- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Taking nothing away from Northwestern, UCLA or any of the other teams at the Women's College World Series, the Arizona Wildcats' most impressive accomplishment in winning the national title may have been overcoming themselves.
For much of the championship series against Northwestern, Arizona played near flawless softball and looked every bit the dynasty that has won the most titles in college softball over the last 15 years. But for a few innings in Tuesday's clincher, with Northwestern piling up hits and threatening to send the series to a third game, Arizona looked like the enigmatic team that drove head coach Mike Candrea to distraction at times this season.
Never have seven innings been a better representation of an entire season.
"I want to first of all thank [the players] for a month and a half ago deciding we're going to start playing softball the right way and making a commitment," Candrea said following Tuesday's win.
Overcoming their own youth and mistakes -- as much as their opponents during the Pac-10 season and the NCAA Tournament -- the Wildcats won the championship in part because they had senior Alicia Hollowell throwing shutout innings in the circle and speed running rampant at the top of the order.
But the biggest factor was the man sitting in the dugout, who turned in perhaps his most impressive coaching job by focusing as much on the heads of his own players as the bats of opponents.
"Sometimes you have a tendency to always look at the physical part of the game, when truly, the physical part of the game is irrelevant if they're not mentally ready to learn," Candrea said. "It takes convincing, and it also sometimes takes threats. Because truthfully, at Arizona, we finish second, people say 'What happened?' They don't understand anything but a championship."
Until recently, it appeared a lot of people in Arizona weren't going to understand this team.
Seizing the No. 1 ranking early in the season, the Wildcats cruised to a 24-1 record before a loss to Texas A&M sparked a 10-8 skid that dropped them from the top spot in the polls and allowed UCLA to move ahead and claim the Pac-10 title. What might have been a road bump for other programs represented rough days in Tucson, leaving Candrea to search for answers with a team that didn't seem to be responding.
"Two years ago I lost my wife, and you either crawl in a hole or you keep moving forward," Candrea said. "And I'm a very positive person, but on the other hand, when someone doesn't want to help themselves, then I think we're going to butt heads."
Before Monday night's championship opener, Candrea was honored in an on-field ceremony as the coach selected for the NCAA 25th Anniversary team. While Candrea walked out and took his place next to players like Jennie Finch, Natasha Whatley and Lisa Fernandez, moderator Beth Mowins joked that running the imaginary lineup would be one of the easier coaching assignments in history.
It was actually a contrast Candrea has already dealt with this season.
"February, March, April and May, I had the national team in the mornings once a month, and they are like sponges," Candrea said of his dual role as coach of the U.S. team. "They bring all the energy to the ballpark, they play the game the right way and that's why they're good. Then I'd go to practice in the afternoon and it was very glaring. I mean, here was a team that's not very good and not really taking the steps to become good."
It was a situation that had the coach ready to start over.
"You've got to have kids that have the same goals and aspirations that you do," the coach said. "And I just got to the point during the season where I said, 'Hey, if you don't want to learn, you don't want to get better, you're wasting my time and it's time for you to move on.'"
But if there was a point in time when everything changed, it came on a road trip to Washington on April 30, a day after the Wildcats had lost 8-2 in Los Angeles against UCLA. Candrea stopped trying to talk to a team that wasn't listening.
Candrea said, "There's an old saying, 'When the student arrives, the teacher appears.' Meaning that you can't really teach a kid until they want to become a student. And we had kids that didn't know how to be a student."
The coach posted a sign in the dugout, not with the batting order, but with a plan for turning things around. At the top of the sheet -- which he pulled out of his briefcase after the game to show the lines of tape from posting it in the dugout in every subsequent game -- was a simple message.
Plan = Confidence
What followed were descriptions of three simple principles the team would focus on: Preparation, Action and Response.
"I've had a chance to coach women and men, and the one thing I do know is men have to play good to feel good; women have to feel good to play good," Candrea said. "And so you've got to spend a lot of your time getting young kids to feel good about themselves.
"What I saw when our nuts and bolts were falling off, and oil was spilling all over the place, was we had kids that weren't enjoying the game, that were very negative, that didn't know how to respond and therefore they did not know how to learn. They weren't learning from their mistakes; they kept making them and getting more and more angry. That kind of hit me between the eyes and made me say, wait a minute, we want our kids to have confidence, but we don't give them a plan. We don't map out what you need to do to have confidence as a hitter, to have confidence as a defensive player."
As the plan sunk in, aided by one more blistering speech from Candrea as the team prepared for a game against rival Arizona State on May 3, things began to change. By the time the regular season ended, Arizona had won 10 games in a row, beginning with the games against Washington in Seattle.
The trip through the postseason included only one hiccup against LSU in the second game of the Tucson Super Regional, sending the Wildcats to Oklahoma City as one of the nation's hottest teams. And while these Wildcats wouldn't be themselves if they didn't frustrate the coach a little -- dropping a game against Tennessee in which Candrea felt the energy wasn't there -- they were clearly the best team in the country for these six days.
And amazingly enough, the coach who sounded prepared to turn over his roster at midseason ended up taking something away from the kids who drove him crazy.
"I've learned a hell of a lot from this group," Candrea said. "And I think I will understand this generation a little better because of it, because of going through this. Win, lose or draw. I told this team at the beginning of the College World Series that I was so proud of them, because of the commitment they paid and the decision that they made to change."
Even after the celebration had died down and after the media room had largely emptied out, Candrea seemed willing to stand and talk about this team for hours. The gruff tone and tough sentences coming and going as he perhaps flashed back to the trying days of April eventually yielded to the glowing affection he obviously feels for a team that challenged him like few opponents ever have.
"So for me, watching this ... it's the best thing I've ever seen," Candrea said. "Because you have a plan, and the plan comes through. And I think these kids will grow, not only as softball players, but as people. And that's what life is all about."
But a national championship isn't a bad detour.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Arizona's dominant pitching and speed on the basepaths got the team to the postseason. The Wildcats' Women's College World Series win, however, came courtesy of their coach, Mike Candrea.