TUCSON, Ariz. — Mike Candrea knows heartache. He knows pain and defeat.
He also knows commitment and perseverance. That’s why he knows what this year’s Arizona’s softball team is capable of and made of. The last couple of weeks have shown him that, as his team has won three of four to end the season to earn the right to host an NCAA regional at Hillenbrand Stadium.
“I feel really good about this team because we’ve put some things together,” Candrea said Thursday on the eve of facing North Dakota State (37-20) in the first round.
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Still, much is to be determined with Candrea and his Wildcats. The postseason is where teams are measured, especially at Arizona, where eight national titles have been won and NCAA regionals (not only playing in them but winning them) are the norm. Arizona is a resounding 148-43 in NCAA tournament play and an even more impressive 75-6 in regional action in school history.
“This weekend is a big step,” Candrea said. “It will be an indicator of where we are right now. I think that’s the key. Long seasons, especially in softball, it’s all about how you play when the bell rings in the postseason.”
Ding, ding. It’s time to play.
This season, in going 35-17 and getting a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament — its lowest seed since 1986 — Arizona has not been Arizona-like, or at least not how anyone remembers the Wildcats of the past. Teams of the past would outhit, outrun and, well, out-everything their opponents. This year, UA reached the 12-12 mark in the Pac-12 only in the final weekend; it was the first .500 mark in conference play in more than a quarter-century.
It could easily be argued that this has been one of the toughest seasons of Candrea’s lengthy tenure. Figure that he spent two nights in a hospital with chest pains in what turned out to be likely a stress-related spell because of poor eating, bad pitching, dehydration and being, well, a perfectionist when it comes to everything except himself.
“It was probably God’s way of saying, ‘You need to get in and get checked out,” said Candrea, 57.
“All the parts are working, but you still have to take care of yourself. I’ve been drinking lots of water a day. I spend half the day in the bathroom,” he added, laughing.
At least Candrea still has his sense of humor. And he has gained some perspective about himself.
“I learned I have to take better care of myself,” he said. “You tend to think, ‘I’ve done it this way before and nothing has ever happened.’ Now I’m older, so I have to take care of myself.”
Yet he still keeps a good eye on his team. Stress and anxiety come along with that, of course. Not helping matters is that Candrea is having to run things without assistant Larry Ray, who has not been with the team since it was reported that he was arrested and charged with criminal damage and two counts of disorderly conduct domestic violence in late April.
“The more I’m around and the more I realize the more things go well … there’s always something around the corner that’s going to challenge you,” Candrea said of his difficult year, not specifically referring to Ray’s situation. “I’m a firm believer that you have to take care of the things you have control over. There are some things that you have to deal with, and you just deal with them in the best way you can.
“The huge part of this is being consistent. Like I tell our kids, it’s about the approach and the respect of the game and the decisions you make on and off the field. That’s the big thing about this game and the life-long lessons you gain from it, if you are willing.”
Now, if Arizona can just continue winning. Although as much as Candrea enjoys winning — “I sure do,” he said — he also enjoys the teaching aspect.
“More importantly, I enjoy looking at a product at the end of the year and being proud of it,” he said. “A lot of times in sports, you can do things right and it may not give you the results you want, but at the college level, it’s about the character you’re building and the people you build. Hopefully, the wins come along with it.”