The Star’s longtime columnist checks with an update on the Wildcats’ next ace, a look at who’s headed to the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame, and why Salpointe’s 2021-22 athletic year ranks among the best in Tucson history:
Cats belted way into NCAA Regionals
A year after Mike Candrea’s retirement, the national reputation of Arizona’s softball program remains in good health.
When the Wildcats were selected to the ongoing NCAA Tournament, it sustained perhaps the UA’s most impressive status in any sport, a member-in-good-standing of one of the five longest active postseason streaks (major sports) in NCAA Tournament history. Here’s the list:
43 years: Florida State baseball, 1978-present
40 years: Tennessee women’s basketball, 1981-present
34 years: Arizona softball, 1987-present
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34 years: Stanford women’s basketball, 1987-present
32 years: Kansas men’s basketball, 1990-present
For perspective, the longest ongoing bowl-game streak in football — 24 straight — belongs to Georgia. Alabama is only at 17. Arizona’s longest basketball streak in the NCAA Tournament is 25 years.
First-year coach Caitlin Lowe’s Wildcats made this year’s NCAA field despite finishing in last place in the Pac-12 for the first time in history, 8-16.
Why last place? Arizona’s pitching staff ERA, 3.98, is the second-worst in school history; the 2015 team had a 4.34 ERA. Ace Hanah Bowen has been much better in the regionals; she shut out No. 15 seed Missouri on Saturday, one day after allowing three runs to Illinois in the postseason opener.
College softball is, now and forever, about pitching. If you get a chance to see No. 1 Oklahoma on TV during the NCAA Tournament, it takes about two seconds to realize why the Sooners are dominant. Freshman pitcher Jordy Bahl is 29-1 with an 0.95 ERA. Once Bahl steps into the circle, aggressive and a picture of confidence, it’s a reminder of the great Arizona pitchers of the Candrea years: Susie Parra, Nancy Evans, Jennie Finch, Alicia Hollowell and Taryne Mowatt.
College softball relies on the “power of one” more than any other college sport. Before Lowe can push Arizona back to Oklahoma City as a serious national title contender — remember, Arizona has only played in the Women’s College World Series twice in the last decade — she must produce the next Parra or Hollowell or Jordy Bahl.
Perhaps that pitcher will be Villa Park High School’s Sydney Somerndike, last year’s California Gatorade Player of the Year. The California star signed with Arizona in November and is ranked as high as No. 9 in the overall national recruiting rankings, any position. She has a 4.4 GPA, and already has been featured in a Los Angeles advertisements for Dick’s Sporting Goods.
I’ve seen videos of Somerndike pitch; she’s got a presence like that of OU’s Bahl. She will probably be the most significant recruit, any sport, on the UA campus for the 2022-23 school year.
Arizona hasn’t had the Pac-12’s No. 1 pitcher since Canyon del Oro High School grad Kenzie Fowler entered school in 2010 and pitched the Wildcats to the WCWS title game. Then, sadly, her career was detoured by a series of injuries.
For Arizona to get out of last place in the Pac-12, it’ll swing on pitching more than the long ball, at which the Wildcats often have few peers.
Salpointe sets the bar — and then some
Salpointe Catholic last week completed what might be the single greatest season in Tucson prep sports history.
The Lancers won seven state championships — softball, girls basketball, girls cross country, boys soccer, girls soccer, girls track and field, and girls beach volleyball.
What’s more, Salpointe was No. 2 in baseball, football, boys basketball, boys cross country and girls golf.
This isn’t anything new. Over the last five (full) sports years, Salpointe has won 23 state titles and finished second 19 times. During that period, the other 20-plus high school teams in the Tucson metro area combined for 28 state titles and 16 second-place finishes, which is a bit misleading because Catalina Foothills has won nine boys and girls tennis championships in that span.
I’ve got nothing but respect for Salpointe’s rise to sports excellence, one that can only be matched by Tucson High’s dominance from 1940-60, when it was essentially the only high school in Tucson.
A lot of this reflects on the quality of Salpointe coaches like Wolfgang Weber, Heather Moore-Martin, Danny Preble, Mike Urbanski and Kelly Pierce. And a lot of it has to do with open enrollment — the free agency of high school sports — and declining enrollment in TUSD schools.
There is a competitive problem in Tucson prep sports. Leveling the playing field and placing each team in a bracket commensurate with its ability to compete is an issue the Arizona Interscholastic Association has yet to master.
In football, the AIA created the Open Division for Phoenix mega-powers and elevated Salpointe from Class 4A to 6A, but there is no Open Division for other sports in Arizona.
For some schools, it’s an economics issue. Many of Tucson’s most successful athletic programs have plentiful resources, ranging from good facilities to families that can afford to pay for private training — club sports in the offseason. Many of the schools consistently absent from playoff runs have students who struggle to afford cleats, let alone pay for a private trainer or a quarterbacks coach.
The AIA has such a load, overseeing more than 200 schools, that it hasn’t been able to keep pace with a historic change in Southern Arizona high school sports.
Salpointe’s rise to prominence is one story. It has been up to the challenge of beating the top Phoenix schools to win state championships. But the decline of Tucson high school sports is another story that probably isn’t going to soon go away. The current model for high school sports in Tucson doesn’t seem sustainable.
Dalen Terry or Josh Green? You pick
I watched the final six minutes of Golden State’s Game 1 playoff victory over Dallas last week — garbage time — during which former Arizona guard Josh Green was inserted by the Mavericks.
Green hustled on defense, but not once did he receive the ball in the flow of Dallas’ late-game offense. He once got the ball on a fast break but passed as he neared the basket. He mostly stood alone in either corner, 23 feet out, awaiting a pass that never came.
But he’s getting paid $2.9 million this year, so it’s probably worth the frustration.
It made me wonder if that’s the fate for UA sophomore Dalen Terry, who last week said he will return to Arizona in 2022-23 only if he doesn’t feel confident he’ll be a first-round pick.
Aren’t Green and Terry virtually the same player? Terry is maybe an inch taller but doesn’t shoot as well as Green, who is an average shooter. Terry is a better defensive player, with a longer wing-span and more toughness, but players of his measurables in the NBA are a dime a dozen.
Green spent one season at Arizona and entered the NBA purely on potential. So far, that potential sits on the bench. Terry needs to improve his shooting mechanics, ball handling and decision-making, which he could improve either in a third Arizona season or in the NBA G League with a salary of maybe $500,000 next season.
Jason Jacome to PCSHOF
After pitching Rincon High School to the 1988 state championship game, lefty Jason Jacome had a historical season at Pima College in 1991, going 17-2, leading the Aztecs to the No. 4 ranking in NJCAA. He then pitched five years in the big leagues for Cleveland and the Chicago White Sox. Jacome last week was selected to the Class of 2022 of the Pima County Sports Hall of Fame, one of 13 so honored. He will be inducted at the PCSHOF’s annual banquet at the DoubleTree Hotel in November. Previously announced by the PCSHOF: Sahuaro High School girls basketball coach Steve Botkin is also a member of the Class of ’22.
Pac-12 move could hurt Cats in football
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff last week announced the league will eliminate divisions in football. It’s a good move for the league’s hopes to get a team in the college football playoffs someday — for more national identity and income — but not so good for the mid-level football schools like Arizona, ASU, Colorado and Oregon State. Contending for the South Division football championship at a place like Arizona or Colorado creates interest and sells tickets. If the Wildcats are, say, challenging for second place in the South entering November, it would trigger a seat-filling buzz. It would create hope. But now, in most seasons, the “good” Arizona and ASU teams could be lost in fifth or sixth place in a 12-team stampede rather than second or third place in a compelling division race. It’s a good move for Oregon and USC, sure. But for Arizona? No. …
Cats lose Jeremy Gray to NFL’s Eagles
UA football coach Jedd Fisch lost a valuable member of his front office last week when Jeremy Gray, coordinator of college scouting — mainly the man who monitored the NCAA transfer portal and identified key recruiting targets — accepted a job as the Philadelphia Eagles’ assistant director of pro scouting. Fisch and Gray worked together at UCLA in 2017 and had a strong football legacy: His father, Jerry Gray, was a four-time NFL Pro Bowl player and assistant coach for the Vikings, Bills, Seahawks and Texas Longhorns.
Wildcats’ rebuild ahead of schedule
UA men’s golf coach Jim Anderson led the Wildcats to the 2021 Pac-12 championship and was expected to rebuild this season rather than reload. But the Wildcats stormed to the NCAA Regional championship in Texas last week – overcoming three Top-20 teams — to earn a spot in the NCAA championships this week in Scottsdale (good luck playing four days of golf in that endless heat). Seven of Anderson’s top eight golfers return in 2022-23 as the golf program expects to move to its new $12 million compound at Tucson Country Club, which should be a strong recruiting tool.
Bernard Lagat’s recruiting could restock Cats
From 1980-2015, Arizona had one of the NCAA’s 10 or 12 top distance running programs, with All-Americans such as Matt Giusto, Marc Davis, Martin Keino, Amy Skieresz, Robert Cheseret, Abdi Abdirahman, Tara Chaplin and Lawi Lalang. But the last few years have been a struggle, shown by Arizona’s last-place finish in the Pac-12 track and field finals a week ago. But first-year distance running coach Bernard Lagat, a five-time Olympian, is in the process of changing that. He recruited and signed the two leading distance runners in Arizona for 2022-23: Logan Marek of Ironwood Ridge High School and Noah Jodon of Phoenix Desert Vista. Marek won the Division II state title in the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters earlier this month, and Nodon won the 1,600 championship in Division I. Things are looking up.
My two cents: Saban-Jimbo feud can’t top Pac-12 rivalry
Last week’s public spat between mega-million dollar football coaches Nick Saban of Alabama and Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M — each accusing one another of less-than-honorable recruiting tactics — was rare. Most coaches bite their lips.
But it didn’t surpass the long-standing 1970s feud between USC’s John McKay and Stanford’s John Ralston, triggered by Ralston coaching Stanford to the 1971 and 1972 Rose Bowls behind quarterback Jim Plunkett. It temporarily ended McKay’s historic run at USC.
When I was a rookie beat writer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McKay was a first-year coach at Tampa Bay and Ralston was coaching the Denver Broncos. I had gotten to know Ralston as a kid; he lived two houses down from my family’s house and his twin daughters attended my elementary school classes when Ralston was the head coach at Utah State.
After the game, I walked to midfield as Ralston and McKay participated in the traditional postgame handshake. I wanted to say hello to Ralston. But as I got within a few feet of the two coaches, McKay began shouting at Ralston, accusing him of running up the score in a 48-13 game. Ralston responded with similar foul language, dating to the USC-Stanford rivalry.
PR executives from both teams separated the coaches, who continued to yell at one another while being led off the field.
Later, I asked McKay about Ralston.
“He was always mad I was able to get O.J. Simpson eligible (at USC),” McKay said. “He was always saying accusatory things about our academic requirements and (unfair) advantages. He never let it go.”
In those days, there was no ESPN, internet or social media to intensify the McKay vs. Ralston feud. In 1976, the McKay vs. Ralston feud never got out of Tampa or Denver.
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or [email protected]. On Twitter: @ghansen711