Mike Candrea watches the NCAA tournament selection show from his home Sunday night. Photo by Anthony Gimino, TucsonCitizen.com
The Arizona softball team, after an uneven season and facing a difficult path to the Women’s College World Series, will enter the NCAA tournament with plenty of questions.
Coach Mike Candrea wants his players to consider only one.
“Why not us?”
Arizona is seeded 13th in the postseason and will be host a four-team, double-elimination regional at Hillenbrand Stadium beginning Friday.
WAC regular season champion Hawaii is expected to provide the toughest competition for Arizona. Notre Dame will take on Hawaii at 2:30 p.m. Friday, followed by Arizona vs. North Dakota State at 5 p.m. ESPNU will telecast all the regional games from Tucson.
If Arizona advances to the Super Regional, it likely will have to travel at play at fourth-seeded Oklahoma, the team that eliminated the Wildcats in this round of last year’s tournament. The Sooners still have pitching star Keilani Ricketts.
But back to that question: Why not us?
Said senior outfield Karissa Buchanan: “It’s a great question.”
Candrea, always searching for a postseason theme, came across that one last week after assistant coach Stacy Iveson showed the team ESPN’s “30 for 30″ special on the 2004 Boston Red Sox, which rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the New York Yankees.
Pitcher Curt Schilling helped lead the “Why not us?” rallying cry for those Red Sox, which went on to win the World Series under manager Terry Francona, a former Arizona Wildcat star outfielder.
After the team watched the video last Wednesday, Candrea arranged for Francona to walk through the clubhouse door.
“It was awesome,” Buchanan said.
“Watching him on the video and then seeing him walk through the door, it was like, ‘Wow.’ We were all surprised. It was really cool.”
Francona, who has relocated to Tucson following his dismissal from the Red Sox after last season, talked to the softball team for about 30 minutes.
“It was basically about respect the game you’re playing, whether it’s baseball or softball,” said Francona, who had two daughters play softball at North Carolina.
“You’re there for your teammates and you all have to be going in the same direction. You’re not pointing fingers. … I let them ask questions, and it was fun for me, too.”
Arizona finished the regular season at 35-17 overall and 12-12 in the Pac-12, tied for fourth. The team batting average of .298 is only seventh among the nine teams in the league. The team ERA of 2.95 is only fifth.
There is seemingly less reason to believe in these Wildcats entering the postseason than any UA squad since before Arizona won its first of eight national titles in 1991.
“One of the challenges we’ve had all year is getting our players, in my eyes, to really believe they can get it done,” Candrea said.
“I think they faked it pretty good at times, but I want kids who are going to go out there and compete, lay it all on the table. I think the big thing about this game is you have to care a lot about it.
“Right now, today, this team cares a little bit more about this game than they did two weeks ago. And, so, I’m optimistic that you’re going to see their best effort put forward.”
So, Candrea will continue to ask: Why not us?
“Do we have some dents in our armor? Do we go into postseason where I’m feeling really good about everything? Probably not? But it is what it is right now, and we’ll do our part to bring that all together and maybe get some kids to overachieve and get back to that competitive mode.”
NCAA REGIONAL SCHEDULE
Game 1 — Friday, 2:30 p.m.: Hawaii vs. Notre Dame
Game 2 — Friday, 5 p.m., Arizona vs. North Dakota State
Game 3 — Saturday, 3 p.m.: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner
Game 4 — Saturday, 5:30 p.m.: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser
Game 5 — Saturday, 8 p.m.: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 winner
Game 6 — Sunday, 2:30 p.m.: Game 3 winner vs. Game 5 winner
Game 7 — Sunday, 5 p.m.: Repeat Game 6, if necessary