Can Kellie Fox's Prolific Career End With A Happy Last Chapter?
You play poker with Arizona coach Mike Candrea at your own risk, his face so often a story written in invisible ink. Yet even on the phone recently, it seemed possible to hear the corners of his mouth pull into a grin as he talked about Kellie Fox. A person with more wins than any other active coach in college softball, eight national championships and Olympic gold and silver medals with Team USA, Candrea had just described the fifth-year senior as one of the best shortstops he's ever watched.
He paused, then as if unsure the assessment had resonated quite the way he intended, he underscored the point with understatement that sounded almost mirthful.
"And I've seen some pretty good ones," he added.
Just about all of those who've mattered.
"She's got the best hands I've ever seen, the smoothest hands I've ever seen, the quickest release," Candrea elaborated. "It's almost impossible to get a ground ball by her during practice every day, and I've tried to do that."
If nothing gets by Fox, it is only what we would expect of someone held up as an all-time great in a program for which that is a decidedly hard-won label. Nothing in the field, where she is the player Candrea described and the reigning Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and not much at the plate, where she leads Arizona in on-base percentage and is third in slugging percentage and RBIs for one of the nation's most prolific lineups.
Yet none of that has made it any easier to reach the Women's College World Series.
When softball's best rivalry renews as Arizona visits UCLA for games Friday, Saturday (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET) and Sunday, every player on the field will know the feeling.
Last season was the first in decades in which senior classes at both Arizona and UCLA, programs that played each other for the national championship in 2010, completed four seasons without ever making the trip to Oklahoma City for the Women's College World Series. But senior classes were, for the most part, composed of players who held complementary roles for their teams. Seniors will be in the spotlight this weekend.
In addition to Fox, Arizona's Hallie Wilson is an All-American who played for Team USA last summer and Chelsea Goodacre is fourth among active Division I players in home runs. It's the same story at UCLA, where Ally Carda was one of three finalists for national player of the year a season ago and will play with Fox on Team USA this summer; Stephany LaRosa is already a two-time first-team All-American; and Gracie Goulder is a four-year starter, the first at Georgia and the past three for the Bruins.
Pick whatever number you want, but you won't get too far in making a list of the best players in college softball without writing all of their names. Yet none has played in the World Series, an event that once seemed part of each program's official schedule.
Fox stands apart even in that company. In what amounts to an unprecedented position, albeit one she would just as soon not claim, she has played for the sport's three best-known teams -- her first two seasons at UCLA, the past two seasons at Arizona and last summer with Team USA -- but has yet to win a college or world championship. That this is true through no fault of her own is the story of the rivalry at the moment.
"Kellie, I think, has done everything in her right to help this team and this program," Candrea said. "But ultimately you need other pieces to the puzzle that you have to have to get there."
Growing the West Coast rivalry
There wasn't much of a rivalry to speak of when Candrea arrived at Arizona before the 1986 season. UCLA was already royalty, winning three of the first four NCAA championships in addition to an AIAW title in 1978. It wasn't until after Arizona won its first national championship in 1991, beating the Bruins in the final after losing to them the first four times they played that season, that Candrea said he felt he could get in all the same doors necessary in Southern California for the two programs to go head-to-head on the recruiting trail. Arizona and UCLA have played more than 100 games since he took over in Tucson, but they have competed many more times than that to secure the top high school and travel ball players in the nation's most talent- and tradition-rich softball territory.
The schools are separated by 500 miles. The dugouts are separated by considerably less.
"Every single girl knows every other girl on the other team," Fox said. "California is the golden area for softball, and the West Coast, so you play these girls every single weekend growing up. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone knows everyone's story."
For essentially two decades, the two programs held sway over college softball like the United States and the Soviet Union held sway over Cold War geopolitics (which school played which role in the analogy depends on your rooting interest). Seven times from 1991 to 2010, the teams played each other for the national championship, three more than even Connecticut and Tennessee in women's basketball. On the field, Arizona won four of those meetings, UCLA three (the Bruins subsequently vacated one of those as a result of NCAA infractions).
From the inception of NCAA softball in 1982, 20 of the first 29 seasons ended with one or the other celebrating.
No matter who was Candrea's counterpart, it was an even fight in every way.
"It was a very good rivalry from the time it was Sharron Backus to Sue Enquist and then to Kelly [Inouye-Perez]," Candrea said of UCLA's coaching line of succession. "There has always been a lot of respect for that program because they have gone through the same things we have for a while. You have the target [on your back] and your expectations by your fans and your administration is to win the national championship every year. And if you don't, they say, 'What happened?'
"The bar was set pretty high, and I really felt there were not a lot of people that understood that as much as the coaches at UCLA."
When the rivalry between Arizona and UCLA kicked into gear, not even Washington and Stanford on the West Coast had softball programs, let alone the SEC and its array of big-money facilities and increasingly, if not yet wholly, self-sustaining recruiting territory.
In no small part because of what Arizona and UCLA made the sport, it is more difficult than ever to get to its main event in Oklahoma City. Miss on one pitching recruit (and both programs have), suffer an injury at the wrong time or encounter nothing more than sheer bad luck, and a season is lost.
History, in this day and age, may matter less than the recently completed $1.7 million enhancements at Arizona, which included bringing the players' lounge and locker room up to par with those in the SEC.
"There is a tremendous amount of parity throughout the country," Candrea said. "The SEC has, I think, raised the bar in the game through their facilities. There are good coaches around the country; I think the game's improved in that regard.
"So the rivalry is still there, but I think both of us right now are trying to re-establish ourselves and get back to where we were at one time."
Fox finds her home
Fox knows well the weight of expectations. Her older sister Kristie, now one of the youngest Division I head coaches at Texas-Arlington, won back-to-back national championships at Arizona in 2006 and 2007 as a slugging shortstop. While trepidation about following in those footsteps wasn't the sole reason Kellie at first chose UCLA, it was a factor (as was Arizona's pursuing her at less than full steam, something Candrea described as "one of the dumbest things we've ever done."). But when she felt after her first two years in Westwood that the environment didn't suit her, the knowledge of her sister's experience at Arizona outweighed any concern about the inevitable comparisons.
That is every softball player's dream, to win a gold medal or win a national championship. Growing up, that was always my dream and that was always my goal. But I've learned along the way that in order to get there you have to be happy and have fun and surround yourself with people who want you to do your best.Kellie Fox
She has memories that will last her. Some come from the field, as when her best friend, Hallie Wilson, hit a home run to beat UCLA in the season Fox had to sit out as a transfer, or when Fox hit a walk-off home run against Oklahoma this season. Many memories, maybe most of them, came when no one was keeping score, the unforgettable nights or small conversations that mark a person's time in college. The same is surely true for her former teammates on the other side of the field this weekend.
"That is every softball player's dream, to win a gold medal or win a national championship," Fox said. "Growing up, that was always my dream and that was always my goal. But I've learned along the way that in order to get there, you have to be happy and have fun and surround yourself with people who want you to do your best.
"I've been able to do that here at Arizona."
The Bruins appear to be in a better position to make a run at the Women's College World Series this season. Ally Carda's excellence in the circle (in addition to her production at the plate) rounds out a more complete team than the one in Arizona, which is thus far dependent on its admittedly potent offense. With good results in their final two series, including the one against Arizona, the Bruins may be able to secure a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament and thus the right to host not just a regional but any potential super regional.
Even then, there are no guarantees that the softball world won't soon convene in Oklahoma City without either of its greatest dynasties for a fifth consecutive season.
As much as Fox does on a softball field, there may be nothing she can do about that.
"Ultimately there is one team that is going to win a championship," Candrea said. "And everyone else is sitting around going, 'God, I wish it was me.' But I look at her career and I look at the process that she's gone through, and the one thing Kellie Fox knows is how to be successful. I think that will take over for her the rest of her life.
"To me, she will go down as one of the very best players to ever play the game in an Arizona uniform."
That still means something. So does the rivalry between Arizona and UCLA, even as both programs try to show that's because of what is and not because of what was.