors.

Now, he has two freshman walk-ons.

That’s not usually the best way to be at shortstop, and it’s the one key personnel question facing Candrea as he prepares his team for this weekend’s Super Regional against Oklahoma at Hillenbrand Stadium.

Does he go with Alex Lavine, who has started 42 of 59 games?

Or does he go with Cienega graduate Ashlee Brawley, who started 15 games, mostly late in the season?

“We’re going to let them compete this week,” Candrea said.

“Both of them want to play, both of them love playing, both are great kids, but the bottom line is I’m going to be watching them with a magnifying glass this week. I’ll see who I feel is giving me some consistency defensively more than anything.”

That’s about all he wants. Just make the routine plays. He will test them repeatedly in practice this week to see how they handle the short game, which the Sooners can be good at with a variety of lefty hitters.

At this stage of the postseason, there is little margin of error. A bobble on a bouncer, a gaffe on a grounder, might be the difference between winning and losing, between advancing to the Women’s College World Series and staying home.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way this season after Arredondo graduated. Arizona signed Chelsea Suitos from Elk Grove, Calif., but she suffered a shoulder injury in February, playing only three games.

It’s been about forever since Candrea had had to start a freshman walk-on. He surmised that Lety Pineda “wasn’t on a lot of money to start with” in 1995 before turning into a three-time All-American.

But, other than that, Candrea, whose first year at Arizona was 1986, couldn’t really think of anyone else.

“You’re asking an old man to think back 20 years,” he said. “I can’t remember what happened yesterday.”

Lavine is hitting .250 with three home runs in 96 at-bats. Brawlee is batting .270 with no extra-base hits in 37 at-bats.

Brawlee started the first game of NCAA regional play last week. Lavine started the next two. Each had at least one shaky play in the field.

Whatever happens, this has been a dream for each player.

“It’s what I have wanted to do since I saw my first Arizona game,” Lavine said.

“The first college game I ever saw was Arizona vs. ASU, and I was like, ‘I want to play for that guy.’ I was 10 years old. I just saw them killing ASU and was like, ‘I want to be on that team. They are good.”

Lavine contacted Arizona last year, and then Candrea watched her in summer ball before accepting her as a walk-on.

“When a kid contacts you about walking-on, I like to go out and watch. Sometimes, I can say, ‘You know what, you’re wasting your time,’” Candrea said.

“But I thought she could be a decent role player. She works hard. She has a great attitude. She’s a little bulldog.”

Whether it’s Lavine or Brawlee — or a combination of both — this is their time.

Suitos will return for next season, when freshman power-hitting shortstop Shelby Pendley from Albuquerque arrives.

This kind of major opportunity might not come around again for these walk-ons.

“Every day, I think I’m starting,” Lavine said. “You’re supposed to go in expecting to start, and if you don’t, you do your role and cheer on your team.”

Game 1: Friday — Arizona vs. Oklahoma, 8:30 p.m. (ESPNU)
Game 2: Saturday — Arizona vs. Oklahoma, 2 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Saturday — Arizona vs. Oklahoma, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN), if necessary

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