Power Rankings: Arizona's new legacy
It can be tricky untangling past from present when it comes to softball at the University of Arizona, where today's players were born and raised in the shadows cast by eight national championships that preceded them.
In some cases, almost literally so.
An eighth grader when former Arizona All-American, United States Olympian and current assistant coach Caitlin Lowe helped the Wildcats win the second of back-to-back national championships in 2007, Hallie Wilson grew up just a few houses down the street from where Lowe grew up in Tustin, Calif., a hotbed of softball in Orange County.
"Every time she got a new bat, I got that bat," Wilson recalled. "She was always my idol. To know that I got to follow in her footsteps as a Foothill [High School] Knight, as an Arizona Wildcat is probably one of the coolest things."
For Wilson, now a junior and an offensive cornerstone of her own, and other Wildcats, following in those footsteps is also a challenge.
Like all but one player on Arizona's roster, the lone exception being fifth-year pitcher Kenzie Fowler, Wilson has yet to experience the Women's College World Series. After Arizona lost to UCLA in the 2010 championship series, it twice failed to make it out of NCAA tournament super regionals against Oklahoma and last season suffered the indignity of exiting the postseason short of even a regional final on top of a seventh-place finish in the Pac-12.
Only in recent years did senior classes begin passing through Arizona without winning at least one national championship. And it has been nearly 30 years since a class graduated without going to the World Series.
It will be difficult enough for this Arizona team to deal with Arizona State, Oregon, UCLA and Washington in the present, let alone trying to round the bases with the extra weight of all that history draped over their shoulders.
"I think that's been one of the things that has been kind of a challenge the last few years," coach Mike Candrea said. "The game has changed so much, There is so much more parity. I think there are times when that [history] becomes not a positive influence but a negative influence because they never feel like they're going to be able to live up to the legacy. So we've kind of taken the pressure off of them and said, 'What kind of legacy do you want to leave?'"
Not only does Candrea have more national championships to his credit than any other coach in college softball at the moment; his eight titles are just one fewer than all other active coaches combined. Yet while reminders of that success abound, he said he has tried to lessen their omnipresence. His lineup cards that once included mention of the titles are now blank. The team wears wrist bands with core values selected by the players, things like competition, consistency, respect and work ethic.
History, legacy and tradition were not among the selections. Those things are out of their control.
It is early yet, sure, but this season's 14-1 start looks different than last season's 10-5 or the 11-4 start a season before that.
The pitching that was in such short supply in recent years, both in quantity and quality, is abundant on both counts. Fowler has returned in limited duty from the back injury that forced her to miss last season, but it's Estela Pinon, Nancy Bowling and Shelby Babcock who are carrying the load. All returnees who struggled to varying degrees in the past, those three are 10-1 with 79 strikeouts and 21 walks in 58 innings. They teamed up to beat Texas A&M and Nebraska in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic this past weekend after beating Alabama twice a weekend earlier.
The offense couldn't solve Missouri freshman Tori Finucane in the season's lone loss, a 2-0 setback in Cathedral City, but with the addition of Kellie Fox (6 HR, 22 RBIs, 1.057 SLG), the lineup trails only Arizona State's in slugging percentage among Pac-12 teams. The defense has committed just six errors.
Arizona's chance of making it to Oklahoma City depends not on the players who gave the program its history but those who are there now. For the first time in a few years, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing.
"The pressure from the tradition, I would say it's there, but it's not something that we dwell on," Wilson said. "We know that we're good. What we do -- we're good at what we do. And we know that if we're going to fulfill that tradition or become a part of the legacy, it's not going to be because the team from five years ago did it. It's going to be because we did it. So we're not really worried about living up to their standards. We're living up to our own."
Now on to the rankings.
1. Arizona State (17-0)
At least the Sun Devils didn't create drama where there shouldn't have been any. While many top teams gathered a few hundred miles to the west in Cathedral City, Arizona State rolled through lesser competition at home. Not only did they win all six games against Boston College, Drake, Idaho State and Seton Hall by a combined score of 57-7, but they needed just 33 innings to do so -- three more than the minimum possible. In essentially the first extended action of her career, sophomore Jennifer Soria totaled two home runs and nine RBIs.
2. Florida (16-0)
The runs weren't quite as plentiful this past weekend, but it would be nitpicking to make anything of it when the Gators still cruised. They have scored 131 runs through 16 games, slightly ahead of last season's pace at the same point. And that team finished No. 11 in the nation in runs per game. Florida opens SEC play in two weeks with Ole Miss and then, in order, LSU on the road, Alabama at home and Tennessee on the road, so Friday's game against Oregon (ESPN3, 3:30 p.m. ET) is a much-needed simulation of what's ahead in the near future.
3. Tennessee (14-0)
No strangers to pulling talent out of the state, the Lady Vols are in the midst of an extended stay in California. Wins against Nebraska and Stanford in the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic showed a young lineup could give Ellen Renfroe run support against top-tier opposition, and Renfroe has been fantastic to this point. The weekend schedule lacks a marquee matchup, but a game against San Diego State on that team's field bears watching. Typically one of the sharpest teams in the field and on the bases, Tennessee is slightly ahead of last season's pace for both errors and times caught stealing, but that could be a function of adjusting to unfamiliar fields and shaking off winter-induced rust.
4. UCLA (16-0)
Sure, UCLA came close to a 3-2 weekend in Cathedral City that would have dulled the optimism a bit, but the Bruins made their comebacks against Missouri and Oklahoma, in addition to a win against Nebraska, so what's not to be optimistic about? In a landscape short on elite aces, Ally Carda sure seems to have taken a step forward in the circle just when it could matter most, with Jessica Hall and Paige McDuffee around to ensure she isn't overworked. It can't hurt to have Kodi Lavrusky on board, either. The player who scored the winning goal for UCLA when it won the most recent soccer national championship scored a run as a pinch runner this past weekend against Nebraska.
5. Michigan (12-2)
The good news is Michigan swept through five games this past weekend and allowed just one run in the process. That included a two-hit shutout from Haylie Wagner against Kentucky and multiple strong outings from freshman Megan Betsa. The worrisome news, if you're so inclined, is the offense made the pitchers work for a 1-0 win in extra innings against Kent State and a 1-0 win against Florida Atlantic to close the weekend. Two games against UCLA loom on the horizon, one on a neutral field this Friday and one at UCLA next Wednesday.
6. Oregon (14-1)
Since a rough opening day when it lost to Cal Poly and needed extra innings to beat Fresno State, Oregon is 13-0 with seven run-rule wins (granted, there are two more extra-inning wins in there, too). It's no surprise that Courtney Ceo and Alexa Peterson lead the way offensively, but Janelle Lindvall also continues to emerge. In addition to four home runs, she has eight walks and just one strikeout. Friday is an intriguing day for the Ducks, who play Florida in the aforementioned showdown but also see a familiar face when they play Auburn and coach Clint Myers.
7. Arizona (14-1)
There aren't any especially compelling matchups in the near future, but visits from Longwood and Ball State in the next week do bring two intriguing individual talents to Tucson with Longwood catcher Megan Baltzell and Ball State outfielder Jenny Gilbert.
8. Washington (13-2)
It was a bit of a strange week for Washington, which generally looked really good for long stretches in Cathedral City but came away with a 3-2 record in the event after losses to LSU and Northwestern and a narrow win against Texas. Of at least modest concern, Kaitlin Inglesby gave up four home runs in two appearances. That from a pitcher who allowed just 13 home runs in 187 innings a season ago. Still, with a 1.60 ERA overall, and with rotation partner Bryana Walker at 8-1 with a 1.26 ERA, it's not exactly a crisis situation. Runs shouldn't be in short supply this week.
9. Alabama (13-3)
In the span of a long season, a loss to a quietly good McNeese State team isn't the end of the world. Still, coming at home, on the heels of two losses in Arizona and at the expense of ace Jackie Traina, it just feels unsettling. Take out Haylie McCleney and Alabama hitters have accumulated 49 walks and 73 strikeouts. The latter they can probably live with -- the championship team two seasons ago struck out a lot. But the Crimson Tide are usually a bit more disciplined than that ratio suggests (and seven of the non-McCleney walks came in one game this past week).
10. Georgia (12-1)
A 3-2 loss against South Alabama in which Chelsea Wilkinson gave up just three hits isn't much of a demerit, but at the same time, Georgia's schedule leaves little wiggle room. It has to impress when it faces quality competition prior to SEC play. UAB is struggling to recapture the form that took it to a super regional a season ago, so two games against the Blazers this weekend, in addition to games against St. John's and Western Carolina, may not help. The hits aren't there yet for Kansas transfer Alex Hugo, but nine walks and a .514 slugging percentage suggest she's fine.