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Twenty five years later, Candrea & Arizona going after another World Series

Mike Candrea has his Wildcats back deep in the postseason
Steve Rivera/GOAZCATS.com

Whether he'd be in his first year or 31st year as a coach, Mike Candrea knows college softball coaches are judged in late May or early June.

He knows because he's been the guy who's been extremely good in that time frame. His eight national titles on his resume are enough. In fact, it's Hall of Fame stuff. But it's been a while since the softball master has had great success at this time of the year. It's been six - long - seasons since UA has been to the College World Series, a place where the Wildcats were there so often they started to receive mail there.

Of course, that's a slight exaggeration but Arizona was as good as any team or program from 1987 to 2010. The common person has always been Candrea, who goes into the weekend's play with Auburn.

Still, he'll be judged on how well the Cats play and whether they get back to the World Series, where he's been 22 times. Yes, 22. It's what success brings. One could have a great season, an overachieving season and it might not be good enough. Consider this year where UA is 39-19 overall and into the next round for the 11th time in 12 years.

"It's bad because I don't think people - other than those who play - know how tough it is to get there," Candrea said of grading overall success on reaching the World Series. "When people talk about the Sweet 16, they say 'you've arrived' but that's where we've been quite consistently. In my eyes, we've set the bar and raised the bar at a high level. To me there is nothing wrong with that."

But there is a bad side, a tough side. Candrea said in recent years it's been difficult because many of the former Cats in the last few years have had a hard time dealing with it. Candrea said "it was starting to eat up the kids, the history and tradition and the expectations of being there. They quit celebrating the small victories."

It was a reason why he liked his team enjoying its extra-inning victory over Tennessee last weekend to get where it is currently.

"Those are hard to get," he said.

If Arizona were to get back to the World Series it would be gratifying, Candrea said, adding "it would confirm the process and I think our process is good. But the process is different than in the past."

Translation: It's a different time. The SEC has made it that way. Schools are putting major money into facilities, salaries and minor sports. "They are (successful) for a reason," he said.

Guess who he can blame for that? Himself. He's long been considered one of the current day pioneers in the sport after 31 years in the softball business and more than 40 years of coaching. His program singlehandedly usurped UCLA's dominance in the early 1990s and beyond. Arguably, softball is what it is because of Candrea.

"I feel good with what we've done," he said. "We've grown the sport and now I'm in a world that I helped develop. Now, must deal with it."

He must feed the beast just as Lute Olson had to in his time and Sean Miller now. After all, Arizona softball is much like Arizona basketball in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately scenario.

"You gotta feed it (but) sometimes you don’t' have the food," he said. "That's the reality. Sometimes the Yankees aren't the Yankees (and) that's the way it goes."

He's done pretty much everything he could do to get his Yankees, er, Wildcats - can you tell he's a Yankees fan? - back to the World Series. This weekend at Auburn seems to be as good a chance as any behind Danielle O'Toole, the Pac-12's leader in wins (25).

If Arizona were to pull it off it would be 25 years since UA won its first NCAA title in softball.

"Time has kind of flown by for me," said Candrea, now 60. "It doesn't seem like 25 years; it doesn't feel like I've been at Arizona for 31 years. For me, it's about being able to do something I love to do and have a passion for. I always tell people I've never worked a day in my life because I love what I do. I think when you are in that situation it goes by quickly."

He's also had to learn about himself and coaching. And, yes, he's evolved, moving with the times of how and when to motivate. You don't luck yourself into 22 World Series appearances, 30 NCAA tournaments and nearly 100 All-Americans.

Associate coach Stacy Iveson said Candrea has changed year to year it just depends on the team and their personalities. She would know, she played for Candrea in his first year in the mid-1980s.

"He's learned along the way and has taken it all in," she said. "Each year is a different year. He'll see how they need to be pushed and kicked in the butt a little bit or if they need guidance in a different direction. His strength is he knows how to communicate and deal with people."

That's helped him have the "longevity" he's had Iveson said.

Said Candrea: "You have to evolve. I try to and I'm trying to. I'm sure there will be a day when I can't do it anymore. I won't be because I have a lack for the love of the game or it becomes work. But it's the lack of being able to relate to the generation. This generation has been intriguing."

He says he's thankful for young coaches like Caitlin Lowe, a former UA All-American outfielder and others.

"You need other people to help," he said. "You have to because you need to get others involved."