June 1, 2010

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By Patrick Finley
Special to NCAA.com

TUCSON, Ariz.-Take a look at Mike Candrea's University of Arizona baseball cap.

Written in curly white letters on the bill are two different sets of initials. The first, C.K., is a tribute to Charlene Koria, the mother of Arizona player Lini, who died March 7 of a heart attack.

The second set of initials is in memory of Arizona recruit Brianne Matthews, from Mater Dei High School near Los Angeles, who committed suicide in late February.

So unless anyone thinks the Wildcats' 22nd trip to the Women's College World Series in 23 years was the result of smooth sailing, the veteran Arizona coach will be the first to say otherwise.

"Any time you're a family or a team, those things can do nothing but make you stronger," Candrea said.

He knows. In 2004, Candrea's wife, Sue, died of a brain aneurysm while his United States Olympic team was preparing for the Games.

"Life challenges you," Candrea said. "I don't think I can be challenged any more than I can in my life.

"In a sense it allows me to comfort young people."

While the tradeoff is no comparison, the Wildcats have been able to channel their sadness into good news on the field.

On Mother's Day, Koria, a sophomore designated player, hit a home run and drove in five runs. In clinching the Wildcats' regional victory against Hofstra, Koria broke a 12th-inning tie with a walk-off grand slam. Before the at-bat, Candrea implored Koria to "do one for Charlene," and she did.

"I was already thinking that," she said of walking to the plate.

While comparing off-field tragedy to on-field woes is short-sighted, the Wildcats have still seen their share of softball drama the past three weeks.

While playing their second-to-last Pac-10 series of the season, freshman ace Kenzie Fowler felt discomfort and numbness in her right throwing hand.

She was scared and went to a hospital in Eugene, Ore. to get checked out.

In 2007, Fowler was hospitalized for 13 days and needed life-saving surgery after suffering from thoracic outlet syndrome. Doctors removed blood clots and a rib to improve blood flow to her shoulder.

Tests traced Fowler's injury to a pinched nerve in her neck. She did not throw for five days between the end of the season and the regional round, and then delivered 204 pitches to clinch the regional against Hofstra.

After beating BYU in Game 1 of the super regional, Fowler's pitching arm was battered again. In the first inning of Game 2, she was hit by a line drive in her forearm, knocking her out of the game.

Candrea expects Folwer - whose forearm is bruised - to pitch against Tennessee in the first game of the WCWS on Thursday.

"She's ready to go," he said.

No. 2 starter Sarah Akamine took over for Fowler on Saturday, and allowed one run in five innings to lead the Wildcats to victory.

"I think I did build my confidence," Akamine said. 'I'm ready. I'm ready for anything.'"

After a dramatic season, so are the Wildcats.

Seeded No. 10 in the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats avoided a Super Regional road series when No. 7 Texas lost. Arizona (48-11) now draws No. 15 seed Tennessee, which stunned No. 2 Michigan, in the first round of the College World Series.

Averaging 7.04 runs per game, the Wildcats' offense can back up Fowler, assuming she's ready. Candrea already likes his chances better than last year, when the Wildcats lost two-straight games and were knocked out of the WCWS.

"We have more people right now that I think are battle-ready," Candrea said.

If anything, the Wildcats have been toughened by the season.

"I hope they're damn ready," Candrea said. "I expect to go there and be there awhile."