Disciplined Arizona puts Tennessee away to advance
After dropping a game to Tennessee earlier this afternoon, the Wildcats took the lead early, scoring five runs in the first three innings and eased their way to a 6-0 win.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- After Sunday afternoon's 1-0 loss to Tennessee, which set up a winner-take-all showdown in the evening for a spot in the championship series at the Women's College World Series, Arizona coach Mike Candrea was asked about the similarities between the upcoming game and the super regional round against LSU.
Tuesday, June 6
Monday, June 5
Candrea objected, saying, "We'd like to jump on them any time. Early, late, it doesn't matter at this stage of the game. We just want to touch home plate more than they do."
But based on what transpired Sunday night at Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium, it's hard to imagine that performance against LSU didn't come up in the hours between games with the Lady Vols.
Candrea accused his team of coming out of the gate with less energy than he expected in the first game, and the Wildcats responded immediately, putting up two runs in the top of the first inning of the deciding game, and five runs in the first three innings, easing their way to a 6-0 win. As a result, the Wildcats from Tucson, Ariz., move on to face the Wildcats from Evanston, Ill., in the best-of-three championship series beginning on Monday.
"This team's come a long way, that's all I can say, the last month and a half," Candrea said. "I remember sitting around in a circle and asking how many of them thought we could win a national championship and not a hand went up. And that really alarmed me. We went on a venture from then on to convince them that this could happen."
Arizona struggled to solve Tennessee southpaw Monica Abbott in the day's first game, scraping together just two hits and one walk in seven innings, and moving just three runners beyond first base. (Tennessee gave them some extra chances with three errors.)
The game ended on a close play at first base that would have scored the tying run if Caitlin Lowe had been safe, and the star outfielder seemed to sum up seven innings of offensive frustration by slamming her helmet to the ground.
But if they're anything, the Wildcats under Candrea are a disciplined team. Eschewing even the organized cheerleading common among most college softball teams and utilizing precise execution to maximize small-ball execution, Arizona could be described as mechanical -- if only the term didn't carry such negative connotations.
And the Wildcats weren't going to let one loss carry over to the next game, no matter how little time they had to get over it. Especially not with Candrea at the helm.
"We just had a little discussion after the game," the coach said. "We did, we had a little discussion, and ... that's between us. But I'll tell you one thing: I'm very, very proud of the way they came our and the way they responded."
The different mind-sets that appeared to be in play during the finale were visible immediately.
After a leadoff single from Lowe, Autumn Champion reached on an error, as Tennessee fumbled an apparent force on Lowe at second base. Abbott managed to get Kristie Fox to pop out and struck out Callista Balko, but Jenae Leles ensured the Lady Vols would pay for the defensive lapse by smacking a two-run single up the middle past a diving Lindsay Schutzler. With the hit, Leles improved to 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position during the postseason.
A two-out single to center from Champion drove in two more runs in the top of the second, and the Wildcats tacked on single runs in the third and sixth to close the scoring.
Pointing to just how small of a margin for error there is against Arizona at this level, the Wildcats are now 49-4 at the Women's College World Series when scoring at least one run. In other words, if they score, then they win.
Whether or not the Lady Vols knew the exact statistical magnitude of the task at hand, it certainly appeared their focus, if not their effort, faded quickly after the early runs. By the end of the game, the Lady Vols had more errors (three) than hits (two).
Facing Alicia Hollowell certainly didn't help Tennessee's spirits or its batting average. Hollowell capped off a strong opening four days with arguably her best performance, allowing just two hits and striking out 14 with no walks. While typically outstanding in the regular season, Hollowell appears to have hit full stride in the postseason.
In the first game, Arizona seemed to expend a great deal of energy with little reward -- capped by Lowe's memorable all-out dive over the fence in center in unsuccessful pursuit of Katherine Card's home run. But in the second game, Arizona played displayed near-perfect economy of production, capitalizing on offensive opportunities and avoiding the need for spectacular defensive saves.
It took the better part of six months for Candrea's young team to put it all together, but the result was impressive in the biggest game of the season.
"Hollowell was magnificent; our offense did a great job getting some runs on the board, which was huge," Candrea said. "It was just a great performance."
But not surprisingly, Candrea wasn't satisfied, adding, "It wasn't out best game yet, so hopefully we can add to it."
If they do, another title could be headed to the desert.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.