THE LAST QUEENS OF THE DIAMOND
They'd been crowned queens yet again. Champions in Oklahoma City with a head coach who had already made his mark as a legend, a pitcher who had struck out more batters than any other in school history, and an offense that could not be corralled. In a 65-game season, the Arizona Wildcats won 54 including the very last one - a 5-0 shutout of Northwestern that handed Arizona another national title.
The year was 2006.
A season later, with names like Alicia Hollowell and Autumn Champion gone, few outside the program knew what the future held for storied Arizona. Few certainly could have predicted what would happen by season's end and the manner by which it occurred - that on a beautiful June night in Oklahoma City, the Cats would take down the most dominate pitcher in college softball history and remain queens of the diamond for one more season.
But Arizona's journey back to the top was filled with stumbles, bumps, and bruises. For some, it was an exercise in overcoming self-doubt. For others, it was a lesson in perseverance. For all, it was proof that nothing was impossible.
This is the story of the 2007 Arizona Wildcat championship softball season as told by some of the women who lived it, all of whom played a significant role in winning Arizona's 8th and most recent NCAA softball title.
Taryne Mowatt, Junior pitcher
Callista Balko, Junior catcher
Sam Banister, Sophomore first base
Chelsie Mesa, Senior second base
Jenae Leles, Sophomore third base
Kristie Fox, Senior shortstop
Caitlin Lowe, Senior centerfield
Danielle Rodriguez, Senior pinch runner
CHAPTER ONE: TARYNE'S TIME
Arizona entered 2007 as the number 1 team in the nation. The squad returned nearly all of its pieces from its 2006 championship run while only losing one big hitter in the order, Autumn Champion. Yet the Wildcats took the biggest hit in the circle with the departure of Alicia Hollowell. By the time she graduated, Hollowell had set school records for career victories, career strikeouts, shutouts, and no-hitters. She left big shoes to fill.
There were reasons to be optimistic. First was Taryne Mowatt. In her sophomore campaign, Mowatt finished 21-5 with a 1.28 ERA. Entering her junior year, Mowatt was eager to prove she could be the ace.
Second, and possibly more intriguing, was one incoming freshman. A potential star-in-the making by the name of Amanda Williams.
Williams was the top ranked prep pitcher in the country. The previous spring, Williams had been named California's Gatorade Player of the Year. She had led Freedom High School to four straight CIF championships and had finished with a perfect record in her senior season. There was little doubt that she could potentially make an immediate impact.
Except, Williams never threw a pitch for Arizona. She was ruled academically ineligible following the fall semester and left school shortly after. The burden now fell squarely on the shoulders of Mowatt, the 5'6" blonde-haired pitcher from Southern California.
CAITLIN LOWE: I don't think anyone else gave us a chance after losing Alicia and Autumn. Right afterward it was like, Taryne's going to carry us there? What?
CALLISTA BALKO: Nobody knew what Taryne could do.
SAM BANISTER: Even if she wasn't ready, that girl fakes it until she makes it. She's one of the most confident people I've ever met
TARYNE MOWATT: Coach (Candrea) told me ahead of time, "If I need you to pitch however many innings, are you able to do it?" I told him, "Yeah. I can pitch as long as you want. Until my arm falls off." But even then, you don't really know what you're getting into until it's every day, every game.
In 2006, it took 16 games before Arizona lost its first contest. In 2007, it took just three. During opening weekend, Arizona fell to Florida, 3-1.
TARYNE MOWATT: I ended up giving up a run late in the game. A home run to tie. We went extra innings. Had two outs, runner at first and the next batter hit a home run to walk-off. I was so bummed watching that ball fly over the fence. Defensively we had done our job. I just couldn't finish. That was the first big blow to the weekend.
The second blow came three games later when Arizona fell to Texas A&M on another walk-off home run, 3-2.
CAITLIN LOWE: It was just a wake-up call. We weren't ready to be national champions in the first week.
CHELSIE MESA: It was a little shock to our ego because we were used to winning.
CALLISTA BALKO: I think it's important for teams to have big losses in the season. It humbles you.
CAITLIN LOWE: It was almost good in a way. It kind of set the tone for the whole year.
SAM BANISTER: Cinderella stories don't come from people that are good right off the bat. You've got to grind for it a little bit.
The Wildcats rebounded to win twelve of their next thirteen games. The team then headed to Waco, Texas to take on Baylor in a three-game series. After winning the first, Arizona dropped the next two. It was the first series loss of the season.
TARYNE MOWATT: The Baylor weekend was tough.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: The fans there were extremely loud.
TARYNE MOWATT: Caitlin, if I remember correctly, last game of the series she had gotten food poisoning. She was sick so she wasn't able to play.
CAITLIN LOWE: It was the only game I missed in college. I went to Texas Roadhouse and ate some bad food. I couldn't move. Not a good trip for me.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I remember coming out kind of flat. They came out and pounded us pretty good.
JENAE LELES: That was kind of heartbreaking.
Arizona went on another winning streak taking seven of nine before conference play began. The Cats continued through the Pac-10 as they had during the non-conference schedule, mostly winning but suffering some setbacks along the way. The most notable loss was the rivalry game at ASU when Arizona fell, 6-3.
CAITLIN LOWE: I remember sitting in the dugout and being beyond frustrated. It didn't have to do with the physical game at all. Most headaches don't come with the physical game. They come with the mental game.
SAM BANISTER: All of us were like, what is happening?
CAITLIN LOWE: We didn't walk out like we had Arizona on our chest. That was the first time in four years here that I'd experienced that.
SAM BANISTER: This is ASU. This is not acceptable.
CAITLIN LOWE: We spent about twenty minutes on the bus hashing things out. That's what Kristie and I did. It wasn't yelling and screaming. We wanted everybody to be on the same page.
JENAE LELES: I don't think we stopped for dinner on the way back.
Lowe and Fox made an impression. By the time they welcomed in UCLA and Washington for the final three games of the season, the Cats had sealed up another conference championship. Then, they slipped again.
Arizona not only lost its Thursday game against UCLA 7-4, it lost first baseman Laine Roth after Roth fouled a ball off her mouth.
On the next night, the eve of Senior Day, Arizona lost to Washington, 5-1.
TARYNE MOWATT: I questioned myself. Whether my body could get through it. After facing these same hitters multiple times, now they're getting twelve, thirteen, fourteen at bats off of me. Was I able to make the adjustment to continue to get them out?
CHELSIE MESA: We kind of took some things for granted.
TARYNE MOWATT: I had talked to Chelsie the night before on the phone. She says, "You know, you got this. Tomorrow you're going to do great."
CHELSIE MESA: I've had many conversations with Taryne. I don't remember that one.
TARYNE MOWATT: On senior day, I met with the team and apologized for my role. I told the seniors, "Whatever we need to do, we have your back. I have your back."
CAITLIN LOWE: I think when someone says it with conviction, you know.
SAM BANISTER: Taryne was like, "We're Arizona f-in softball. We need to dig down deep and figure out a way to get this done."
CALLISTA BALKO: What Taryne was doing was asking us, "Get behind me. Let's finish the year with a bang." Sometimes that's all it takes.
TARYNE MOWATT: I still didn't have a great game against Washington but every time I gave up a run or two, we would score a run or two.
In its final game of the regular season, Arizona found itself tied with Washington, 4-4 going into the bottom of the 7th inning. The Huskies' sophomore All-Pac-12 pitcher Danielle Lawrie had already helped her own cause going 3-3 off Mowatt including hitting one home run. Now, she looked to push the game into extra innings from the circle.
First to bat, Wildcat sophomore Sam Banister.
SAM BANISTER: I think I was the 8-hitter and I'm pretty sure I was 0 for the series. First pitch, inside screw ball. I was just trying to hit the ball hard and get something started. It came off the bat pretty fast. I'm slow. I don't think I even made it to first base and I saw it go over the fence.
Arizona won, 5-4. Banister's senior day walk-off home run over Washington propelled the Wildcats into the postseason. Arizona received the number 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. To get to Oklahoma City, the Cats would need to win at least 5 games at home through the regionals and super regionals.
KRISTIE FOX: Senior day for a lot of people, they feel like it's the end of an era but for me I didn't feel like that at all. I felt like we had so much left in the tank. I just remember being like, this is the means to a new beginning.
CHAPTER TWO: HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE
KRISTIE FOX: My freshman year I was a part of the first team to not make it to a World Series (2004). Alumni had walked by the fence. They said, "Arizona softball goes to the World Series every year. It's not an option." That really resonated with me. Being a part of that class that didn't get it done, I just always remembered that moment. So here I am in my senior year. We kind of sent that same message. This is what we do. This is our legacy. This is what Arizona softball's all about.
The Tucson Regional welcomed Howard, Mississippi State, and Pacific. None of them proved to be a challenge. Arizona cruised in three games, 9-0, 8-0, and 7-0.
TARYNE MOWATT: Regionals were, I don't want to say easy because they're never easy. But we got through regionals smooth sailing.
CAITLIN LOWE: We were supposed to win. It was never a question.
With the regionals in the rear-view mirror, Arizona now welcomed in Cal State Fullerton. The Titans entered Tucson having won the Columbus regional the week before where they had upset host Ohio State twice.
The Wildcats received some good news. Two weeks after fouling that ball off her mouth, Laine Roth was cleared to play. But the excitement of Roth's return was tempered when, in the first inning, the Wildcats lost another key player. At that point, the Titans led 3-0 after starting the game with a single, bunt, hit-batter, and a two-run single.
TARYNE MOWATT: The first inning was one of the craziest innings I've ever been a part of.
CHELSIE MESA: We were in a team huddle on the pitcher's mound. We were all looking at each other like, "Are we in the Twilight Zone? What's going on?"
TARYNE MOWATT: Then they hit the deep fly ball.
CAITLIN LOWE: I thought I could catch the ball the whole time. That's why I went as fast as I did. I knew I could catch it. I knew the fence was there. You make a judgment call.
JENAE LELES: Her momentum took her head first into the wall.
CAITLIN LOWE: I didn't feel pain at all because it was, boom. Out.
SAM BANISTER: I thought it snapped something in her neck.
CALLISTA BALKO: She usually just gets up and she doesn't cry.
JENAE LELES: When she stayed down, that's when we all started getting a little nervous.
CAITLIN LOWE: I remember hearing my mom's voice and I remember being like, "Mom what are you doing on the field?"
SAM BANISTER: She did it a couple days before that. In practice. We were like, "Cait, you've got to find the wall." She's like, "I don't care. I'm going to catch the ball." We're like, "You're crazy." And then she hits the wall.
KRISTIE FOX: It didn't look as bad as I thought it was going to. Little bit of blood. She was swelling up and getting a little black and blue.
CAITLIN LOWE: I don't remember much after that except getting checked out by the doctor.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: When they started carrying her off we're thinking, oh no. What are we going to do now? We just lost one of our leaders.
CALLISTA BALKO: Without Caitlin, I mean, that's a big piece of the puzzle.
Lowe suffered a broken nose and bloodied face. After being carted off the field, she insisted to the doctor that she be able to sit in the dugout. The doctor obliged her. Meanwhile, two runs had scored as Lowe lay curled up in the outfield. Cal State Fullerton ended the top of the first leading 5-0.
CHELSIE MESA: I do remember my dad having a conversation afterward. It was my senior year and they were planning on going to the World Series. He says, "At one point I was just about to head on to Tucson because I didn't want to miss your last game."
SAM BANISTER: I remember actually looking at Jenae in the dugout being like, "Are we really about to freaking lose to Fullerton?"
TARYNE MOWATT: I just knew, don't let them score any more. Keep them off the board long enough to let your offense come back.
The offense returned in the fourth inning when Callista Balko hit a 3-run home run to get Arizona back in the game. One inning later, with two on and two outs, Roth came to the plate.
TARYNE MOWATT: Laine had come back from taking a foul ball off her face. We didn't know if she was going to be able to perform.
SAM BANISTER: Laine hit a three-run home run. This girl just got smoked in the mouth. Her jaw is like wired together. They just put a face mask on her and she just smokes a home run to put us ahead.
Arizona scored 5 more runs in the sixth inning including a 2-run home run by Leles. The Wildcats won 11-6.
CALLISTA BALKO: Caitlin was the silent leader. When she ran into the wall I think that's really what woke the beast up.
JENAE LELES: From there on out I think we knew were unstoppable.
CAITLIN LOWE: I woke up the next morning. Took the concussion test on the computer, which is a hard test anyway. There's a bunch of scribbles and you have to determine, okay this is the shape. Then they'll go onto a bunch of other things and then be like, "Okay what was the shape you just saw?" Really? That would be hard for me regardless.
SAM BANISTER: The next game, Coach (Candrea) is like, "You have to wear this face mask." And she was pissed.
CAITLIN LOWE: I told him, "Coach, I'm not wearing this." He said, "Okay, then you're not playing." I said, "Okay, then I'm going to wear this."
TARYNE MOWATT: The next day, we won 2-1 but it wasn't as close of a game as it sounds. We were pretty much in control the whole game.
With a sweep of Fullerton, the defending national champions had punched their ticket to their 19th Women's College World Series in 20 years. Whether or not they had something to prove depended on the player.
JENAE LELES: We always had something to prove. It's almost like everyone wants to see you fail.
KRISTIE FOX: We had a national championship. We didn't have to prove anything.
CHELSIE MESA: We were entering the postseason as number one and a lot of people were saying we didn't belong there. We were a little surprised, to be honest. We had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.
Chip or not, Arizona flew off to Oklahoma City, returning to familiar ground where, just a year before, they had celebrated as champions.
CALLISTA BALKO: Experience in the World Series can take over talent. And we had a lot of experience on that team.
CHAPTER 3: THE LOSERS BRACKET
Arizona may have been seeded number one but the name on everyone's mind was Tennessee's senior pitcher Monica Abbott. Abbott was a 6'3" flame thrower whose pitches reached upwards of 70 miles per hour. By the time she graduated, Abbott held the NCAA record for career wins (134), career strikeouts (2,440), and career shutouts (112).
CAITLIN LOWE: Every newspaper I can remember in Oklahoma City was talking about Monica Abbott. I remember there were life size images on every front page. Tennessee just had to show up and they were going to hand them the trophy. We took that as a slap in the face.
Before they could get to Abbott and Tennessee, Arizona first had to get through a familiar foe - Baylor, who had taken the series against the short-handed Cats earlier in the season.
TARYNE MOWATT: I knew that Baylor hadn't seen all the tools we had. Going into the game we were very prepared.
And still, there were issues. After taking a 1-0 lead, Baylor managed to tie the game in the fifth inning on a controversial passed ball.
TARYNE MOWATT: There's a runner at third and it was a change-up. The hitter foul-tipped it. It was hard to see. The ball changed directions.
CALLISTA BALKO: I didn't have a lot of passed balls in my career. That was something I prided myself on. So maybe the one, maybe two I had were at the World Series.
TARYNE MOWATT: Callista and I knew that she had foul-tipped it so we didn't race to home. But the umpire said she didn't touch it. The run scored to tie the game.
One run was all Baylor could manage as Arizona got out of the inning thanks to fantastic leaping grab by Kristie Fox.
KRISTIE FOX: My dad always teases me. He says, "You know, if you just would have fell down afterwards you probably would've had a top ten play on ESPN. But instead you stayed on your feet."
The game remained tied at 1 through 7 innings and continued on until the bottom of the ninth when, for the second time that game, Kristie Fox made an impact.
CAITLIN LOWE: Probably one of the most clutch hitters in Arizona softball history.
SAM BANISTER: Coach Candrea pulled us all together. He said, "If somebody hits a home run, I want you all to stand very far back. Don't even give them the idea that you might have touched her too early." We were like, okay, no one's even hit the ball that hard. And Fox was up. He knew.
CAITLIN LOWE: Honestly, she was going to do something. It was either going to be a double, a home run, something.
KRISTIE FOX: I thought it was a rise ball out. I know the pitcher. After, she was like, "No, it was a change-up that I missed really bad." I was a line-drive hitter. I didn't hit a lot of home runs.
SAM BANISTER: She hits an outside pitch so far inside the left-handed batter's box. She's like, I'm just going to do it myself. Cranks the ball over the left field fence. Like, I'm tired of playing this game. Let's go to bed and go to work tomorrow.
Arizona's 2-1 win over Baylor meant their next opponent would be Monica Abbott and Tennessee. Earlier in the day, Abbott had set the NCAA's single season strikeout record by fanning 16 Texas A&M batters. The newly crowned NCAA Player Of The Year closed out the game with the day's second no-hitter in a 2-0 win.
The next evening, it was Arizona's turn, though Mother Nature would have a say on when the game would begin.
TARYNE MOWATT: We didn't start the game until like eleven o' clock or almost midnight.
CAITLIN LOWE: When you're in Oklahoma City, that's standard. The first time we got there, my sophomore year, there was a tornado warning. Then it's like, wait that's every single day.
By the time the game finally got underway, both teams struggled to plate a run.
CALLISTA BALKO: I just remember trying to mess Monica up. Part of our strategy was to get in her head because she was so good. We had to be creative. She's very routine. We would step out. Call time out. You could tell it really frustrated her.
Yet Arizona still could not cross home. It wasn't until the sixth inning when, with two outs and a runner on third, the only run of the game finally scored – the result of an error committed by Wildcat second baseman Chelsie Mesa.
CHELSIE MESA: That ball was hit on the ground. It seemed like an easy hop but I didn't charge and caught it in between hops. At that point the runner had gone home, the runner had gone to second. No chance at first. It was a terrible feeling.
JENAE LELES: There wasn't one play that lost that game. We had so many chances. It was a team loss. It was not a Chelsie loss.
CHELSIE MESA: When we got back to the hotel, Coach Candrea put his arm around me. He says, "We're alright. I need you. You're my rock. You're my leader. We have this."
TARYNE MOWATT: To this day, Chelsie tells me that she's the reason I won the (2007 Best Female Athlete) ESPY. If she would've caught that ball at second base then we would've never come back through the loser's bracket to win the national championship.
CAITLIN LOWE: After facing what was supposed to be the best, we were hungry to get back and face them again. I feel bad for those teams that were in our way because we were on a tear.
In order to get another shot at Tennessee, some dominoes had to fall correctly. First, the Vols would have to continue their winning ways. Second, Arizona would have to sweep through the losers bracket and win three games in two days.
The Cats accomplished step one the following afternoon, taking some anger out on DePaul and shutting out the Blue Demons, 3-0.
TARYNE MOWATT: It was one of those get down to business, get in there, beat them, get out, and let's go back to the hotel and rest.
The win over DePaul set up a potential double-header against another familiar foe – Washington. Arizona would have beat Danielle Lawrie twice.
CALLISTA BALKO: Oh, she was tough. She had a screw ball that nobody could hit. Just came hard inside and most of us couldn't adjust.
Most but not all. With two on in the sixth inning, Sam Banister returned to the plate. In a repeat of her senior day performance, Banister made contact.
SAM BANISTER: I felt like they were probably going to go out on me especially since I just hit a walk-off home run on the inside pitch. I don't know if it was a curve or a rise, but it ended up being on the outside corner. I put my bat out there. I remember thinking, I just hit that. I have to run now.
Banister plated both runners in what would be the only runs scored in the game. Arizona won, 2-0.
TARYNE MOWATT: Sam was their arch nemesis.
Two games down, one to go. If Arizona hoped to reach the championship series, they needed to sweep Washington – a feat no team had been able to accomplish all season.
TARYNE MOWATT: The second Washington game, we were just delirious at that point. Thank God it wasn't an incredibly tight game because I don't know how focused we were.
It wasn't tight because Arizona opened up early on Lawrie, starting in the first inning thanks to Jenae Leles.
JENAE LELES: I remember her mixing me both sides of the plate. I think I was just seeing the ball so well that it didn't matter what she threw me.
Leles ended up with 4 RBIs, leading Arizona to an 8-1 victory and ensuring them a spot in the championship. After Tennessee eliminated Northwestern, the Cats got the rematch they wanted against Monica Abbott. At that point, Arizona had played five games in four days with a pitcher who had thrown 37 straight innings and was gearing up to throw at least 14 more.
CALLISTA BALKO: Taryne was a machine, literally a machine, during that series. And she never complained about it. It was just, that's what you do. You take it on and you know that you never want to look back and regret anything.
CAITLIN LOWE: We were pretty exhausted but if you know travel ball, it's nothing new. We used to play four games in a day in California.
CALLISTA BALKO: At the World Series your adrenaline is going so much that you don't realize how tired you are until the end of the World Series.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Whatever aches and pains there were, you make it this far, why quit now?
CHAPTER 4: THE ANSWER FOR ABBOTT
CALLISTA BALKO: It was hard to strategize against Monica. That's why I think we got almost a little desperate.
TARYNE MOWATT: Me personally, I just felt tired. My arms and legs were heavy. It was emotional because you're so exhausted and you want to win so bad. How are you going to score off of Monica? How are we going to score off of one of the greatest pitchers of all time?
They couldn't. At least, not in game one. Abbott improved her World Series scoreless streak to 28 innings, striking out seven while only giving up four hits. The Vols, meanwhile, attacked Mowatt with two early home runs, a unique feat considering that Tennessee entered Oklahoma City with the fewest home runs of any team.
Arizona lost, 3-0.
SAM BANISTER: I kind of blacked it out.
JENAE LELES: That one shocked the sails. Maybe we doubted. Maybe Taryne doesn't have enough in her any more.
TARYNE MOWATT: I broke down and cried to my mom right when I got off the bus. People know me, I don't usually cry. Definitely not in front of my parents. I just remember thinking how am I going to do this?
KRISTIE FOX: I want to act like I wasn't affected at all but I definitely was. I took a really long shower that night. It was one of those times where you just didn't want to get out of the shower because you didn't want the next day to start yet. It was tough to feel like you were on the brink of the end.
TARYNE MOWATT: We figured out why we lost that first game. Somebody sent me an email. I was wearing the wrong headband. I guess I'd been wearing the red headband the whole World Series. I wore this bright blue one for the first championship game. It was from a young girl. I needed to go back to the red headband.
CALLISTA BALKO: Were we down? Yeah. Were we defeated? Absolutely not. We knew that Monica was the biggest obstacle we had faced all year. We knew we could beat the rest of the team. We knew we just had to get past her.
They couldn't get past Monica Abbott through 7 innings in game two. But Tennessee couldn't get past Mowatt either. By the end of the 7th, the score remained 0-0. The game went into extras innings.
TARYNE MOWATT: Game two. Ugh. What a marathon that was.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: We were getting to the ninth inning and I'm thinking, how long is this game going to go on?
CALLISTA BALKO: It didn't seem like we had a good grasp on her offensively. It came to a point where we had to come up with something besides trying to hit the ball.
In the top of the 10th inning, Sam Banister came up to face Abbott.
SAM BANISTER: I remember taking an extra big chunk of dirt and smothering it all over my handle and being like, alright. It's me versus you. I'm going to win this.
Pinch runner Danielle Rodriguez watched from the dugout.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I knew that Cyndi (Duran) had already run. Jill (Malina) had already run. So I'm thinking well, if we get the opportunity then I have to be ready. I knew that I was going to be the next one to go in.
SAM BANISTER: I was on a 1 and 1 count. Think I poked it again over the shortstop.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Sam had the base hit. She got on first. She got over to second on a bunt.
SAM BANISTER: If you listen to the video of that game you can hear the entire dugout yelling, "Run! Run! Run!" I was not even halfway to second base and I would've clearly been thrown out. After that coach was like, "We're not going make it another inning. This is now or never." So he subbed me out of the game.
CHELSIE MESA: Danielle was our go-to off the bench.
SAM BANISTER: I said, "Make sure you score!"
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Then it was Callista up to bat. I was seriously thinking she was going to put a bat on the ball. I thought I was going to have to score from second base.
SAM BANISTER: Cali had been struggling.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I saw the sign. Bunt. I was a little bit relieved. She got the bunt down. Second baseman dropped the ball so Callista was safe. First and third. One out.
SAM BANISTER: (Callista) hit her over. I looked at her and she was like, "Well, if there was ever a time!"
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Another Tucson girl comes to bat.
TARYNE MOWATT: We knew (Outfielder) Adrienne (Acton) had hit the ground ball in her first three at bats. It wasn't like she was swinging and missing. All she had to do was put the ball on the ground.
SAM BANISTER: If Adrienne could put the ball in play somewhere on the left side, Dani could score.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Right when she came to bat Coach (Candrea) said, "You have to get the best jump of your life." I said, "Alright. I got it Coach."
JENAE LELES: Coach giving Dani the signal - if it's in the ground, you're going. We all saw that. Here we go. It's showtime.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Right off the pitcher's release, I took my lead. I don't think I really stopped because right away Adrienne's running forward to slap the ball. When I saw it down on the ground, I took off.
CHELSIE MESA: I'm holding my breath. Definitely holding my breath. Time kind of slowed down.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: When I saw (Tennessee catcher Shannon Doepking) in front of the plate I knew I was going to have to go right. Then when I saw the ball come, I moved my shoulder and kind of reached back around.
SAM BANISTER: I remember the ball going down and grabbing Jenae's arm as hard as I could.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I felt my head hit the ground from the bill of my helmet. I didn't ever feel her actually contact me. I had my eye on the plate.
CAITLIN LOWE: I was on deck. I got actually the best view of the entire slide. I very clearly motioned safe. It was not an asking-for-a-favor type of safe. I saw her hand touch and then my hands went out. If there was any other call besides safe I was going to be really upset.
DANIELLE: The first person I looked at was Caitlin because she was standing right there. She was doing a safe call. And I was like, oh Caitlin wants a hug. So I run over and gave her a hug.
TARYNE MOWATT: When the umpire called safe we were jumping up and down because we finally broke through and scored a run off of Monica.
CAITLIN LOWE: It was like, she's hittable. She's human.
KRISTIE FOX: We were going nuts. We had just deflated everything Tennessee had built up to that point.
CALLISTA BALKO: Oh, that was beautiful. Dani was just the type of athlete and friend and teammate that you just wanted to succeed. She worked so hard. She had the best attitude on the whole team. To see her have her moment, Dani deserved that more than anybody on the team.
KRISTIE FOX: When she scored that run, I knew we were going to win the national championship.
Arizona 1, Tennessee 0. The Wildcats had tied the series and forced a do-or-die, winner-take-all game three.
TARYNE MOWATT: We had one more game, no matter what. One more game. We could win this whole thing. We could be back to back national champions and our seniors could go out on top.
CHELSIE MESA: Our game plan was just to shorten our swings.
JENAE LELES: I think we were all trying to swing for the fences and what we needed to do was just put the ball in play.
SAM BANISTER: I remember waking up and telling Cali, "I think I used up all my hits. I think I'm ready to share them with everyone." And she said, "I think you're ready to share them, too."
CALLISTA BALKO: I don't ever remember feeling nervous.
TARYNE MOWATT: My warm-up was maybe ten minutes long before the game. At that point I didn't need to throw a full warm-up, 45 minutes. I just needed the ten and I was ready to go.
Indeed she was. Utilizing her specialty pitch, the change-up, Mowatt escaped trouble early. After going 1-2-3 in the top of the first, Mowatt stranded two in the top of the second. She allowed her second lead-off runner in the top of third then proceeded to load the bases before striking out Tiffany Huff to end the inning.
As good as Mowatt was, Abbott matched her early on. But there was difference between this game and the earlier contests. Arizona had gotten into her head.
CALLISTA BALKO: We had some of the best hitters in the country who could adjust. If you can't adjust and you're playing a pitcher for the third time, you're probably not a great hitter.
Balko broke a 0-19 WCWS slump in the second, sending the ball to deep left field. While the Wildcats were unable to capitalize, Balko's was the second hit off Abbott in as many innings, already half as many hits as she'd given up in Game Two.
The Cats nearly broke through in the bottom of the third. With Caitlin Lowe on third, Kristie Fox on second, and Jenae Leles on first, Chelsie Mesa hit a chopper to second baseman Kenora Posey.
JENAE LELES: I tried to go around (Posey) but she kind of went in front of me.
TARYNE MOWATT: Jenae and the second baseman collide.
JENAE LELES: I was called out. Dead ball. That run was taken back.
SAM BANISTER: I was like, "Dude you're fine. You're going to get another opportunity. Watch you're going to be the hero." And sure enough.
In the bottom of the fifth, Leles proved Banister to be prescient. With the bases loaded once again, Leles stepped to the plate, having gone 1-8 against Abbott in the championship series.
JENAE LELES: We already knew what they were going to do. Walk Kristie to get to me. As they're walking Kristie, Coach called me over to him. He said, "Take it personal."
CHELSIE MESA: She was due for a big hit.
JENAE LELES: I remember seeing the ball down, taking a swing, still not trying to do too much.
CAITLIN LOWE: She stayed short to the ball, just got the barrel there. Kept it so simple.
Caitlin Lowe and K'Lee Arredondo scored to put Arizona up 2-0.
SAM BANISTER: She's a non-emotional person. She looks over and she smiles.
JENAE LELES: That's rare, right?
SAM BANISTER: I was like, "Hey, you better not smile! People may catch you on camera." Then she quickly gets serious again.
With Kristie Fox and Jenae Leles on base, Chelsie Mesa came up to bat.
CHELSIE MESA: Monica had my number at that point. Coach told me to take the first pitch because I was swinging out of my shoes at her rise ball. I was like, alright.
TARYNE MOWATT: Chelsie, who refused to shorten up her swing even if she said she did, she was taking hacks no matter what.
CHELSIE MESA: That ball couldn't have been more down the middle. I look at Coach Candrea and he laughed.
KRISTIE FOX: Chelsie and I always tease, we like the high ones. That burned us a few times. But when you do like the high ones and you can square it up it's going to go a long way.
CHELSIE MESA: Sure enough, she threw me that rise ball. Definitely wasn't a strike. Was probably at my eyes. And I swung.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Right off the bat, we knew it was gone.
CALLISTA BALKO: It was a bomb. Right center field. Nobody hits a home run off of Monica. Especially a leftie.
SAM BANISTER: Me and Cali were shaking each other.
CHELSIE MESA: It didn't look like it went very far but, after seeing the replay, the right fielder didn't have a chance.
TARYNE MOWATT: They showed a replay of the dugout when Chelsie hit the home run and our eyes and jaws just dropped. It was awesome.
Arizona 5, Tennessee 0. The Wildcats were six outs away from be crowned champions once again. They didn't make it easy on themselves.
TARYNE MOWATT: The next inning, I committed a cardinal sin for pitchers. I walked the first batter. After your team puts up five runs in the championship game. Made that inning interesting. By the end, there were two outs, bases loaded, and a pinch hitter up to bat. The count was 3-2. I threw a rise ball. If she wouldn't have swung, it would've been ball four.
But Danielle Pieroni did swing, ending the inning with the bases loaded. Mowatt had stranded 11 total Tennessee runners.
TARYNE MOWATT: I knew if we got out of that inning, the seventh inning was going to be smooth sailing. We were going to win the whole thing.
With Arizona still leading, 5-0, in the top of the 7th, Mowatt went back to work needing three outs to lock up Arizona 8th national championship.
TARYNE MOWATT: The final inning was electric. There was something in the air. Everybody was trying to contain their excitement, calm their nerves, calm their hearts, and make the plays.
JENAE LELES: I remember constantly looking over at Sam. We'd always look at each other for reassurance. One out went by. Two outs went by.
CAITLIN LOWE: I remember watching Taryne. It's hard to explain what that looks like when someone gets in that zone. It was beyond special. The accumulation of every single fall and every single conditioning and sprint has led to this.
TARYNE MOWATT: I walk a hitter on a 3-2 count. A very close pitch. Everybody was ready to celebrate but he called it a ball.
Up came Tennessee's All-Conference first-teamer Shannon Doepking. On the 1-1 pitch, Mowatt turned to the weapon she'd capitalized on all series.
KRISTIE FOX: Being at shortstop, I get to see every single pitch. Where it crosses the plate, where she spots it. I just watched her tear Tennessee apart with that change-up.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: As soon as the ball's hit and we see it hits Jenae, I think we're already jumping over.
JENAE LELES: I had this gut feeling that the third out was going to come to me. All I kept telling myself was keep my head down and then throw it.
Leles fielded the ball cleanly and threw a laser to Banister at first.
SAM BANISTER: Please don't drop it. Please don't drop it. Please don't drop it.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Sam catches the ball. Throws up her glove.
SAM BANISTER: Looking back on it now, I wish I would've kept the damn ball. I catch it and then everyone takes off towards Taryne. I'm running and the ball goes flying.
JENAE LELES: Right when I threw it, I looked at Taryne. That was the first person I hugged.
TARYNE MOWATT: Her and I were hugging and jumping. Everybody came running in and knocked us over.
KRISTIE FOX: The year before, in '06, we forgot the dogpile. So we had a game plan in '07 that we were going to dogpile.
SAM BANISTER: You see the video, you see me and Chelsie pushing everyone to the floor.
TARYNE MOWATT: Jenae and I were just staring at each other while lying on the dirt. It's not fun to be at the bottom.
KRISTIE FOX: I just remember running in there, waiting for the outfielders to jump on my back and hope I didn't get cleated.
CAITLIN LOWE: I was at least the first of the outfielders to get there. Chucked my glove up in the air and just sprinted as fast as I could. I'm sure those were my fastest sprints ever.
SAM BANISTER: I was on top, of course. I'm not trying to get hurt.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: Shortly after, they lifted Taryne.
TARYNE MOWATT: Jamie and Jeremy our team managers picked me up. I was scared at first because I didn't want them to drop me.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I remember looking at her. To pitch that many games in that few amount of days was just insane.
TARYNE MOWATT: I remember being up there and having the trophy. Holding it. Looking at everybody thinking, we just did this.
KRISTIE FOX: I didn't get emotional on senior day. I didn't get emotional in the regionals. I didn't get emotional in the super regionals. But to know that was my last game that I was ever going to play in that uniform, that's when it finally hit me.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I never even expected to play in college and here I am with my second World Series championship.
For senior Chelsie Mesa, this was actually her fourth championship. Prior to Arizona, she'd spent two years at Phoenix Junior College where she'd won two Division Two titles.
CHELSIE MESA: I remember going on my visit to Coach Candrea. On my drive back to Phoenix, I remember calling my dad. Pure excitement telling him I'm going to Arizona. He goes, "Man, Chelsie, could you imagine going to Arizona and winning two national championships and being a four-time national champion?" That's just crazy. Nobody really thinks something like that's going to happen.
CHAPTER 5: RETURN OF THE QUEENS
The celebration continued off the field and into the lobby of their hotel, eventually breaking up only when the realization hit that they'd have to shortly board a flight.
TARYNE MOWATT: I think we were leaving at 4:00am the next morning. We didn't have a lot of time to sleep.
CALLISTA BALKO: We were kind of mad. We were like, we want a charter. We just won the World Series.
TARYNE MOWATT: We flew into Phoenix.
SAM BANISTER: We had to get on this limo bus. We're all facing each other for two hours. We're so tired. There's no comfortable way to sit. All of your backpacks are on your lap. And then you know you have to get pumped back up because we have the parade.
CAITLIN LOWE: It was the middle of the afternoon. We're thinking it was the middle of a work day. Not many people are going to be here.
DANIELLE RODRIGUEZ: I remember coming down by the baseball field and seeing people outside of McKale. Then we get in there and it's packed.
CAITLIN LOWE: I remember walking down the ramp with the trophy next to Kristie and Taryne. The flood of applause as we were starting to walk in - it was total chills.
KRISTIE FOX: To have all those people there waiting for us, it's what Arizona softball's all about.
TARYNE MOWATT: It was thrilling. It was exciting. It was magical.
CAITLIN LOWE: It was probably the most fulfilled I've ever been with a team. Because of the ups and the downs, it just meant more.
JENAE LELES: I wouldn't change it for anything.
CALLISTA BALKO: If I were to sum it up? A beautiful ending.
The 2007 season closed a storied chapter in Wildcat softball history. Not only had Arizona begun the decade making six of seven Women's College World Series, it had won three titles.
Following '07, Mike Candrea took time away to focus on his responsibilities as head coach of the U.S. Olympic team. In August of 2008, Candrea, Lowe, and Team USA won silver in Beijing.
The 2008 Arizona softball team returned to Oklahoma City under assistant coach Larry Ray, only to be swept out of the gates by UCLA and Alabama. The Wildcats returned again in 2009 and then in 2010, advancing all the way to the championship series thanks in large part to the pitching of Kenzie Fowler. UCLA beat Arizona in two straight games.
As the years wore on and programs across the country became richer, the days of Arizona's dominance dwindled. After making 22 of 23 Women's College World Series, Arizona has yet to return since losing to the Bruins in 2010.
Ten years later, the ladies from 2007 remain Arizona's last queens of the diamond.
Taryne Mowatt, Softball Pitching Coach, University of Mississippi, Oxford Mississippi
Callista (Balko) Elmore, Director of Development, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Sam Banister, Owner, Baseball/Softball Training Facility, Petaluma, CA
Chelsie Mesa, Loan Processor, Walnut Creek, CA
Jenae Leles, Owner, Softball Training Facility, Sacramento, CA
Kristie (Fox) Jarvis, Head Softball Coach, University of Texas-Arlington, Arlington, TX
Caitlin (Lowe) Nagy, Assistant Softball Coach, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Danielle Rodriguez, Head Softball Coach, Tucson High School, Tucson, AZ
These interviews have been edited and condensed.