In 2010, Mike Candrea coached his team to the brink of an NCAA title, finishing as the national runner-up at the Women’s College World Series. In the games leading up to the championship, the Wildcats faced four straight elimination games, and won all four. In the face of adversity, with its top two pitchers banged up, Candrea and the 2010 Cats persevered, falling just short of the program’s ninth national championship. There’s no shame in being the nation’s second best team, but make no mistake about it, now that team has had a taste, it makes them that much hungrier to bring an NCAA championship back to Tucson.
Since 1988, UA has won fewer than five postseason games just once, and has eclipsed the 50-win mark 17 times. In the five years the Wildcats have failed to capture 50 victories, UA has still won at least 41 games. Additionally, the Wildcats have yet to lose 20 games in any of the 21 seasons under Candrea’s watch. The fact Arizona has never lost a score of games is particularly notable, as it compares to some of the giants in collegiate softball. Every Pac-10 team, Arizona notwithstanding, and each of last year’s Women’s College World Series participants have lost 20 or more games as recently as 2003. Forget losing that many in the last eight years, Candrea has never let it happen.
As one would imagine, Candrea is never one to back down from a challenge. On a daily basis he challenges his players, and when it comes to drawing up the schedule of opponents his philosophy is no different. In 2007, for example, UA went 18-9 against teams ranked 16th or better at the time of the game, and had played 14 contests against future WCWS teams during the regular season. In each of the two years prior, UA won 30 games against NCAA Tournament-bound squads.
His teams’ victory total of 67 in 1998, plus 66 wins in 1995, 65 victories in 2001, 64 victories in 1994 and 61 in 1997 are among the top 10 in the NCAA record books. Including a five-season stint as a junior college coach at Central Arizona, Candrea has a career record of 1361-314-2. That computes to victory a phenomenal .812 winning percent of the time.
That proficiency started at Arizona with the hiring of Candrea prior to the 1986 season, the school’s first season in the Pacific-10 Conference. UA finished 27-13-1 that first year, his “worst” record to date. The following year, 1987, the Cats were 42-18 and qualified for their first of 20 consecutive NCAA postseason appearances.
Those early years marked the upswing in Candrea’s recruiting skill at the Division I level, and by 1988, the team turned in a 54-18 record and made it to the College World Series for the first time and recorded two WCWS victories. That year, pitcher Teresa Cherry became Candrea’s first UA All-American.
The ensuing years provided more of the same — UA finished 48-19 in 1989 and 49-17 in 1990, placed third and second, respectively, in the tough Pac-10, but still came up short in WCWS play.
The bigger picture jelled in 1991 when things looked somewhat bleak as the Cats finished 11-9 and fourth in conference play — tied for his worst such record. Once in the postseason, a gutty and defensive-oriented UA swept Arizona State in NCAA Regional play in Tempe; then played five games pivotal to the history of Arizona softball, at Oklahoma City in the College World Series. Candrea and the Cats earned their first national championship, beating UCLA 5-1 in the title game.
The program was off and running, and Tucson became a destination for many of the best young players in the game, finishing the decade of the 1990s with 523 victories against 75 losses. Other national championships followed – 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001, 2006 and 2007. Following each of the titles in 1994, 1996,1997 and 2007 Candrea was named National Fastpitch Coaches Association Division I Coach of the Year.
Mike Candrea knows you don’t win games without players. A succession of top-level players — sluggers, hitters, dominant pitchers, Olympians — has kept Arizona at the top. For 18 consecutive years, at least two of Candrea’s players earned All-America honors in voting by the coaches association.
Four times it was six players — the only times that many players from one team have been picked. In 1994, 1995 and 1998, the six selections were all first-team All-Americans. In 1997, all five Arizona honorees were first-team players, as were the four selected in 2004.
In a time that academics all too often find themselves a distant second to athletics, Candrea has stressed hitting the books as well — with Autumn Champion (2006, second team), Leah O’Brien (first team in 1994, 1995 and 1997), Jenny Dalton (first team in 1996, second team in 1995) and Nancy Evans (1998) earning Academic All-America honors.
Candrea is sought out by softball and baseball coaches around the country and has delivered instructional clinics throughout the nation. He is particularly known for hitting techniques, team fielding drills and squad motivational preparation. In recent years, he has consulted with major league baseball stars and other learned technicians to conduct national hitting clinics, and he participates in dozens of such sessions to help improve the way softball is taught and played. He has written several books and produced a number of videotapes on various softball subjects and has designed specific practice aids and equipment that are widely used at various levels of play.
Still, just watching him work with a hitter, some balls and a batting tee show the true value of his coaching: he loves to teach. He enjoys the work, is able to communicate and uses an encouraging but firm style. His pre-game infield drill is an example. It’s a smooth, fast-paced warm up that’s done exactly the same each time.
Candrea’s style of play, public comportment and the consistent winning puts Wildcat fans in the stands at Rita Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium. Last year, the Wildcats drew a nation-leading average of 2,458 fans per game and had a season-high 2,895 witnesses to Arizona’s 11-2 win over California on April 18. The Wildcat faithful have led the country in home attendance per game in two of the last three years and have earned the distinction eight times since the stadium’s opening in 1993.
Mike Candrea began his softball coaching career at Central Arizona College from 1981-85. His team won consecutive NCAA World Series in his final two seasons, earning him national coach the year honors each time. Prior to coaching softball, he was an assistant baseball coach at Central from 1976-80. On January 18, 2009, Candrea was inducted into the inaugural CAC Hall of Fame Class.
A baseball player at Central, Candrea’s playing career was cut short by an elbow injury. He earned an associate’s degree at Central in 1975, a bachelor’s degree at Arizona State in 1978 and a master’s degree from ASU in 1980.