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A new era: Mike Candrea passes torch, remains confident in future of Arizona softball

Over a career that spanned 36 years at the University of Arizona, Mike Candrea’s softball teams accumulated 1,674 victories, played in the Women’s College World Series 24 times, won eight national championships and produced 53 All-Americans.

No program in the country has matched the 24 WCWS appearances and eight championships.

So who better to follow Candrea, who retired in June at the age of 66, as Arizona’s softball coach than one of those All-Americans?

When the 2022 season began last week against Southern Utah, it was Caitlin Lowe, who played for Candrea from 2004-07 and helped win two of those championships, at the helm. Naturally, the Wildcats won, trouncing the Thunderbirds 25-1 at Arizona’s Hillebrand Stadium.

“I always tell people I’ve never worked a day in my life because I’ve done what I love to do,” Candrea told Cronkite News. “I look back and I’m very blessed. I’ve been able to follow my passion, and then, hopefully, at the end of the day I’ve done it the right way … I have no regrets.”

While it is the beginning of a new chapter for the program, Candrea is still contributing to the story as a special advisor to Lowe and her staff.

“I’m just so excited for her, and I’m just blessed that she’s been in my life,” Candrea said. “She’s a wonderful coach, but, more importantly, a wonderful human being, and I’m just really excited about the future of Arizona softball.”

The transition couldn’t have been more natural for the Wildcats.

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In 2013, Lowe joined Candrea’s staff at Arizona as the director of operations. She became a volunteer assistant coach the following year and then began coaching full time in 2015. Lowe has spent the last four seasons as the Wildcats’ associate head coach before being promoted on June 7 when Candrea retired.

As a player, Lowe was a dynamo, finishing her career first in Arizona history in stolen bases (156), second in batting average (.446) and fourth in hits (351) and triples (12). A center fielder, she is one of only six players in program history to be selected as a NFCA All-American in all four seasons and just the second to be named First-Team All-America in all four seasons along with Leah Braatz in 1994-95 and 1997-98.

After her legendary career on the diamond in Tucson, Lowe competed for Team USA, coached by Candrea, from 2005-08. There, she won a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Softball fans voted her to ESPN’s Greatest All-Time Softball Team in 2020.

“She’s been a rockstar everywhere,” Candrea said. “There was no doubt in my mind that she would be a great addition to our staff. (I) really became more and more impressed the more I watched her work. She’s a good leader, a good communicator. She’s got a great knowledge of the game, understands the game very well and (has) just a really good approach with young kids. So it was kind of a win-win…”

Lowe, 37, credits Candrea for being a great role model and preparing her for this opportunity.

“You don’t have to really be mentored under him because he leads by example,” she said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, is he doesn’t have to tell you what to do or teach you how to do it. You’re just watching it in real-life form every single day, and I think pretty much anyone who’s worked for him can say that.”

Even though the Wildcats have a new head coach for the first time in nearly four decades, Lowe expects to continue the same traditions and philosophies that Candrea introduced when he first arrived on campus.

“This program is built around this tradition,” Candrea said. “I’ve been blessed to be a big part of it for the last (36) years. So you would hope that, whoever you brought on, the program wasn’t just going to throw all that to the side and not take advantage of the great tradition that we have.”

Still, the man who carried the program to national prominence hopes the woman who tasked with keeping it there will do it in her own way.

“I think you want to use that (tradition) but, on the other hand, you want to be your own person, too,” Candrea said. “I know there’s a lot of things that she does that are quite similar to how I would approach practice and things like that.

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“But there’s a different spin to it and different ways to skin the cat. I think she’s got to make sure that she feels comfortable being herself and not trying to be me…That’s one thing that we talked a lot about. And I think she will do a great job of that.”

Lowe is already putting her imprint on the program, taking her mentor’s advice. As a player, she never committed an error during her entire career at Arizona and she is putting added emphasis on the Wildcats’ defense. 

“I think those teams are usually the most difficult to beat because they just always seem like they’re on a high to (get three outs),” Lowe said. “And I think that one of our strengths this year is being able to play defense. So we’ve put a lot of emphasis on that and how we can feel almost smothering to opposing offenses, and really just get after it on both sides of the ball and not just wait for that big moment at the plate.”

To improve the defense, Lowe hired Stanford alum Lauren Lappin, an All-American shortstop and catcher who was named Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and 2006 for the Cardinal. 

“I’m not a micromanager at all, so I wanted someone to come in and kind of make that their baby, and she really has,” Lowe said. “She’s just run with it. The girls gravitated towards her immediately.”

After being Pac-12 Conference rivals, Lowe and Lappin joined forces as teammates on Team USA and the USSSA Pride. Lappin spent two seasons as coach of the National Pro Fastpitch’s Chicago Bandits and five as an assistant coach at the University of Missouri-St. Louis before joining Arizona’s staff.

“Her and I talked about it in the past, if this ever happens and how cool it would be,” Lappin said. “She’s one of the few people that I was willing to make the jump down (and) dive into the deep end of (Division) I. I just feel a huge sense of responsibility to invest everything I have into continuing to keep this program where it has been.”

Lowe said that bringing Lappin on as an assistant coach was a “no-brainer.” 

“(Coach Candrea) always talked about surrounding yourself with good people, sometimes people smarter than you,” Lowe said. “And I always laugh, but it’s true. I learn from them every day, so (I’m) just blessed to be surrounded with good people.”

One of them remains Candrea in his new role.

During the halftime show of the Arizona-Arizona State men’s basketball game on January 29, UArizona honored Candrea with a video tribute and gave  him the opportunity to address the crowd and his former players. To his surprise, though, the school also announced that its softball grounds will be renamed to Mike Candrea Field.

“I never knew where this game would take me and it’s taken me to so many different places,” Candrea said. “But then at the end of the journey to be able to know that your name is going to be on this field forever is just probably the highest honor that I could ever ask for.”

To further express Arizona’s gratitude towards the legendary head coach, the Wildcats (3-1) hosted the – what else? – Candrea Classic at Hillenbrand Stadium on Feb. 11-13. After back-to-back blowout wins against Southern Utah (0-5) on Thursday and Friday, Arizona, ranked ninth at the time, faced No. 2 Alabama (4-0) in an early top-10 matchup. 

The Wildcats hoped to avenge their 5-1 loss to the Crimson Tide in the opening round of the 2021 Women’s College World Series, but they will have to wait until this year’s postseason for that to happen. Alabama shut out Arizona, 11-0, in a five-inning run-rule game. The Wildcats bounced back on Sunday with a 1-0 win against New Mexico (2-2).

Up next for No. 11 Arizona is another home tournament, this time the Hillenbrand Classic in Tucson. The Wildcats are set to play five games in three days on Feb. 18-20. The weekend includes a double-header on Friday against UC Santa Barbara and Long Beach State, two more games on Saturday against Loyola Marymount and Kentucky and a matchup with Long Beach State again on Sunday.

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Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics

Shortly after Mike Candrea, left, announced his retirement as coach of the Arizona Wildcats in June, the school named Caitlin Lowe as its new leader of the softball program.