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UA Softball: 2013 Season Outlook
ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 has ranked the Wildcats No. 14 heading into the season, while the USA Today/NFCA poll has Arizona at No. 13.
The year ahead will hold high expectations for the Arizona softball program, which has won eight national championships and 10 Pac-12 championships and has produced 50 All-Americans.
The 2013 team is balancing youth and inexperience at the NCAA Division I level with a high level of chemistry and talent while working to find the right replacements for vacant positions.
Eight players departed from 2012, who accounted for 60 percent of the RBIs, 60 percent of the runs scored and 52 percent of the hits. Arizona’s seven returning players not only will have to step up on offense and defense, but also take leadership responsibility for the eight newcomers who are starting their Arizona softball careers.
"One of the keys to this team is its flexibility," head coach Mike Candrea said. "Many players are capable of playing multiple positions, so it’s really tough trying to solidify where we’ll be at the beginning or the end of the season."
The 2013 team, Candrea said, is coming together well: "Mentally, they are at a good place. Physically, we still have to make improvements, as this game is about performance, but the mindsets of the players are very positive and willing."
ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 ranked the Wildcats No. 14 heading into the season, while the USA Today/NFCA poll has Arizona at No. 13. Candrea and his team will have the opportunity to see how they compare when they take on their tough schedule. Of the 56 total games, 23 will be against ranked teams, including 11 games against teams ranked in the top 10.
This year will mark Candrea’s 28th season as head coach for the Arizona softball program. Candrea became the fastest coach in NCAA softball to reach 1,300 wins and now stands at 1,310 career victories. In addition to his service for Arizona softball, Candrea also managed the 2004 USA Softball team that took home the gold, and in 2008, his USA team won the silver. Candrea values the importance of consistency, as his career reflects this mentality and 2013 presents the Wildcats another opportunity to return to familiar heights.
Last season, Arizona saw its journey end at the NCAA Super Regionals to Oklahoma. The 2012 Wildcats fell short of returning to the Women’s College World Series – where, prior to 2011, Arizona advanced to the Women’s College World Series 22 times in the past 25 years.
Last year also saw the Wildcats win only 38 games, falling short of the 40-win mark for just the first time since 1986 (although the total is misrepresented, as six games in 2012 were rained out). Arizona finished the Pac-12 season with a 12-12 record and only managed to win four games on the road.
In the circle
Senior Kenzie Fowler and junior Shelby Babcock will return as established starters, while depth in rotation and relief will come from junior-transfer Estela Piñon and freshman Nancy Bowling.
Fowler ranks ninth all-time in Arizona history for innings pitched, with 652.1. Fowler will join the 100-win club if she wins 21 games in 2013. Opponents have hit .191 throughout Fowler’s career, and her career ERA is 1.95. However, Fowler is expected to miss a good amount of the season’s first half because of rehabilitation after back surgery.
Babcock is coming off a season in which she pitched 197 of the team’s 368.2 innings. In 2012, Babcock’s ERA improved to 3.02 from her freshman figure of 3.98. She recorded 21 wins last season while averaging 8.41 strikeouts per 7 innings pitched.
"The game has changed a bit now," Candrea said. "The hitters today are much better than they were 10 years ago. The lineups have gone deeper than they used to so we have to do a good job in pitching to the team’s weaknesses."
The addition of Piñon and Bowling offers depth and diversity to the pitching rotation.
Prior to joing the Wildcats, Piñon attended Yavapai Junior College, where she was the 2012 conference player of the year and MVP. In 2011, Piñon helped lead Yavapai to win the 2011 NJCAA National Championship – current Arizona assistant coach Stacy Iveson was the head coach of Yavapai in 2011, and she has experience working with Piñon.
Heading into her first year at Arizona, Bowling ranked No. 7 in ESPN’s Top 100 Softball Recruits. Her senior season saw 25 wins while posting a 0.43 ERA.
In addition to the new pitchers, the pitching staff has added a new coach as well. Former All-American Arizona pitcher Alicia Hollowell will start her first year as Arizona’s pitching coach, after being the team’s director of operations for the 2012 season. Hollowell holds the all-time UA record in victories (134), innings pitches (1,122) and strikeouts (1,768). She was also the ace in Arizona’s 2006 national championship team.
"It is huge to have Alicia Hollowell on the coaching staff," Candrea said. "Anytime you have someone working with you that has been in the circle, been through the trenches, and gone through the ups and downs, they offer guidance to handle certain situations. Hollowell becomes a knowledgeable resource for our pitchers to understand and handle the mental and emotional aspects."
"The key is going to be playing defense," Candrea said. "With the strikeouts decreasing in the game, balls are hit more in play and consistently, so your defense becomes a major part of the team’s success or downfall."
Behind the plate
Arizona will enter the season with two catchers on its roster. Returning player, sophomore Chelsea Goodacre, will look to catch the majority of Arizona’s games, as she caught 22 games in 2012. During those 22 games, Goodacre posted a .984 fielding-percentage.
Junior transfer Kelsey Rodriguez will provide offensive threat and will seek to not only play catcher, but she will also provide depth at both corner infield positions and the outfield.
"Goodacre and Rodriguez can both hit," Candrea said. "It will be the catcher that can hit consistently but also provide the best defense and chemistry with pitchers that will earn the start. Both players are capable of doing that."
Positioning the infield
After playing third base throughout her Arizona career, Senior Brigette Del Ponte will take over at shortstop because former shortstop Shelby Pendley transferred. Del Ponte has a career .946 fielding percentage at third base.
"Third base is more reaction whereas at shortstop, you have to make some decisions," Candrea said. "But Brigette has done a great job at shortstop, and I knew the transition wouldn’t be as tough because she played shortstop in high school."
Taking over at third for Del Ponte will be freshman Lauren Young. Del Ponte will be a valuable resource for Young to transition into Division I NCAA softball. Another possibility at shortstop is junior Alex Lavine, who was Arizona’s starting shortstop as a freshman. However, Lavine is more likely to play at centerfield.
"Lauren Young has stepped into third base nicely," Candrea said. "She is a really good athlete."
Second base is a toss-up between redshirt sophomore Chelsea Suitos and true freshman Mandi Perez. In 2012, Suitos possessed a .972 fielding percentage, committing only one error, in the span of 55 starts at three different positions: right field, left field and second base.
"Suitos and Perez are battling it out right now at second," Candrea said. "One day, Suitos will have the better practice, then Perez will have her moment the next day."
Whether or not Perez starts or shares time, she has made Candrea’s decision second base a tough one, reflecting Perez’s defensive ability and capability.
After starting 53 games at center field last season, sophomore Hallie Wilson will move into the infield at first base, where she has started only once in her Arizona career. As a freshman, Wilson maintained a perfect fielding percentage. Junior-transfer Rodriguez and freshman Darcy Taylor are also two players who can see innings at first base.
"We’re seeing how Hallie is adjusting to first base," Candrea said. "Darcy will be back her up, and Kelsey is another player who can play at first."
Versatility in the outfield
Continuing the theme of change and adjustment, Arizona’s outfield will be completed by the versatility of his outfielders.
Previously mentioned, junior Lavine will be the likely candidate to start at centerfield. After starting at shortstop in 2011, Lavine lost her starting role to Pendly and became a defensive replacement in the outfield for the majority of 2012 season.
"We moved Lavine to center," Candrea said. "We are trying to utilize her speed. At the corners will be newcomers. Right now, we’re looking at Courtney Rodriguez and Gabbie Sandstedt at right field.”
Freshmen Courtney Rodriguez and Sandstedt have both competed and excelled at the highest level for high school softball and has displayed their potential to play in the outfield at a consistent basis.
"We’re working Kelsey Rodriguez at left," Candrea said. "We’re working Mandi Perez and Chelsea Suitos at left as well."
Junior Kelsey Rodriguez transferred from Pacific, where she earned the Big West Freshman Player of the Year in 2011 and was named first-team all-conference in both seasons with the Tigers.
"There are a lot of interchangeable parts," Candrea said. "The players that will give us the best opportunity to play defense but also supply the offense in a consistent basis will be what will determine each player's role."
"Our power numbers are going to be a little lower right now," Candrea said. "But we still have players who can supply the power. We’re looking at Hallie Wilson, Brigette Del Ponte and Chelsea Goodacre being consistent with the power hitting."
In 2012, Wilson led Arizona in batting average with .346 as she also had an on-base percentage of .426. She hit in the leadoff spot for 51 games last season and led the team in hits with 65.
Del Ponte’s 53 career home runs ranks 8th all-time in Arizona history, as well as 10th all-time for her 195 RBI. She has hit more extra-base hits (100) than singles (80). Del Ponte’s career batting average is .328 and slugging percentage is .708.
Goodacre showed glimpses of her power last season as she recorded two, two-homer games. She hit a total of eight home runs and also showed her potential to get on base as she possessed a .351 on-base percentage.
"Getting on base will be very important for this team," Candrea said. "We need players like Clesea Suitos to show more consistency in getting on base and putting the ball on the ground. Alex Lavine changed to the left side, so we can utilize her speed."
Suitos obtained a .374 on-base percentage and recorded 48 hits. She batted at the No. 2 hole for 45 games and put together 13 multi-hit games. She also stole 13 bases in 14 attempts, which ranked third on the team.
As a defensive replacement in 2012, Lavine only got 24 at-bats, but as the team’s starting shortstop in 2011, Lavine put together a consistent .248 average while getting on-base 37 percent of the time batting from the right side, but will bat lefty in 2013.
"There will also be young players that will surprise us," Candrea said. "Right now, one of our better hitters is Kelsey Rodriguez. She sprays the ball all over the ballpark but she is consistent, gets good pitches and has a nice swing. Lauren Young has an opportunity to grow as a hitter and with time; she can be a player that plays a vital role in our offense. Mandi Perez and Gabbie Sandstedt have a lot of potential in helping this team produce runs."
"A lot of progress will happen through game experience," Candrea said. "The experienced players have a database to be comfortable with, while the younger ones will be developing that. There will be a lot of growing and maturing in 2013 through the obstacles that this team will go through by coming together."