- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Everything is relative, even absolute success.
For proof of that paradox, consider the perspectives on success coming from the University of Arizona softball team after back-to-back national championships.
"I know our juniors this year have not had a losing season here," senior ace Taryne Mowatt said. "And the seniors, we've had the last two years where we've known nothing but finishing the last game with a win. So I know for us, we're very motivated to win the third one. I don't think any softball team has ever done that."
It seems at Arizona, a losing season isn't defined as one in which the team loses more games than it wins; a losing season is one in which the team doesn't win a championship.
Mowatt was nearly right about the historical significance of a third consecutive championship, and considering she hadn't yet turned 2 when UCLA won the first of its three consecutive titles in 1988, overlooking that run is understandable. Perhaps more importantly from her perspective, Arizona has yet to win the final game of the season in three successive seasons despite winning eight national championships since 1991.
Those eight titles are evidence of coach Mike Candrea's empire in the desert. With the exception of a 27-13-1 record in his debut season, Candrea's teams won at least 70 percent of their games in each of his first 21 seasons, including at least 80 percent of their games in 12 of his past 15 seasons. In a softball landscape marked by increasing parity, he reasserted both his program's and the Pac-10's place atop the game with wins the last two years against Northwestern and Tennessee, respectively, in the championship series at the Women's College World Series.
Now it's time for this group of Wildcats to demonstrate whether Candrea is the sculptor who created a masterpiece that will outlast him or the Atlas figure forever holding them up.
Candrea won't coach Arizona this season after taking a leave to coach the United States national team in pursuit of Olympic gold in Beijing. It's the same scenario that unfolded four years ago, when Candrea handed the program to assistant Larry Ray while he coached the national team to gold in Athens. Ray led the Wildcats to a 55-6 record and a Pac-10 title that season but watched a trip to Oklahoma City slip away after losses against Oklahoma and Louisiana-Lafayette in the Tucson Regional -- the first and only time Arizona missed the Women's College World Series since 1988. Ray, who returned to Arizona in 2002 after starting the Florida program from scratch in 1996, is once again the man in charge while Candrea is gone.
Assistant Dave Feinberg is a veteran baseball and softball coach and the man entrusted this season with the nonslap hitters Candrea traditionally worked with. He has coached and played with Ray on and off for decades and stressed continuity as a plus for the interim staff.
"There's a lot of familiarity with what we have with the players," Feinberg said. "Coach [Candrea] has set up a phenomenal process here; it's been successful for a lot of years. We're not going to change that process. We're doing very similar things to what he's had us do in the past. I think that's a good thing; the kids know what to expect. Their expectations are no different; we want to try to be playing on the last day in Oklahoma City. That's always our goal, so I don't think it's changed it a lot."
And while Candrea's sights are set on China, he'll be considerably closer to Tucson throughout much of the college season. As those associated with the program are quick to point out, he'll be in attendance at a number of games -- whether while home in Tucson or while sharing venues at tournaments during the national team's 40-city tour. But that's not the same as having him around on a full-time basis, something the returning players understand after he put together two of his best coaching efforts with them the past two seasons.
"It's definitely going to be tough," senior Callista Balko said. "He really has been the rock of our team the last three years. He's just a very good coach about preparing us for the World Series. He knows what it takes -- obviously he's been there so many years in a row. So that's going to be the one thing I think we're going to lack the most is the hardcore preparation. But our team, we have a lot of experience, and coach Ray has done this before, so he's kind of learned from his mistakes. And he's got a great mentor; coach Candrea is an e-mail or a phone call away."
Candrea will be back next season -- a point he made rather emphatically after winning the championship last season amidst rumors it might be his last. But part of the challenge of playing without him this season comes from replacing others who won't be back.
Caitlin Lowe, Kristie Fox and Chelsie Mesa are gone after filling out the top of the order as seniors last season (although Fox isn't physically absent after taking on the role of undergraduate assistant coach).
And most notably, pitching coach Nancy Evans left the program shortly before Christmas in a move that surprised many outsiders. In her official statement, she highlighted her desire to pursue other opportunities after 15 years as an assistant at Arizona. A star pitcher for Candrea before moving into coaching, Evans was credited, among other things, with mentoring Alicia Hollowell on the way to the 2006 championship and calling masterful games during Mowatt's marathon run in last season's Women's College World Series.
Longtime Arizona high school pitching guru Gale Bundrick was added to the staff as a volunteer assistant coach following Evans' departure, but the battery of Mowatt and Balko will be just as important in the short term as the team attempts to replace her contributions. The game-calling responsibilities, something Balko in particular has been looking forward to throughout her first three seasons as the team's starting catcher, now rest with the two seniors on the field.
"There's a lot more responsibility expected from Taryne and I," Balko said. "But we want that. You know, we're ready, we're seniors, we know the game. We'll definitely be doing more scouting, more charting, more watching video -- things that Nancy did in the past we'll have to take that on ourselves. I mean, we don't have that advantage of her just having the chart right in front of her calling pitches. It was kind of easy for us, actually, so it'll make the game more challenging, which I like as a catcher."
Mowatt described an offseason that included two ESPY awards, a visit to the White House and her 21st birthday as "probably the greatest summer anyone could have asked for." But as much as she might have enjoyed the sudden celebrity status that allowed her to trade jokes with Peyton Manning and Kate Walsh, she returned to pitching intent on fixing flaws that weren't readily apparent in a 42-12 record, 1.46 ERA or 522 strikeouts in 370 innings.
"Last year wasn't all great, like everybody thinks," Mowatt said. "I had a rough beginning; I had ups and downs during the year. It's just the last week was what everybody saw, and that's what everybody based the entire season off of. It was definitely a rocky season. In the offseason, I've been practicing hitting spots, just making my pitches more crisp and knowing what pitches I need to pitch in certain situations."
No amount of practice by anyone in Tucson will completely make up for the loss of Lowe, a four-year All-American and one of the best offensive and defensive players in the game's history.
"We're not going to replace her," Feinberg said. "She's a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. I tell everybody the same thing, you could never tell the difference between Caitlin's practice days and her game days. She did exactly on practice days what she did on game days. She went hard -- she'd run into the fence for you on practice days."
Mowatt didn't usually need a lot of run support last season, but she still got it from a lineup that hit .289 and scored an average of five runs a game. But in losing Lowe, Mesa and Fox, the Wildcats lost 47 percent of their hits, 46 percent of their runs, 44 percent of their RBIs and 70 percent of their stolen bases from last season. Replacing the overall production will depend on a talented freshman class and the development of primarily swing-away hitters like sophomore K'Lee Arredondo, now ensconced in familiar territory at shortstop, and juniors Jenae Leles, Laine Roth and Sam Banister.
"From an offensive standpoint, we've got to do some different things," Feinberg said. "We'll have probably not as much speed as we'd like, which is a little different from Arizona softball in the past. But we've got some kids that handle the bat real well; we still have some short-game kids that do a really good job. Probably from top to bottom, a little more consistency with our at-bats, but it will be different."
Senior Adrienne Acton is one of those short-game players. As the No. 9 hitter in a lineup in which that role is seen as complimentary, she set the table for the team's true table-setters -- Lowe and Autumn Champion two seasons ago and Lowe and Mesa last season. So Acton's evaluation of highly-touted freshmen Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler, the likely No. 1 and No. 2 hitters to start this season, carries with it the weight of someone who has seen the best in action.
"Brittany is a really good leadoff hitter; she's got a really good eye," Acton said. "Lauren, she kind of falls in behind her, and they work really well because they're good friends and they back each other up. So they know how each other plays. It will be fun to see how all three of us kind of work together to steal bases and move each other over and all that."
So maybe the more things change, the more they'll stay the same. By all accounts, Ray operates with slightly less of an iron fist than Candrea -- although that might be akin to saying Mount McKinley is a slightly shorter mountain than Mt. Everest -- but the hope is that Arizona softball has gained enough from 21 seasons with Candrea to stand on its own for a few months.
"It will definitely be a huge change for us going from someone so structured to someone a little more light about the game," Balko said. "They just kind of have a different perspective about the game. But like I said, I haven't actually played under coach Ray by himself -- none of us have, so it's kind of like looking into a black hole. You really don't know what to expect."
The blessing and the curse playing at Arizona is success is always expected.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.