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BEIJING 2008

Their guiding hand

U.S. softball's Mike Candrea makes sure his team is ready for the unexpected -- down to the traffic.

August 11, 2008|Kevin Baxter | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- Interstate 35 between Oklahoma City and Fort Worth is four hours of unforgiving highway. And Caitlin Lowe couldn't believe she and her teammates on the U.S. softball team, then in the midst of a 60-game, 44-city pre-Olympic tour, were going to travel it twice in the same day -- with a game thrown in between for good measure.

"Why are we doing this?" Lowe protested.

For Coach Mike Candrea, the answer was simple: Why not? If you've never ridden 200 miles, gone out and played a softball game, ridden 200 miles back and then played another, how do you know you can do it? He expects that philosophy to work to his players' benefit as they begin their defense of the gold medal here Tuesday against Venezuela.

"Really all he wanted to do was put us through that hectic travel schedule, just like we're going to have when we go to China," said Lowe, a first-time Olympian from Tustin. "He wanted to kind of tire us out and say, 'You know, this is how it's going to be. Are you prepared for it?'

"He does a great job of that. He definitely has some tricks up his sleeve."

Like the time he had the bus driver get lost in traffic on the way to a game. Or the time he had the team spend the pregame warmup period sitting on the bus in the parking lot, letting them out just before the first pitch. Four years ago, the softball team even spent a day training with Navy SEALs.

"In some ways we try to put them in situations we feel will either cause them to panic or cause them to take control of themselves," said Candrea, who is coaching the Olympic team for the second time. "No matter how much you plan, there's always little things that can happen. And whether we have control over it or not, we still have to perform."

For the most part, Candrea's teams have performed exceptionally well, winning eight national championships in the last 17 years at the University of Arizona.

Under his direction Team USA won the last two World Cups, was unbeaten in the last two Pan American Games and breezed to an Olympic gold in Athens four years ago. The U.S. outscored its opponents 51-1, while dedicating the gold-medal effort to the memory of Candrea's wife, Sue, who died unexpectedly just before the Athens Games.

The one constant on the playing field, Candrea insists, is preparation and walking that line between confidence and arrogance.

"It's very difficult sometimes to play this game and keep your confidence up," he said. "[But] being overconfident can cause you to be complacent. I look at being overconfident as being a real lack of preparation, a lack of focus and a lack of respect for the game and for other teams.

"I know this team well enough that we're not going to go down that road. We don't think that just because we've got the 'USA' on our chests that we're going to win."

At times it must be hard not to think that, though, since the team Candrea toured with this summer included 13 veterans from the unbeaten 2004 Olympic champions. And they warmed up for China by going 59-1 during their four-month pre-Olympic schedule.

Candrea, of course, is preparing them for the worst.

"The day that we kind of let our guard down and starting reading our newspaper clippings and believing that we're that dominant or that good is when you're going to get bit," he said.

"There's numerous teams that could get hot during that week and win. I guess that's my job: to make sure that they're not becoming overconfident but on the other hand to make sure that we're confident as we can be when we walk into the arena."

And if that meant a few more extra-long bus trips, a couple more hours idling in traffic or another batting practice session inexplicably canceled at the last second, then so be it.

"He can definitely work with our minds and make us mentally tough," said Lowe, who also played for Candrea at Arizona. "The things that he talks about are making sure you're not just physically ready for a game but that you're mentally and emotionally ready.

"He kind of tries to put us in a good place before we compete."

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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