On March 12, 2020, Arizona softball was about to open Pac-12 play at Hillenbrand Stadium when all of college sports shut down. The Wildcats were 22-3 in a season brimming with promise as the first wave of the coronavirus hit the United States.
Thanks in part to efforts by head coach Mike Candrea, senior athletes nationwide were granted the opportunity to return for another year of play. All seven of Arizona softball’s seniors chose to come back.
“They had unfinished business,” Candrea says. “They wanted to finish their careers on the field. This may be the final game of their career — it’s that much more important that they have closure on their career and what they’ve done all their life.”
Wildcats Possess Experience and Depth
Among those seniors is Jessie Harper, a three-time All-Pac-12 shortstop who’s chasing the NCAA all-time home runs record. As of March 30, 2021, Harper had 84 career home runs, 12 short of passing the 95-run mark set by Oklahoma’s Lauren Chamberlain in 2015. If Harper takes that record down, she’ll also own Arizona’s program record of 92 home runs, set in 2017 by Katiyana Mauga.
Arizona entered this season ranked top-three nationally in nearly every preseason poll, the program’s highest preseason ranking since 2011. And while the Wildcats’ seven super-seniors bring stability and seasoned leadership to the team, the roster also boasts the top-ranked first-year class in the country. A run in the Women’s College World Series seems all but inevitable.
“Top to bottom, our depth is going to be a big factor for us,” Candrea says. “I think we have more quality depth than we have in a long time.”
But before they can get to Oklahoma City, they have to get through the regular season. The coronavirus pandemic means that game travel for road series poses a risk in planes, hotels and other environments the program has no control over.
“That’s been the theme with our team, is to protect our bubble,” Candrea says. “It’s going to take discipline for us to make this [full season] happen. And when you’re talking about discipline, it’s not just the discipline on the field, but it’s off the field.”
Candrea admits that the canceled 2020 season gave him a taste of retirement life: a much slower existence than what he’s allowed as the winningest coach in NCAA softball history. There’s not much balance in life when you’re at the helm of a perennial powerhouse, he notes.
But for now, with eyes on a ninth NCAA championship, Candrea and the Wildcats are grateful.
“Just being able to be back on the field and playing a game you love to play every day is a present for all of us,” he says.