Following longtime coach Mike Candrea's retirement announcement, the University of Arizona announced last month that Caitlin Lowe would become the next coach of the UA softball team.
The legendary softball coach Candrea accrued an NCAA record of 1,674 overall wins, 11 Pac 10/12 conference titles, eight Women's College World Series titles and two Olympic medals throughout his 36 years with Arizona Softball. Lowe said working with Candrea helped her feel confident in taking the reins.
"I just think that he's been preparing me for this," Lowe said.
A four-time All-American at the UA, Olympic silver medalist and hall-of-fame professional from the National Pro Fastpitch league, Lowe has spent the past nine seasons working various coaching and management roles for the local softball powerhouse, including spending the last three years as associate head coach.
Lowe's appointment comes among multiple women stepping up to leadership positions in UA sports in recent years, including assistant softball coaches Taryne Mowatt-McKinney and Lauren Lappin.
Mowatt-McKinney, who has coached the team's pitching for the past three seasons, was a second-team All-American and selected in the first round of the 2008 National Pro Fastpitch Draft.
"I think that you're seeing a bunch of roles being filled by female coaches," Mowatt-McKinney said. "When we graduated from college, we were trying to find jobs in the fields where we got our degrees. I had seen female coaches, but it just didn't cross my mind that that could be a career for me because there wasn't an abundance of powerful female coaches."
Candrea established a lasting legacy and his softball alumni are extraordinarily invested in the success of the program, Lowe said.
"I always tell our recruits that we have 100 people or so come back for our alumni games, and that's just madness," Lowe said. "I think we have the highest return rate at our school, but that's just Coach in the culture, the culture that he's built here."
Those close to Candrea have often described the "culture of tradition," "Candrea-isms," or the "pillars of Candrea," that have served as the foundation of the program and established that there's more to the UA's softball legacy than its NCAA championships. Hopeful Wildcat recruits in softball and other sports may find themselves looking to the female pioneers who have been champions under Candrea, both on and off the field.
Erika Barnes, executive senior associate director of athletics who also serves as senior woman administrator and Title IX liaison, was also one of Candrea's players. She played alongside softball legende Jennie Finch on the UA 2001 National Championship team.
"I've been blessed to have a relationship with him in different walks of life," Barnes said. "He likes having softball players around the university in Tucson and all that."
Barnes, who has served in numerous positions within the athletic department since 2005, is also a member of the NCAA softball selection committee and Pac 12 council. Lowe says Barnes has invaluable insight due to her experience as a former student athlete.
"I think we can both say that she's really enhanced the softball program at Arizona way far after her playing days," Lowe said.
The UA is the final softball program within the Pac 12 conference to be led by a female head coach and is the sixth out of nine head coaches in the conference to return to their alma mater. Besides all the wins under Candrea, the legacy of the UA softball tradition has opened doors for those who have played in the program to enter leadership positions within collegiate athletics.
While Title IX has made strides in collegiate sports for women, they still only make up approximately 40% of the head coaching positions and only 7% of the athletic administration positions. Lowe's promotion has signified a step in the right direction, following suit of UA women's basketball coach Adia Barnes and women's golf coach Laura Ianello.
As the industry of collegiate athletics continues to evolve, new opportunities such as recent legislative efforts for student athletes to capitalize on their "name, image and likeness" have been in the works. The UA has been developing the Arizona Edge program as a means for its student athletes to take advantage of both academic and athletic success.
"It's a new space that student athletes in schools can benefit from and I think it would be a great opportunity to see students and student athletes being able to capitalize truly on their name, their image, their likeness but also their personal development and growth," Barnes said.
Women often make financial sacrifices in the form of volunteering to gain coaching experience for these leadership opportunities. Additionally, they have to balance work and their personal lives but many find a common support network that aids in their success despite these "unorthodox schedules."
"When we talk about Arizona athletics, it really is the people that keep us here, it's the people that made us come back to Tucson and settle down here and start our adult life in our careers here, because we're surrounded by great people that have been there for us since we were 17, 18 years old and they've kind of watched us grow up in the community here in Tucson," Mowatt-McKinney said. "It doesn't compare to anywhere else in the country when it comes to the softball community."