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The fire still burns: Candrea eyes changes after Series-less season

Oklahoma celebrates at Hillenbrand Stadium after eliminating Arizona at an NCAA Super Regional. ESPN3 screenshot

It was 5:30 p.m., and almost all was quiet at Hillenbrand Stadium.

ESPN personnel were packing up equipment. The clean-up crew was patrolling the grounds. The Arizona sports information staff was wrapping up the unhappy news.

Wildcats softball coach Mike Candrea had just left the stadium, walking across the outfield grass, past the eight national championship banners, past the spot on the right field wall that marks all 22 of the team’s appearances in the College World Series.

There won’t be any additions to those tributes in the offseason.

There won’t be any more Arizona softball this season.

“It’s agonizing,” Candrea said following a 5-2 loss to Oklahoma on Saturday that eliminated the Wildcats from the best-of-three NCAA Super Regional. “It’s agonizing.”

Candrea heads off into the offseason to do whatever it is that coaches who aren’t going to the College World Series do. He has little experience in that. None since 1987. But if there is one thing Candrea is promising, it’s change.

A change of culture. A change in attitude. A change in personality. Change in personnel, beyond the loss of catcher Stacie Chambers, outfielders Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler. and backup second baseman Victoria Kemp.

“I was pretty blunt with the kids,” Candrea said.

“I basically told them that we’ve got way too much dead weight on this team, and that is going to change. If you can’t help us to compete for a national championship, then we need to take a look at your future and what you’re doing. I think sometimes this game has become a social gathering. …

“My job is to compete for national championships, and I really didn’t feel like we did enough this year to really earn the right to play well when it came down to crunch time.”

And they didn’t.

Oklahoma did.

The Wildcats showed some grit in putting near-constant pressure on Oklahoma ace Keilani Ricketts, but they were 0-for-17 in two games with runners in scoring position and failed to break through until Lini Koria hit a two-run homer with two outs in the seventh on Saturday.

“We got beat by a better team,” Candrea said.

He hasn’t had to say that much in the past couple of decades or so.

This was just a unique season in which he reached deep and repeatedly into his bag of motivational tricks … and got a lot of blank stares in return. The team put in the required practice work, he said, but there was far too little of the “above and beyond” mindset that usually defines championship teams.

He called this team “too nice.” It was active in the community, it was one of his best academic teams, but it lacked the internal fire of many of Candrea’s teams, certainly of his championship teams.

“I was really pissed that it takes our crowd to get our kids going. You know what I mean?” Candrea said.

“I told them, we owe an apology to these fans. You guys drew more fans here this year than any team that has every played here. … I told them we owe them a hell of a lot more than what we were giving.”

He told a story about how some of his early teams at Arizona would have three-on-three Wiffle ball competitions at the end of fall practice.

“I remember every time I did that, I had to break up fights. They were playing to win,” Candrea said.

“These kids …,” he added, his voice trailing off.

What Candrea wants now are photos and videos of the Sooners celebrating on Arizona’s field, in Arizona’s dugout, of Oklahoma players running out of that dugout to shower coach Patty Gasso with ice water.

How would having to look at those pictures every day be for offseason motivation for Arizona? Would that light a fire?

“Sometimes you have to have this happen to really appreciate not having it,” said Candrea, who will meet individually with the players on Tuesday.

No doubt, Arizona has had it good for a lot of years. Perhaps too good. Perhaps there has been a sense of what ailed the men’s basketball program late in the Lute Olson years — a sense of entitlement, the sense that “Arizona” on the front of the jersey was enough.

“This season has taught me a lot as a person,” Schutzler said.

“You really get what you deserve. If you put in the work and you struggle, then you are going to succeed. I think we just didn’t put in the work in the offseason and during the season every day that we needed to.

“That resonates with me, and I know for the rest of my life, if I want to go places and I want to be successful, I’m really going to have to work hard, because that’s what it takes.”

The last time a Candrea-coached Arizona team failed to make the World Series was 1987. His personal streak of 21 consecutive appearances is over. (The Wildcats also failed to advance in 2004 when Candrea was coaching the U.S. Olympic team and Larry Ray was the interim head coach. Ray took the team to the Series in 2008.)

Candrea is 54 now. College softball has changed from when he was 34, from when he was 44. For most of the 1990s, Arizona was really threatened by only one team — UCLA. Those days are gone. There are far more good teams, far more schools and conferences who have invested in softball.

He said when he reflects on this season, he’ll think: “I didn’t do my job. I take it personally. That, I think is what drives me.

“I will say one thing right now,” Candrea added.

“When I don’t have the drive and the burning desire to be the best, then it’s time for me to retire and go play golf every day and let that game beat me up.”

He still has that burning championship desire. Can he find players who do too?

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