Patience key in coaching young Wildcats

Legendary Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea blames his team's spotty showing this season on overthinking. Now that the Wildcats are buying into his simple philosophy, watch out, writes Mary Buckheit.

Updated: May 11, 2006, 3:37 PM ET
By Mary Buckheit | Special to ESPN.com

TUCSON, Ariz. -- If you're attending a University of Arizona softball game, you're probably eager to witness legendary coach Mike Candrea in action. After all, in his 21 seasons at Arizona, Candrea has become a fixture on the pristine landscape of Hillenbrand Field.

Ben Rider/Arizona AthleticsMike Candrea has found different ways to win as times have changed.
But these days, you won't see too much of the winningest D-I skipper of all time at Wildcats games. In fact, you'll have to work to catch a glimpse of the famous face behind his trademark hat, shades and mustache. Knee surgery in early April forced him to watch from the dugout, instead of urging on his batters from a few yards away in foul territory.

Lately, the man who once guided USA Softball to Olympic gold sits humbly aside while his assistants handle the base coaching. But being slightly displaced from the action doesn't make this unpredictable season any easier for him to swallow.

Frustrated by the ups and downs of a capricious young squad, Candrea admits, "I've lost sleep trying to figure out which button I can press to get them to understand you can't make the game more complicated than it really is.

"The physical part of our game has been pretty good, but the mental part has just been terrible. There's been a lot of growing up that has had to take place, and I was losing patience because it wasn't happening quickly enough. I just couldn't get a response from them whether we won or lost."

The Wildcats improved to 37-9 (8-6 Pac-10) after Wednesday night's 10-0 rout of Arizona State, but overall, this season has been a series of feasts and famines; sturdy wins against Washington, Stanford and Oregon were offset by losses to UCLA, ASU, Cal and Oregon State.

While this doesn't sit well with a coach who is accustomed to consistency, the softball sage knows how to get by on small victories -- especially when they're 10-run victories in the second half of the season against an intrastate rival.

Ben Rider/Arizona AthleticsAlicia Hollowell always gives her team a good chance to win.
"What I'm really looking for is some mental stability," he said. "But like I tell my kids, it's not how you start, but how you finish, right?"

Candrea was optimistic after his ace Alicia Hollowell allowed the Sun Devils (42-10, 6-7) just two hits Wednesday night to tally her 13th shutout of the year. Candrea was even more excited about Arizona's offensive efforts.

"The problem is, we've been thinking too much. You can't be thinking when you're walking into the batter's box. But after tonight, I think we might be making some progress toward turning that around," he said with a nod and a grin.

For a squad accused of overthinking, they made the game look effortless, as seven Wildcats combined for 12 hits and 10 runs in just six innings.

"Tonight it was great," Candrea said. "For a long time there, the responses that our kids were giving to their [sub-par] actions on the field were just burying them deeper in a hole. I've been trying to get them to understand that if they're going to learn from mistakes, they've got to take a positive approach instead of just beating themselves up about it. I mean, damn it, this game is supposed to be fun!"

Against Arizona State, the No. 3 Wildcats appeared to be having a blast -- especially sophomore catcher Callista Balko, who crushed a sixth-inning walk-off grand slam, which established a lead large enough to call it a night. This was the icing on the cake of a victory that began with a two-out dinger in the first inning from shortstop Kristie Fox -- her 11th on the year.

Ben Rider/Arizona AthleticsCallista Balko crushed a sixth-inning walk-off grand slam to end the game.
Still, Candrea would like to see his team string together a few more of these performances.

"Instead of riding the waves, we've been trying to swim through the damn things," Candrea said of Arizona's patchy play.

"I mean, I wish that I could say that we showed up and played [at UCLA] last Friday, but we didn't. We were struggling through some things. And we're getting there, I think. We're taking little steps along the way and trying to get things figured out in time for the postseason."

Some of the Wildcats' growing pains can certainly be attributed to their youth. The squad is new at first, second, third, right field and behind the plate, and the starting lineup boasts just two seniors.

"Our young kids have had this tendency to get down on themselves," Candrea said. "They had been very selfish and were focusing on their personal mistakes. I told them they had better learn how to approach this game, otherwise it will eat them right up. And I think they're learning that now, they're coming around. Truthfully, we're just trying to get in a good frame of mind as we head into the next two weekends, which are huge in Pac-10 play."

The Wildcats take the field on Friday, trying to build on this conquest and extend their three-game streak against the No. 7 Cal Bears. Arizona then hosts Stanford this weekend and wraps things up next week with Oregon and Oregon State.

When asked whether he'll be coaching from the box anytime soon, Candrea joked, "My knee is doing much better, I'm just scared that if I'm out there, I'll get a little too excited and try to move a little too quick, and then, who knows!"

But it seems Candrea is in no rush to take to the infield dirt. He seems to enjoy strategizing from the dugout and soaking in the big picture.

"It allows me to look ahead and take it all in. When I'm out there on the field, I probably am too far into the hitters' minds. It's nice to have a little time to take a look at who is coming up and what's going on outside of the box."

Does his team appreciate the breathing room?

"Probably," Candrea answers, with an eyebrow raise and a coy grin.

"But what's nice is that I am able to be there and support them as they come into the dugout, which is especially handy with these guys. Now, if they have had a solid at-bat, but still come back pouting about it, I can grab them and say, 'Hey wait a minute.'"

With a maturing young lineup cashing in on one of the sport's brightest minds, look for the Wildcats to prove that it really isn't how you start the season, but rather, where you finish.

Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.

Mary Buckheit started as ESPN.com's college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time as an editor in 2002 and became a Page 2 Columnist in 2006. She went west to cover life in California, the UFC, AVP, X Games and anything else she can dig up under the sun.