Arizona softball looks to overcome core challenges
After achieving a 38-19 record, last season ended in disappointment for Arizona softball as it failed to defeat Oklahoma in the NCAA super regionals and move on to the Women’s College World Series.
A berth in the WCWS has come to almost be expected by fans who have seen the team reach postseason 22 times and win eight national championships since 1988 and 1991, respectively.
This season, the Wildcats look to rebound despite having to deal with a significant shakeup. Former sophomore shortstop Shelby Pendley, who led the team in home runs last season as a freshman, unexpectedly left the program for personal reasons. Pendley recorded 19 home runs while batting .331 with 55 RBI last season.
“She was a great hitter,” senior infielder Brigette Del Ponte said. “She was also a great fielder, but it’s nothing we can’t do without. One person doesn’t make a team. We just have to figure out a way to get better in the places where she was and move things around a bit.”
Pendley was one of only three Wildcats who started every game last season and represented Arizona’s lone selection to the All-Pac-12 first team.
Arizona’s struggles didn’t end there, as their ace pitcher, senior Kenzie Fowler, who has had a plethora of health problems since the beginning of her career, underwent a microscopic lumbar discectomy following the 2012 season to fix a herniated disc in her back, which had caused her consistent back pain and leg numbness.
Arizona coach Mike Candrea however, shakes these adversaries off and makes it clear that he is looking for another coveted World Series berth.
“Right now, I’m looking at probably putting Lauren Young at third and Del Ponte at shortstop,” Candrea said. “I like Del Ponte at short because she is a senior and it may give her a spark to go out and prove to the world that she can be a shortstop at this level. I really think she can. Anytime you are looking at building your team, you have to build it up the middle, and so you better have some stability there. I think that right now at the pace this game is played, that Brigette is my best choice.”
Fowler’s absence is a bit trickier to fix. She ranks eighth in Arizona history with 79 career wins and sixth in career strikeouts with 794. During the 2012 season, she compiled a record of 15-9 despite battling numerous injuries.
“We’re excited to get going [this season],” Candrea said. “We have a young team, but their chemistry is outstanding. Babcock has had a real solid fall; I think Nancy Bowling is very up and coming with a lot of talent, which will give us a couple innings [from her].
“The big question mark will be how much Kenzie will be able to contribute this season. I feel pretty good right now. In this day and age, it’s hard to rely just on one pitcher, so I like the idea that we have a few different looks now. Trying to keep hitters off balance is what we are trying to do.”
Fowler remains optimistic as she works tirelessly at her rehab, set on returning for the end of her senior year.
“I’m doing a lot bigger things with my rehab,” Fowler said. “I really want to contribute to this year’s team. I feel like I’ve put in a lot in my last three years. I’m going to try to get back. Whatever happens later on in the year, we will see, but my goal is to get back to this team.”
Coach Candrea believes that Fowler is on the path to a speedy recovery and that she is exactly where she should be.
“She is right on schedule with her physical therapy,” Candrea said. “A lot of it is going to be a matter of getting her more into the softball aspect here at the end of the month, beginning of February and maybe start throwing a little bit, and I’m hoping we can start throwing her in some games in the middle of March. We need to let her go on her own pace. When she says that she is ready, we will then make decisions.”
In lieu of these challenges, Candrea and the team are determined to break their two-year drought of not reaching the Women’s College World Series.
“In this day and age it’s getting tougher and tougher to get through a regional and get through a super regional to get into the college world series,” Candrea said. “You have to be hungry. I think the big thing for me is to try and make this team better each day and let the process take care of itself. We haven’t talked about where we want to be; everyone knows where we want to be.”