Illini softball to challenge Olympic experience

By Kate Munson

When Illinois softball takes the field against No. 10 Arizona on Saturday, it will face a team and a coach with a legacy.

Arizona head coach Mike Candrea is no stranger to softball success, and not all of it has come at the collegiate level. In 2008, Candrea took a leave of absence from the Wildcats to coach Team USA. The result was a silver medal in Beijing.

“Any time you can put on a USA uniform and represent your country is a pretty special moment,” Candrea said. “I just really enjoyed being with a great group of athletes that are the best that we have in our sport, but not only that, they’re great people and I think that’s what made it fun.

“Being able to travel through 42 states in the country and reach down to the grassroots and thank the young kids that are playing the game, you know all the little things, you kind of see things go in a full circle.”

But after two Olympic medals – the U.S. won gold in Athens in 2004 – Candrea stepped down from his Team USA responsibilities to focus full time on the Wildcats.

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“Eight glorious years, but (I’m) kind of glad that I’m able to be at one place and sleep in my own bed and do the normal things that you do,” Candrea said. “I don’t think people realize how much time we spend on the road, and I think that was probably one of the toughest things, being on the road from February to August.”

Candrea has had plenty of success at Arizona, too. Over the past 21 seasons, he has led the Wildcats to 20 Women’s College World Series appearances, eight national championships in the span of 18 years and 1,131 wins.

“At Arizona the expectations are very high,” Candrea said. “People here are used to winning and used to winning big, and if you finish second in the college World Series, you come home and they say, ‘What happened?'”

But the Illini refuse to be intimidated by their opponent’s credentials.

“Obviously we have great respect for him and for every coach we play, but it’s really insignificant. Once we get on the field, our team plays to win,” Illinois head coach Terri Sullivan said. “And players win games, not coaches.”

Last weekend, sophomore second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz proved she could do just that. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week kicked off the season by hitting .692 and driving in five runs in four games.

But Zymkowitz isn’t basking in her accomplishments. Last year’s squad may have relied on a few sluggers, but this team is all about balance.

“This team is so different. We’re, like, way more knit together,” Zymkowitz said. “It’s like we’re more scrappy, whereas last year we’d have to rely on players. But now once we come together, it’s much more fun when everyone gets involved.”

The Fighting Illini have five more chances to play together this weekend. In addition to Arizona, Illinois will face Hofstra twice, South Florida and Marshall on the weekend.

No matter who the Orange and Blue face, their goal is the same.

“The jersey on the other side never matters to us. It’s handling pressure, playing with confidence, executing, and not beating ourselves,” Sullivan said. “We’re taking everything game by game, but our game plan is always to go out there and leave it all on the field and win, no matter the opponent.”