Pedersen on Sports

Our sports guy takes in a softball game surrounded by senior citizens

It was a little less than a year ago, shortly after the UA softball team was eliminated from postseason play, that I used this perpetually temporary space to suggest that Mike Candrea was on the downside of his coaching career and might be wise to walk away.

My reasoning was somewhat justified. The Wildcats had failed to reach the Women's College World Series for the third year in a row, unprecedented since Candrea arrived at UA in the mid-1980s. Even worse, Arizona failed to make it out of the opening weekend of NCAA tournament play for just the second time in 25 years.

But after finally getting out to Hillenbrand Stadium for a game this year—previous attempts to take in a contest had been thwarted by family emergencies, car trouble and, freakishly, rain—I'm prepared to retract my suggestion about Candrea's future.

Arizona is a stud team once again, at least from a hitting standpoint.

I had a front-row (er, press box) seat Saturday as the Wildcats hit a school-record eight home runs in an 11-7 win over Utah. Yes, EIGHT home runs, including three by Katiyana Mauga, a short but powerful freshman who is hitting .403 with 18 home runs and 51 RBIs.

And that puts her only second in homers and tied for third in RBIs on her own team, which is hitting better than .360 and scoring more than eight runs a game. Arizona has 90 home runs in 48 games this season.

This team's display of raw power Saturday (at least two homers went over the batter's eye behind center field and one of Mauga's landed in the top row of a 50-foot-tall set of bleachers beyond left field) was witnessed by 1,955 mostly bundled-up fans who didn't mind that Tucson was experiencing "winterlike" (as my wife would say) conditions in late April.

Actually, the attendance impressed me far more than the product on the field, but it's been that way since I went to my first game as a UA freshman in 1995. Hillenbrand has always been a packed house.

Arizona has led the nation in attendance seven times since 1994, most recently in 2011 with an average of 2,591, and last year it was second in Division I with an average of 2,203. (Saturday's attendance was slightly below the average of 2,059 this season).

And as far back as I can remember, that crowd has had one distinct characteristic: It skews very senior citizen.

There are far more people of a certain age at UA football and basketball games, but the percentage of fans at Hillenbrand that qualify for AARP discounts can't be topped. And they're a saucy group, too, raining down plenty of creative criticism at the poor home plate umpire every time he doesn't call that borderline pitch in favor of "our Cats."

I've always been fascinated with the makeup of the Hillenbrand crowd, and over time I've figured out what it is that's different about it. I used to think it involved an inferiority complex because most of the fans weren't able to get UA basketball season tickets, so UA softball was the next-best thing. But that's not it.

To the vast majority of the fans at Hillenbrand, Arizona's players aren't college students on scholarship. They are their granddaughters.

And like most grandparents, they are unabashed in showering their grandkids with support for everything they do. So umpires who don't always see it the fans' way should be prepared for a pointed tongue-lashing.

Some of my favorites from Saturday:

• After a Utah player walked on a close pitch outside: "Hey ump, it's that white thing, right in front of the catcher!"

• When a pitch bounced in front of the plate and went through the Utah catcher's legs shortly after a low strike was called on an Arizona hitter: "That's a ball, blue!"

• And after a ball was fouled off the umpire's helmet, causing him to stagger backward, a smattering of applause was followed with "Maybe that will get your eyesight straightened up!"

There were many more, but most I can't repeat. Not because they were profane but because they were either grumbled too softly to hear or went on far too long. These fans don't shout words or phrases, they provide run-on sentences. A spate of negative reactions to a checked swing called a ball on appeal went on for so long that the batter popped out and was back in the dugout before the fans were done complaining.

To each his own. It's part of Hillenbrand, and those kinds of things factor into your home field advantage.

Saturday's contest was Arizona's 26th home game this season—and its 26th home win. The streak is now at 27 games after Sunday's 8-3 win over Utah, moving the Wildcats to 39-9 overall and 12-6 in the ultra-tough Pac-12 Conference.

The UA is 610-69 since Hillenbrand opened 21 years ago, and this corner of campus has become a magnet for older Wildcat fans who have created one of the best game atmospheres you'll find in college sports.

And while this Arizona team doesn't look anywhere close to some of the glory teams of the 1990s and 2000s that collected seven NCAA titles—the pitching is far from stellar—it looks good enough to get back to the World Series and return the program to national prominence.

Go ahead and stay, Candrea. You seem to know what you're doing.

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