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Arizona Wildcats head to softball Super Regional, playing best ball of season

Karissa Buchanan slapped her way to a .500 average in the NCAA regional. Photo by Andy Morales, TucsonCitizen.com

There were times when the Arizona Wildcats softball team was a lock to make it to the Women’s College World Series.

Those days are gone. They have been gone. They’re gone for Arizona. They’re gone for UCLA, which didn’t even make it out of an NCAA regional this year. They’re gone for everybody.

That Arizona would even make it out of this weekend’s four-team regional wasn’t a given. The Cats, for long stretches of the season, vexed coach Mike Candrea. He saw his team kind of “segregated” — his word. UA’s pitching, at times, was abysmal. Arizona was merely .500 in the Pac-12.

But Candrea never stopped pushing buttons. The postseason is a new season.

The best thing you can say about Arizona right now — and it’s a very good thing to say about Arizona right now — is that the Wildcats are playing their best softball of the season.

“Probably the weekend I have been waiting to see all year,” Candrea said after his team won an NCAA regional at Hillenbrand Stadium with an 8-3 victory over Notre Dame on Sunday.

“We finally started putting some things together. I thought we pitched well this weekend. We had some timely hitting this weekend. … Overall, the energy of this team and the focus is something that, dammit, I wish they had had it in February and March and April.

“It’s taken so long for them to get to this point, but I’ll take it. Right now, we’re in a good place.”

Next weekend, Arizona (38-17) will be in a different place — at least physically. The Wildcats have to travel to play Oklahoma, the team that eliminated the Wildcats in last year’s Super Regional in Tucson. The Sooners still have star pitcher Keilani Ricketts. They can still knock the ball all over the park and over the fence. They are, deservedly, seeded fourth overall in the NCAA tournament.

Arizona will take its new “Why Not Us?” rallying cry to Norman and take its chances.

“It’s been talked about a lot,” senior second baseman Kristen Arriola said about of the rematch with Oklahoma. “We really look forward to going into there. We know it’s going to be a challenge, but we’re up to it.”

One of the positive changes Candrea has made was moving slap-hitting senior outfielder Karissa Buchanan to the top of the order. She was hot late in the season, and carried that into the regional, where she was 5 of 10. Candrea is able to use her speed to be more aggressive with the short game at the top of the order.

That’s been the word with the pitching staff, too — aggressive. As in, throw strikes. Challenge batters.

Shelby Babcock and Kenzie Fowler combined to walk two batters in three regional games, and Babcock’s one walk in a complete-game effort Sunday came after she didn’t get the benefit of two consecutive pitches called balls that replays indicated were probably strikes.

Shelby Babcock allowed seven hits in seven innings Sunday. Photo by Andy Morales, TucsonCitizen.com

Aggressive? Babcock had this to say about how Arizona padded the lead to 8-3 in the top of the seventh after back-to-back solo home runs from Chelsea Goodacre and Jessica Spigner:

“It pumped me up so much. It just gave me so much fire to just go out and shove it.”

Arizona jumped on Notre Dame in the second inning Sunday with a big two-out rally. After a walk, the Wildcats slapped and scratched out six singles, good for four runs. Then, the Cats unloaded four solo homers the rest of the game.

Everybody in the lineup had a hit. With Buchanan getting on base at the top, Brigette Del Ponte hitting ropes from the third spot and Arriola hot from the No. 8 spot, Arizona isn’t giving the opposing pitcher time to breathe.

“I think that was a key for us,” Candrea said. “If you look through the three games, we have production one through nine.”

Earlier this month, Candrea said he felt some players were “checking out.” One of the turning points was meeting individually with some players on the UCLA road trip a couple of weekends ago.

The hasty promotion of former UA ace Alicia Hollowell from director of operations to assistant coach in the wake of Larry Ray’s suspension has been helpful, with Candrea and the two pitchers raving about Hollowell’s positive energy.

Having former Arizona star Terry Francona speak to the team in the last week of the regular season was another right button to push. Candrea said the players took Francona’s message — respect the game, care for your teammates — to heart.

It’s all added up to this high-water mark of the season, this Arizona team ready to take on a Sooners team that stands, prominently, in the Cats’ way.

“I’m very, very pleased with the performance this team gave us this weekend,” Candrea said. “This weekend, there were a lot of kids that I saw confidence in their eyes.”

Related link: Arizona-Notre Dame game blog

Arizona celebrates its NCAA regional championship. Photo by Andy Morales, TucsonCitizen.com

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