Written By Bill Plummer
What a difference a year can make. Just ask the UCLA and University of Arizona softball teams.
Last year, neither school qualified for the Big Dance in Oklahoma City–the Women's College World Series. And unless you were living on an island in the Pacific, this was rare news for college softball followers, considering these two schools have won a combined 19 NCAA national softball titles.
UCLA's most recent title was in 2010 when it beat Arizona in the best of three series finale, 7-2, while the Wildcats' last title was in 2007. But each had missed qualifying for the WCWS for the past three years, which was rare of course, and had their loyal fans wondering when each would again make an appearance in Oklahoma City.
If this year is any indication–and it is–each school is having an outstanding season and could make a return to OKC depending on how they do in the Regionals and Super Regionals later this year. Last year Arizona suffered through what was the worst season in the career of head coach Mike Candrea, who replaced Paula Noel as head coach in 1986. Arizona was eliminated by Baylor in the College Station Regionals, 8-4, and it marked the first time since 2004 that the Wildcats didn't advance beyond the regionals. The 33 wins was the fewest since 27 in 1986 and the 26 losses represented the most in the program's history.
In 2014, the Wildcats as of March 9th had recorded a 23-3 record with an impressive team earned run average of 1.20 coupled with a team batting average of .389. Candrea summed up 2013 this way. “I really felt that there were times this year when we played well enough to compete with anyone and we just couldn’t sustain it.” in 2014, the Wildcats are finishing and looking more like the Arizona teams of the past which featured quality pitching and an impressive offense. In 2014 Candrea has used five pitchers, two more than he had on the roster in 2013, giving him the depth he needed a year ago when Shelby Babcock and Nancy Bowling did the majority of the pitching. Bowling and Babcock have combined for 10 of the team's 23 wins and neither has suffered a defeat as of March 9.
UCLA, which lost to UAB in the if necessary game in the regionals, has recorded a 23-1 record as of March 9th featuring a high powered offense and a stingy pitching staff, which has hurled 10 shutouts. The Bruins were ranked third in the country while the Wildcats were ranked seventh.
Although there is still a lot of softball left, don't be surprised if these two teams familiar to softball fans end up in Oklahoma City. After losing to arch rival ASU 7-6, in 2013 Candrea said,” Next year is going to be different, that’s what it comes down to. We’re not going to have a repeat of this, we’re going to go all the way.” Only time will tell but it's obvious these two teams are back where they want to be. Maybe not all the way back, however, but if they each qualify for the WCWS they will be back where they expect to be—-contending for the national title.
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