Michael Lotief, Mike Candrea expect different challenges in super regional

LAFAYETTE — University of Arizona softball coach Mike Candrea acknowledges it will be a different atmosphere — literally and figuratively — when his team meets Louisiana-Lafayette in this weekend’s NCAA super regional tournament at Lamson Park.

Candrea said UL-Lafayette softball crowds are normally more boisterous than the ones that attend home games at Arizona’s Hillenbrand Memorial Stadium.

And then there’s the matter of atmospheric conditions, with denser air and humidity, than the Wildcats experience in their home park.

Lamson Park, where UL-Lafayette is 688-102-1 since 1985, is one issue the No. 9 Wildcats confront beginning Friday at 8 p.m., Candrea said, when the teams meet in the first of a best two-of-three-game series.

A berth to the Women’s College World Series awaits the super regional winner. The teams play again Saturday at 2 p.m., with a third game to follow, if necessary.

UL-Lafayette (47-8-1) has played in three straight super regionals, but this is the first one the Cajuns have hosted.

Candrea, a New Orleans native, said the Cajuns are an aggressive team, a style is that complements the demeanor of the UL-Lafayette softball crowds, he said.

“They’re a team that’s going to come right at you, and their crowd is about 10 times louder than what we have at Hilenbrand, so we’re just going to have to learn how to handle the distractions.

“I think the early innings of the first game are going to be very important for us, and as we go, I think we will settle down a little bit and just play our game,” Candrea said in video interview on the Arizona athletics official website.

The Cajuns, seeded sixth, have an offense that nearly matches the Wildcats, who have hit a nation’s best 106 home runs and 423 RBIs.

UL-Lafayette is second to Arizona in home runs (85). The Cajuns also have 342 RBIs.

While UL-Lafayette softball coach Michael Lotief said the Cajuns can’t afford to engage in an offensive fire fight with Arizona, the Lamson Park crowd will be important to his team’s success.

“When something happens and the crowd really gets into it, it just gives you goose bumps,” he said. “It’s crazy. Our fans have been phenomenal in their support. I think this will be one of the best-attended super regionals in the country.

“Season ticket sales went up this season although everyone knew it was going to be a rebuilding year for us. That’s pretty strong,” Lotief said.

UL-Lafayette officials said crowds exceeding 10,000 attended the three-game Lamson Park regional.

Lotief said he and Candrea also have a friendship that spans more than several years.

Candrea, who has coached at Arizona for 29 years and has been the USA Olympic softball coach twice since 2008, has acquired legendary status in the sport, Lotief said.

“Coach Candrea does so much for the sport, and not just at Arizona, but as an Olympic coach — and the work that he’s done around the country with camps and clinics to support the sport,” Lotief said.

“He has won eight (NCAA) championships at Arizona, and he has been a good friend to me. I respect (Candrea). It’s almost ironic that they sent him (to Lafayette),” Lotief said.

Lotief said Arizona, batting .355 as a team, will enter the super regional with a propensity for offense and scoring runs.

“We watched Arizona all year and obviously they have a good lineup, one through nine. That’s their strength. I think we will be able to do some things against them and we will have to adjust as we go.

“I think it will be a greater challenge this weekend than last weekend (when the Cajuns won a regional with a three-game sweep),” Lotief said.

Lotief said the burden of neutralizing Arizona’s offense will fall to junior pitcher Christina Hamilton, (27-2) the Sun Belt Conference Pitcher of The Year.

Hamilton pitched complete games in all three UL-Lafayette regional victories and she will have to be effective again against Arizona, Lotief said.

Candrea said his batters know what to expect from Hamilton.

“I don’t think she’s overpowering, but (Hamilton) tries to get you to swing, and that high ball that moves up,” he said. “We’re going to watch some video (on Hamilton) and switch to a Plan B if necessary and make changes from inning to inning.

“The air is going to be a little thicker (in Lafayette), so I don’t think the ball is going to travel as much as it is at Hillenbrand, but I think we will still be able to provide some offense.

“I feel real good about this team (Arizona) at this point,” Candrea said.

Lotief said he is still amazed at the progress of the Cajuns, who had only two position players returning from last year.

“I look at this weekend as another challenge and another learning and growing experience,” he said. “It’s also a first for our program, hosing a super regional. ... It’s just another step for what we have been trying to do.”

While Arizona’s softball tradition has been acclaimed nationally, Lotief said the Cajuns have also established themselves in the sport.

The Cajuns are 1,453-429-1 since they began playing softball in 1985.

“We’ve had some good teams (at UL-Lafayette),” Lotief said. “You talk about Arizona and how storied their program has been. This (UL-Lafayette) program has been pretty storied, too.

“What we’ve been able to accomplish here is phenomenal,” Lotief said.