TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Debby Day had to check. Was it still there? When was the last time she had seen it? She opened a file cabinet. Yes. There it was. After all these years. The old VHS tape was there.
University of Arizona softball highlights, 1991.
It's been 25 years since that group of Wildcats broke UCLA's stranglehold on college softball, won Arizona's first women's NCAA title, became the program that Tucson loved to love and -- we really don't think we're exaggerating here -- advanced the timeline for the entire sport's jump into the mainstream.
What you see now -- the season-long exposure on ESPN and other regional networks, the front-to-back coverage of the postseason, the dominance of the SEC, the yellow polyurethane-core softball flying out of multi-million dollar stadiums -- didn't exist in 1991.
At Arizona, there was a rocky old P.E. field (don't be fooled by the outfield grass; that might have been green spray paint), home attendance that often didn't rise above double-digits, and an assembly line of intense, low-scoring games ruled by pitching and defense.
But there also was a passionate, young coach selling a championship vision to a roster mostly filled with hungry, state-grown talent, supplemented by a key transfer pitcher from Texas-Arlington -- that would be Day -- who was recruited largely on the recommendation of UA's shortstop.
That coach, Mike Candrea, sitting last week in his office in McKale Center, 25 years after the first of his eight titles at the Women's College World Series, ponders what made those players so special.
"That was the first group of believers," he says.
"I look back now and, yeah, they were damn good players, but they were just grinders. They were just blue-collar workers."
Those grinders, those underdogs, blossomed into champions in 1991, beating UCLA 5-1 in the title game. But they might never have gotten there without a little nudge from senior outfielder Suzie Lady and her now-25-year-old highlight video.
* * *
It was Sunday, May 26.
Arizona sat on a berm overlooking the field at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, catching some shade under a tree beyond the temporary left-field fence. Watching, waiting. Watching, waiting.
It was hot, humid. On the field, UCLA and Fresno State were playing an elimination game, the winner having to turn around to play Arizona about 30 minutes later in a winner-take-all final.
The Wildcats had won their first three games at the 1991 College World Series -- all 1-0, all in extra innings -- before losing to Fresno State, also 1-0. By that time, though, the Cats had been guaranteed a spot in the championship game of the quirky double-elimination tournament.
So, Arizona watched and waited as the Bruins and Bulldogs slogged through 13 innings before UCLA prevailed 5-1.
"My catcher, Jody Miller, and I ... we'd warm up and we'd sit down. We'd warm up and we'd sit down," Day said.
"I think at that moment, I didn't get how big it all was, which was beautiful. I had transferred in as a junior, but I had never been on that stage before. I just knew our team was really, really good and that we were going to win."
Day had led UT-Arlington to its conference championship in 1989, but the team didn't get a spot in the postseason, which was limited to 20 teams in those days. That summer, she played club ball with shortstop Julie Standering, who had just finished her sophomore season at Arizona.
"Everybody on that summer team had been to the postseason," Day said. "One day when I was talking to Julie, she said, 'You know, if you had played with us this year, we would have won the World Series.' And that stuck with me.
"Julie Standering is the one that opened the door for me at Arizona."
Candrea says he had seen Day pitch at some tournaments, and he certainly knew her by reputation from fellow coaches, but he basically accepted her transfer sight-unseen, heeding Standering's endorsement.
When Day left Texas-Arlington in December of 1989, a U-Haul hitched to her car on her way home to California, she decided to stop in Tucson and see her new Arizona coaches. She popped in the office, greeted enthusiastically by always-upbeat assistant coach Lisa Bernstein.
"Coach, look who's here!" Bernstein shouted.
Candrea said hello, but without a flicker of recognition.
"You don't know who this is?" Bernstein asked. "Coach, this is your new pitcher."
Candrea's new pitcher had to sit out 1990 because of transfer rules -- "which was miserable," Day said -- and then she had won 29 games as a junior in 1991 as she prepared on the afternoon of May 26 to face the mighty, mighty Bruins, winners of three consecutive national titles.
She was Arizona's unquestioned ace.
What she couldn't have known at that time was that the UCLA coaches were about to make a very questionable decision about which of their aces to play.
* * *
It was late in the 1991 season.
The Wildcats had been highly ranked most of the season, going 6-3 against Top 10 competition in their non-conference schedule, but they ran into hiccups in the Pac-10, losing five consecutive games at one point.
Suzie Lady had an idea.
The senior outfielder and middle-of-the-order hitter had played club ball with the Redding Rebels, which had a tradition of making an end-of-the-year video -- basically, just a collection of still photos from the season.
"Once I became a part of that, I knew it was a very big team-building experience," Lady said.
"At the point of our season (at Arizona), we were not quite coming together as we needed, and I was like, 'Wow, this might get us the extra yard ahead.'"
She started asking her teammates for photos. They were curious but didn't know exactly what she was planning. Lady enlisted the help of Mike Hausler, who, as a recent Arizona graduate, had started working with the athletic department's video group.
Arizona ended the regular season with a middling 11-9 mark in the conference play, finishing fourth in the Pac-10, which had only six softball-playing schools at the time. The Wildcats were sent to a two-team regional at Arizona State, which had gone 15-5 in the conference and taken three of four regular-season meetings against UA.
"When we drew them for the regionals, I kind of thought, this is going to be it for us," said third baseman Lisa Guise.
It was then that Lady revealed her project to her teammates.
Candrea called his players to a conference room at the team hotel before a practice in Tempe. Lady said she had a video to show everyone. She popped it in.
With a 1980s' synth beat giving way to Kenny Rogers' "When You Put Your Heart In It," the video opens with still photos before featuring game highlights that Hausler cobbled together from the local TV stations.
When you put your heart in it
It can take you anywhere
Who's to say that we can't make it
It's the same dream that we share
Suzie Lady is now Dr. Suzanne Lady, assistant professor and department of clinical education chair for the chiropractic program at the University of Western States in Portland, Ore.
"I still get a little choked up thinking about," Lady said this week, remembering the team's first viewing of the video.
"There were some tears -- but it was like tears of joy. It was like, we have put a lot of effort into getting here, and it was ours to lose. We had the ability and we knew it. The video helped us feel like we could beat everybody."
The seventh-ranked Wildcats, Candrea recalled, went out and had a great practice. They watched the video the next day before playing fourth-ranked ASU. They won 4-2. They watched it the next day. They won 4-0 to clinch a trip to Oklahoma City.
It was particularly sweet for Lady, who went to high school in Glendale and had wanted to be a Sun Devil, only to be dismissed by then-ASU coach Mary Littlewood, who told Lady she "might be able to help some team, some day, but not Arizona State."
"That pissed me off," Lady said. "I thought, I'm going to stay in-state and Tucson is where I wanted to be."
Lady's "help" at Arizona has merely endured for a quarter century.
The 1991 Wildcats watched her video before every game the rest of the season. It was their tradition. It became a UA tradition. Every single Arizona team since then has watched a season-highlight video before every postseason game.
Suddenly it happens
A chance in a lifetime
Now we're gonna take it, we can make it
"Something shifted after that," Guise said. "The focus, the unity, it was like nothing I had ever experienced."
Said Candrea: "It just touched everyone."
Said Day: "It was really just so perfect."
Said Standering: "It was awesome."
* * *
It was the first inning of the championship game.
UCLA's Heather Compton had pitched all 13 innings earlier that day in the win over Fresno State. She was a great pitcher, a first-team All-American, a future member of Team USA, the national leader in ERA at 0.20.
But, to remind you, she had just thrown the near-equivalent of two full games in hot and sticky weather, and most everyone figured the Bruins would go with another pitcher who had a brilliant right arm -- Lisa Fernandez.
Perhaps UCLA coaches Sharron Backus and Sue Enquist were thinking about earlier in the Series, when a Lisa Guise infield bouncer drove in the winning run against Fernandez in a 1-0 nine-inning victory. Perhaps they just wanted to ride the hot hand.
They stuck with Compton against Arizona.
"I don't know," Guise said. "If they had pitched Fernandez, that could have been totally different."
The game was scoreless after two innings. Day worked out of a jam in the bottom of the first, when UCLA had runners on first and third with one out.
Day opened the top of third with a walk. With one out, Standering reached on an error by the second baseman. Kristin Gauthier walked to load the bases.
And then Julie Jones, perhaps with the sweetest lefty swing in school history other than Leah O'Brien, launched a drive that turned around right fielder Nichole Victoria, the ball skittering to the fence. Two runs scored, with Gauthier thrown out at the plate.
"She took her typical Julie swing," Day said, "and then we never looked back."
* * *
It was August 1985.
Arizona's hiring of 29-year-old Mike Candrea from Central Arizona Community College garnered a grand total of three paragraphs in the newspaper.
To understand what the 1991 team accomplished, especially contrasted to the college softball world of today, it helps to understand how small Arizona softball was before then.
The team played on campus at Gittings Field, which was on the same piece of land as Hillenbrand Stadium, but with home plate set the opposite way, in the southeast corner. There were a couple of portable bleachers, usually sparsely filled with family, students taking a break between classes and "whoever's boyfriends decided they were free," Day said.
"I remember playing at shortstop and people would walk on by, and I would be like, 'Hey, stop, take a look, we're pretty good," Standering said.
The Wildcats shared the poorly-maintained field with the physical education department. Candrea and his staff served as the grounds crew. The portable outfield fence had dangerous metal edges. Music between innings was provided by holding a microphone to a cassette player. The practice area sometimes flooded due to backwash from nearby Gittings Pool.
Oh, that pool. Fouls balls that strayed too high and too far along the third-base side went over a brick wall and sometimes splashed down in the water, much to the dismay of the world-class synchronized swimmers who trained in the pool.
"They would throw the balls back over," Candrea said.
He wrote a letter in 1988 to then-athletic director Cedric Dempsey: "We lose four to five softballs per game in the swimming pool, which is quite expensive when your budget is short on funds."
And, yes, Arizona did actually have to spray paint its dead-and-dying outfield grass at times.
During the fall of Guise's freshman year, Candrea told her to report to the field as it would be her responsibility to spray paint the outfield in advance of a fall tournament. The cans would be in a shed by the field.
"I got there early, too, because I wanted to make sure I did it right," Guise said. "When I opened up the shed, there was one can."
The coaches were having a little fun, as were Guise's teammates, who then convinced her that since she didn't have enough spray paint for the entire outfield that she should just sign her name in the grass. She did. Arizona played the tournament with "Lisa G." visible in the outfield.
"I always wanted to pull that prank on the new girls who came in," Guise said, "but Candrea would always spill the beans before I got the chance."
By her senior year, in 1993, Guise was playing in Hillenbrand Stadium, college softball's original Field of Dreams. How times had changed: Arizona went from hitting foul balls into Gittings Pool to hitting home runs into Gittings Pool.
But the humble conditions of those early days helped forged the fighting spirit of the 1991 team. Maybe because they didn't know any better.
"Every single day, we'd push ourselves to the limit and walk off the field filthy and gross," Day said. "I loved that. I knew I was in the right place."
* * *
It was the top of the fourth inning of the championship game.
Arizona was still up 2-0, and nobody was louder in the dugout than outfielder Jamie Heggen, a first-year junior college transfer who had taken over the leadoff spot from departed All-American Vivian Holm.
Heggen had been an all-conference player during the regular season but was head cheerleader at the World Series after suffering a tear of her medial collateral ligament -- while turning around quickly to argue a close call at first base -- during the regional-clinching win at ASU.
There she was in the dugout in Oklahoma City, waving a rally towel and wearing her visor backward, just two of the team's many new spontaneous superstitions.
"She embraced the role of rally-starter," Day said. "She would do anything to keep our spirits up."
The superstitions started with watching the highlight video every day. Then, the team had to have a bite of Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake afterward, because that became part of the winning tradition, started because someone was celebrating a birthday. The rally visors also started during the NCAA regional.
On the team's first night in Oklahoma City, Candrea ate at Whataburger -- a No. 1 combo, cheese, no onions. The order numbers ahead of him were No. 285, No. 286 ... but when his receipt came out, it was No. 1.
No. 1. He took that as a sign. He tucked the receipt in his wallet. He thinks he still has it somewhere.
He ate at Whataburger, ordering the same meal, every night in Oklahoma City.
Driving to the stadium for the team's series-opener against UNLV, Candrea got lost from the team hotel. He had to take a U-turn to get back on the right path. Arizona won 1-0 in 13 innings. Candrea deliberately "got lost" the same way the next day, and the next, and the next.
"I have never been a part of a team so superstitious," Guise said. "But we were winning."
With Heggen leading the cheers, Arizona opened the top of the fourth with a walk from Jody Miller. She stole second with one out and scored on a single by freshman Susie Parra, a promising pitching understudy to Day who often hit in the lineup as the designated player.
Parra -- who would pitch the Wildcats to national titles in 1993 and 1994 -- went to second on a wild pitch from a tiring Heather Compton, and Day followed with a single to drive in pinch-runner Marcie Aguilar. It was 4-0. Compton was done. Lisa Fernandez moved over from third base to pitch.
For the Bruins, it was too late.
* * *
It was March 3, 1989.
Arizona was playing in a tournament in Las Cruces, N.M., the wind howling out, and Oklahoma State, led by All-American Michele Smith, was putting a beating on the Wildcats.
"Michele Smith hit a grand slam that I could not believe," Standering said. "I have never seen a ball hit that far."
Standering also couldn't believe what she saw later, as Oklahoma State, up 9-0, used a squeeze bunt for a 10-0 lead and a mercy-rule victory. A squeeze bunt up nine runs? That game would stand as Arizona's worst loss for the next 18 years.
"I was standing at shortstop, not wanting to leave the field," Standering said. "Coach comes out to me. I'm half-crying, saying, 'This is disrespectful. Do it the right way.'"
Candrea put his arm around her and told her not to worry.
"I'm going to do it the right way here,'" he said.
Says Standering: "That story is part of my life now. Coach Candrea taught me more life lessons than just hitting a softball."
Candrea and Standering always had a strong bond. The slap-hitting lefty originally committed to Northwestern, and was loathe to go back on her word, but her summer-ball coach, Gary Haning of the Orange County Batbusters, implored her to go meet this new guy at Arizona.
She agreed to take a recruiting trip. Candrea picked her up at the airport in his red 280z.
"He starts talking softball as soon as I get in the car," Standering said. "It was a 20-minute drive to the hotel, and I didn't need to see anything else. Right then, I would have committed."
Standering was one of Candrea's cornerstone recruits, part of his second Arizona recruiting class. Her glove was so good that media in the Oklahoma City press box simply called her "Ozzie," referring to the best-fielding shortstop in the major leagues.
Her last play at Arizona would be one of her easiest.
* * *
It was the bottom of the fourth inning of the championship game.
Lisa Fernandez led off for UCLA and hit a home run to cut Arizona's lead to 4-1. Catcher Jody Miller went out to the circle to talk to Debby Day.
"She can't come to bat four more times," Miller said about Fernandez. "We've got this."
That would be the only run Day allowed in 32 innings at the World Series.
Candrea had good pitchers before -- Teresa Cherry, Lisa Bautista (whose enduring claim to fame was slapping her right thigh before every pitch as a means to focus on her release point), Ginny Scheller, Doreen Juarez -- but nobody who could force-march Arizona into taking that final postseason step.
Day was that pitcher.
"Adding Debby to the mix was the magic potion," Lady said. "It was the addition that allowed us to be that team."
Asked what Day brought to the field, Candrea replied: "Softball IQ. Competitiveness. Confidence. She would just breed confidence."
Until recently, a 47-year-old Day, the head softball coach at Cal Lutheran, was still throwing fast-pitch softball ... against men.
In 2012, she became the first female to win a game at the North American Fastpitch Association World Series.
A year later, she was selected co-MVP as her team won the NAFA "A" World Series.
A year after that, she became the first woman to pitch at the "A-Major" level at the Series.
"I'm still looking for something to replace that void," Day said of retiring from pitching. "I'm not quite ready for bingo."
* * *
It was the bottom of the seventh inning of the championship game.
Arizona had scratched across another run in the top of the fifth, Suzie Lady scoring on a wild pitch. The Cats were three outs away.
The first batter walked. Kristy Howard popped out. Nichole Victoria hit into a force out.
And then UCLA's DeDe Weiman swung at Debby Day's 91st pitch of the game, sending a lazy, two-hopper to Standering, whose throw to first base settled in Julie Jones glove at 7:37 p.m. in Oklahoma City.
The Wildcats were national champions.
Day had thrown a four-hitter, Arizona played error-free ball, and Jones had delivered the timely hit.
"I went to Jody first and we hugged. I was just hanging on because I was so tired," Day said. "I remember going over to Coach, and he kissed me on the cheek. It made us both giggle."
Later, Mike Hausler of the UA video department would add in postseason highlights to the team's original highlight video. It's right there: Candrea kissing Day on the cheek.
* * *
It was May 27, 1991.
Times were different. The school promoted the team's early-morning return to Tucson via the media, and fans could go right up to the American Airlines gate to greet the victors.
Not that the Cats were expecting anybody.
It's not fair to say that Arizona softball was a total secret in 1991. The team had hosted NCAA regionals in 1988 and 1990. Games against UCLA, Arizona State and Cal -- featuring All-American pitcher Michele Granger -- helped fill the portable bleachers.
But the players were still not prepared for the throng that awaited when they stepped off the plane.
"We were shocked," Guise said. "It was our moment of being famous. That was amazing."
Among the crowd at the airport was Stacy Engel, now Stacy Iveson, an Arizona assistant coach. She was even wearing a T-shirt that said "World Series Champions," although that was from a intra-squad fall ball event during her UA playing days, which ended in 1989.
"The players that I played with, they were so young at the time but they were so feisty. They expected to win," Iveson said. "I could feel things starting to shift. ... I was so excited for everybody. I just had a lot of pride."
Arizona softball had arrived.
* * *
It was June 6, 1991.
Eleven days after Arizona won the World Series, the game was televised on ESPN.
* * *
It was May 12, 2016.
Mike Candrea, looking at a 1991 team photo, counts 11 of the 15 players who were Arizona kids. Many he had first known while he was still coaching Central Arizona to two junior college national championships. Only four Wildcats were from California.
That was about to change.
"We had made three trips to the College World Series and had knocked on the door, but we could never get in," Candrea said. "This was the team that knocked the door down.
"Beating UCLA, you knew you had arrived and now you could recruit better athletes because you had beaten them. It was a like a big door opened up."
The California kids came rolling in -- Amy Chellevold, Laura Espinoza, Leah O'Brien, Jenny Dalton, Nancy Evans, Alison Johnsen ... and Arizona won titles in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997. Three more titles came in the next decade -- 2001, 2006 and 2007.
Eight national championships in 17 seasons.
There's no doubt that Candrea was going to win national titles at Arizona, but how many and how fast if not for the 1991 team?
If the Wildcats don't win in 1991, does the Hillenbrand family donate $1 million for a stadium that opened in 1993, the immediate envy of every program in America? The SEC, looking to do something with all its football money, took notice and started pouring funds into softball. It became a softball conference in 1997, and it has won three of the past four World Series.
The Arizona-UCLA rivalry fueled the 1990s, raised interest in the sport and supplied the backbone for U.S. gold-medal-winning Olympic teams that captured the nation's fancy.
This will be the 16th season in which ESPN has televised live every game of the Women's College World Series.
Today's college softball players have never had it better, but, back in 1991, the Wildcats were just happy to grind. Pitching the defense. Pitching and defense.
The old white (actually soft) softball was hard to drive over the fence. The aluminum bats of the era were no match to the hot composite bats of today. The 1991 team hit five home runs and had a team ERA of 0.63. Arizona's 2015 team, by comparison, 104 home runs with an ERA of 4.34.
Back then, the Wildcats had a long-winded, but spot-on, sing-song cheer that reflected the value of a single run in the small-ball era: You get the first runner on .. you bunt her over ... you get a hit ... you score ... you win ... that's all.
That's all that mattered.
Candrea forbid his players from seeking out the team stats -- something he could actually accomplish for a few more years in the pre-internet days.
"There was no talk about All-American or all-regional. Nobody talked about 'me,'" Day said.
"I remember going to the All-American banquet (at the College World Series) and I didn't know what it was. Everybody bought into the team. That was the most important thing about our group.
"It's still amazing to know we were the first ones, that we, with all the work, were finally able to get Arizona on the map."
She shows her pride when she says she will still wear her championship ring.
"The way I look at it," Day said, "we earned it."
* * *