Arizona needs improvement on the mound

February, 9, 2009
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Not too far from where former NFL coach Dennis Green unleashed his famous soliloquy after watching his Arizona Cardinals melt down, the University of Arizona softball team opened the 2009 season and the Wildcats looked like who we thought they were.

The Wildcats can hit the ball a long way, but as a 2-2 start at this past weekend's Kajikawa Classic suggests, not necessarily far enough to consistently outdistance the competition.

At least for the opening weekend, the highest-profile name the Wildcats had on the pitching side of the ledger was new assistant coach Teresa Wilson. And the longtime head coach, most recently at Texas Tech and most notably at Washington, couldn't even linger in circle longer than the rulebook allowed for visits from the dugout.

Sophomore Lindsey Sisk and junior Sarah Akamine each had their moments against quality competition, but the sum total of their pitching lines added up to 19 hits and 15 earned runs allowed in 27 innings. Each pitcher started twice, with Akamine earning wins against UTEP and Nevada and Sisk taking losses against Kansas and Northwestern.

"We've got a tremendous amount of growth to take place, and we knew that going in," coach Mike Candrea said Saturday. "But on the mound, especially, right now, we've got to grow. And I think when [the current situation] happens, it puts pressure on your offense. And I really feel like we've kind of played the game trying not to lose, instead of playing the game to win, and it kind of shows right now.

"For us to be good, we need a lot of people to really grow up and grow a lot more. And we're depending on two kids on the mound that haven't had a lot of time, so you've got to go through the growing pains with them, try to stay positive and try to get better."

A hitless weekend for Jenae Leles (as rare a sight as the rain that washed out play Sunday) helped hold down the team's overall run production. But between gap power from K'Lee Arredondo, Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler (who doubled her freshman total with a pair of two-base hits) and home-run threats in Leles, Stacie Chambers, Laine Roth, Sam Banister and freshman Lini Koria, it's a lineup that offers opposing pitchers few opportunities to catch their breath.

If the bats settle in and the defense contributes -- and the left side of the infield, in particular, looks like something special with Leles and Arredondo -- there does appear to be plenty of potential for the growth Candrea talked about.

The highest ERA in team history was 1.77 in 1996, when the Wildcats lost Nancy Evans to torn ligaments in her foot after just 32 innings. Given the strength of Pac-10 offenses this season, staying under that figure this season comes with long odds. But it's worth noting that the 1996 team also went 58-9 and won a national championship.

Right now, the Wildcats are who we thought they were. Who they will be remains to be seen.

• Louisville put together a quietly impressive opening weekend, sweeping five games at the FIU Combat Classic, including wins against North Carolina and Auburn. Kristen Wadwell picked up three wins and two saves for the Cardinals and didn't allow an earned run in 22 1/3 innings. Former Louisville basketball point guard Patrika Barlow settled into the starting lineup in her first competitive games (not counting fall ball) since high school. But Kristi Cunningham was the star at the plate with three home runs -- equal to half of her team-leading total from a season ago.

• Washington knocked off Tennessee 2-1 behind nine strikeouts from Danielle Lawrie in its opener and seemed to pick up steam from there, rolling to five wins at the Red Desert Classic. And if the school's release recapping Friday's wins against the Lady Vols and BYU is any indication, the rest of the country has its work cut out for it in coming up with a more valuable individual defensive performance than that of Huskies outfielder Alyson McWherter, who took seven runs off the board with some home-run thievery.

• Likewise, if McWherter's defensive effort will prove tough to top, there isn't going to be a better box score all season than the one that showed South Florida's Cristi Ecks as the winning pitcher against Illinois State on Friday. Ecks could have lost her life last season when she collapsed and her heart stopped for nearly three minutes during a practice. Now the senior is healthy, and nothing could be better than being able to talk about the on-field impact she could make for a really good Bulls team.

• Noteworthy upsets proved to be in abundance during the opening weekend, including UTEP beating host Arizona State at the Kajikawa, Baylor taking one of three from Florida in Gainesville, Fla., Massachusetts beating Michigan in Florida and Hawaii knocking off Oklahoma in Honolulu. But the most surprising in my book was Purdue beating UCLA in Westwood, Calif. The Boilermakers managed just one hit and one walk against Donna Kerr but somehow managed to make them count by pairing them together in a two-run fifth inning against the Bruins.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.



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