Jenny Dalton-Hill sighs. It’s been 15 years, but even over the phone without seeing the look on her face, you can feel the disappointment.
“I hate 1995,” she says.
That was the year in which UCLA beat Arizona in the final of the Women’s College World Series, using a hired-gun pitcher from Australia (Tanya Harding) who arrived in mid-season and left after the Series to return home, failing to complete one-quarter’s worth of school work.
The NCAA later ruled that the Bruins had been circumventing scholarship rules that season — using soccer scholarships for softball players — and stripped UCLA of the title, also applying a one-year postseason ban, among other punishments.
That vacated championship is a big slice of Arizona-UCLA softball lore, a rivalry described to us by former UA outfielder Alison Johnsen as a “love-hate” relationship. The Cats loved the competition — because it was the best-on-best — but they hated the powder blue.
Hill, an All-American second baseman who played from 1993 to 1996, agreed with that sentiment.
“You played with a lot of them growing up and you knew them off the field as people,” she said. “And you liked them as people. But when they put that uniform on, they’re Bruins. And you don’t like Bruins.”
Hill lives in Lexington, Ky., with her husband Marc Hill and their three children (ages 12, 10 and 8). Marc, the former director of strength and conditioning at Kentucky, is now in the athletic department administration. They met at Arizona, when Marc was on the strength and conditioning staff with the Wildcats.
Jenny Hill said the chatter on Facebook between the Arizona and UCLA alums has been fast and furious in recent days as the teams meet in the best-of-three championship series. UCLA won Game 1, 6-5, in eight innings on Monday.
Naturally, that internet chatter will turn to the events from 1995.
Arizona had won the title in 1993 and 1994 … and would go on to win it in 1996. You can see the hole that 1995 leaves.
“That was the one year that made me so sad,” Dalton said. “I don’t think anyone had a career with four consecutive years with a national championship. (Third baseman) Krista Gomez and I could have had that. …
She sighs and chuckles.
“What can you do?”
She’s right about all that. No team has won four consecutive championships … and, yeah, what can you do?
At the time, all Arizona could do was take care of itself and keep moving forward.
Hill said coach Mike Candrea never dwelled on the UCLA misdeeds, before the title game (because everyone knew Harding’s presence was fishy) or afterward.
“Coach was very good at keeping us grounded and reminding us that it didn’t matter what they were doing,” Hill said. “If we had won the game, it wouldn’t have mattered. He did a good job next year of saying the past is gone.”
About that game, UCLA’s Kelly Howard had the decisive hit — a two-run home run in the fifth off Carrie Dolan — but Arizona did score twice off Harding.
(It is my fuzzy memory from covering that game that the Wildcats squandered a lot of scoring chances against Harding and were uncharacteristically shaky in the field. Hill agreed. So does this story from the L.A. Times. The NCAA would have handed down penalties on the Bruins anyway, but how much sweeter it could have been for Arizona to defeat a UCLA team that was cheating.)
“We never turned it on. We couldn’t manufacture anything,” Hill said of the offense, which had six hits off Harding.
“It’s funny. Out of all the games I ever played, I don’t remember specifics from that game at all. I just remember thinking we couldn’t pull it off.”
Until the 1995 final, Arizona had, amazingly, won all six of its postseason games by the eight-run mercy rule.
This was definitely part of the greatest stretch in UA softball history.
The Wildcats won the title in 1993, beating pitcher Lisa Fernandez and UCLA.
They were No. 1 all season in 1994, beating Cal State Northridge in the final and finishing 64-3.
In 1996, they used Hill’s torrid hitting to upset Washington, 6-4, in the final.
Arizona won again in 1997, run-ruling UCLA in the championship game.
And the Cats had the nation’s best team in 1998 — ranked No. 1 all season — before losing to Fresno State 1-0 in the championship game. Arizona’s Nancy Evans, who had thrown 38 consecutive scoreless innings, didn’t get a pitch inside enough to Nina Lindenberg, who drove it out of the park to left field.
Add it all up, and Arizona was this close to winning six consecutive national titles. But while the Wildcats can accept the results on the field in 1998, that “stolen” title in 1995 still stings.
“It hurts,” Hill said. “That left a nasty flavor.”