Kenzie Fowler's star-crossed career ends as Cats' No. 1 cheerleader
MAY 14, 2014 4:50p ET
TUCSON, Ariz. -- To say she's had her share of "ups and downs" would be a disservice to Kenzie Fowler, Arizona's one-time pitching prodigy in the mold of Jennie Finch, Nancy Evans and Taryne Mowatt.
Those three were NCAA champions and were all but unhittable in Arizona's run to the titles. Fowler seemed destined to follow in their footsteps after signing with the Wildcats out of Canyon del Oro High School.
She was close, leading Arizona to the championship game of the 2010 Women's College World Series as a freshman. But she would never get any closer, and her career came to an unexpected end because of a left shoulder injury (thoracic outlet syndrome) last week.
"I'm not going to let it define the perception of how I'll leave (Arizona)," said Fowler, a fifth-year senior who suffered the same injury on her right shoulder as a high school pitcher. "I've had the time of my life and have had so many great memories and so many great moments to be part of. It's something I'll look back on and say I had a great time."
Her career might be over but Arizona's season isn't. The Wildcats will play host to one of 16 regionals beginning on Friday when it plays Boston. Louisiana State and Louisville are on the other side of the bracket.
Fowler will take on the role of cheerleader and a source of inspiration.
"She has a lot of say on this team, and we look up to her," infielder Kellie Fox said.
“Going all the way to the championship as a freshman is something you don't see very often. You could say it set up my career for something abnormal.”
Fowler, who finished 8-6 this season, said she "will try to give leadership in a different way" to a relatively young Wildcats team.
"I'm excited for them because this is the most exciting part of the season," she said. "I don't think they've had that type of feeling because many have not played the postseason at Hillenbrand."
Of the current Wildcats, the College World Series is foreign territory for all but Fowler, who in 2010 went 38-9 while earning first-team All-America honors.
"The start of my career was definitely unique," she said. "Going all the way to the championship as a freshman is something you don't see very often. You could say it set up my career for something abnormal."
That's a perfect description from the aspiring broadcast journalist who will intern at the Pac-12 Conference headquarters in the Bay Area this summer.
"I've been through a lot of unique things that are very rare, freak accidents, just weird things," she said.
Her sophomore season was interrupted midway through after she was hit by a foul ball and suffered a concussion. She finished 26-8, and Arizona was eliminated by Oklahoma the round before the CWS.
She struggled to regain her form as a junior in 2012, sat out last season as a redshirt following back surgery, and missed additional time this year after getting hit by a batted ball. She finishes her career with an 87-33 record.
"Tell me one kid who has had to do that to play the game," Arizona coach Mike Candrea said. "I admire her for sticking it out. It would have been real easy for her to say my body is just not able to do this anymore. But she was able to do it. â¦ (she has to) be admired by what she's done. "
Her love for the game she grew up playing in northwest Tucson was her motivation. But there were times when it was a rocky love affair as doubts crept in about whether she reached her peak too early.
"You know, could I go nowhere but down? Stuff like that," she said.
It happened the year of the concussion -- just two years removed from being Gatorade's two-time high school player of the year.
"You hear a lot about the sophomore slump and I didn't really have one, but you realize it's hard to duplicate that type of success after that first year," she said. "You don't really realize it when you're a freshman. Nobody really realizes how hard it is to get (to the top)."
She hopes to see her team return to that level, but it's been sort of a struggle this season despite its 41-13 record (including 28-2 at home). Arizona, an eight-time NCAA champion, has been known for its pitching behind the aforementioned Finch, Evans and Mowatt. This year it's led by senior Estela Pinon, who is 17-7 with a 2.54 ERA.
"I think it's fair to say we're going to go as far as we can execute on the mound," Candrea said. "I think we can score some runs. We have to play better defense than we did last weekend (in going 1-2 vs. No. 1 Oregon). But it's the first team that gets 21 outs, that's who usually wins."
For many of the past 28 years, Candrea has been on the good end of those 21 outs. But Arizona has lacked a dominant pitching ace since Fowler's freshman year.
He likes much of what he's seen from this year's team, which comes into the postseason with a .353 team batting average.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Candrea. "I really like this team. I think we've got a lot more talent than we had last year. I feel very good about our offense. We've played pretty good defense most of the year, and our pitching has been good, not great."
No need to remind him that this is the time when greatness is required.
Last year, Arizona failed to make it out of the regional round, something unheard of in the Candrea era. The previous two seasons it lost to Oklahoma in the super regionals. Arizona hasn't been to the College World Series since 2010.
"I think they are starting to realize what it takes," Candrea said. "We're in kind of an era where you have to wait and see. We don't have a lot of kids who are battle-tested in the College World Series. That sometimes makes you realize why you do what you do every day. We have to get back there to make that happen. We have to be able to bridge that gap."
Arizona had five first-team selections on the All-Pac-12 team that was announced Wednesday, including Defensive Player of the Year Kellie Fox and Freshman of the Year Katiyana Mauga.
Fox, a junior shortstop, has 108 assists, 78 putouts and a .949 fielding percentage and is hitting .401 with a .771 slugging percentage, .505 on-base percentage and 59 RBI.
Mauga, a third baseman, is hitting .382 with 19 home runs, 56 RBI and a conference-leading .924 slugging percentage.
Joining them on the All-Pac-12 first team are junior catcher Chelsea Goodacre, senior utility Kelsey Rodriguez and junior first baseman Hallie Wilson. The first first-team selections are the most of any Pac-12 team. Goodacre leads the Pac-12 with 22 home runs and 70 RBI; Rodriguez has a .424 batting average with 18 doubles; and Wilson leads the league with 66 runs scored.
Arizona senior pitcher Estela Pinon was a second-team selection, and second baseman Mo Mercado was named to the all-freshman team.
UCLA's Ally Carda was Player of the Year, Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins was Pitcher of the Year, and Oregon's Mike White was Coach of the Year.