Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Tairia Flowers witnessed the University of Arizona win multiple NCAA softball national championships in the 90s.
“I grew up wanting to go to Arizona,” said Flowers, who was highly recruited in high school. “I knew all the Arizona greats. It was my dream school.”
It did not take long for Flowers to achieve her goal. Arizona recruited the 5-foot-7 infielder during her freshman year at Salpointe Catholic High School. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Flowers had a change of heart.
“As I started getting older, I decided I wanted to try something different,” Flowers said. “Everywhere I went, I saw people from my high school. Don’t get me wrong, I loved high school, I just wanted a new experience.”
Flowers went on to have a standout career at UCLA where she ranks second all-time in home runs, games played, RBIs and total bases.
Ironically, during Flowers’ time with Team USA, she was teamed up with Mike Candrea, who has been Arizona’s head coach for 24 seasons. Candrea and Flowers won gold and silver medals at the Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) Olympics, respectively.
Flowers, now in her first season as Cal State Northridge’s softball head coach, will return home as the Matadors travel to Tucson to square off against Candrea’s No. 7 Wildcats in a three-game series starting Friday.
“He kind of jokes with me a little bit about not going there (Arizona),” said Flowers about Candrea, who has won eight national titles with Arizona. “But it’s not a dismissal that I missed my chance. He is a genuine guy and I’m looking forward to facing him this weekend.”
The Matadors (12-15), who went 2-5 at the San Diego Classic II last week, will be the underdogs against an Arizona team (26-6) that is a year removed from advancing to the national championship game where they fell to UCLA.
“We will try to not look at the other dugout and not think about what they (Wildcats) have done in the past,” said sophomore catcher Mikayla Thielges, who leads the Big West Conference in RBIs with 30. “We need to focus on what we need to do when we go out there.”
Even though CSUN is under .500, senior infielder Tracy Allen is pleased with where the Matadors stand heading into Arizona and one week away from Big West play.
“There are always things we can work on, but I feel like we are at a good place going into conference,” Allen said. “Right now we are hitting well and defensively we are solid.”
The Matador bats will face a tough Wildcat pitching staff as they only give up 2.57 earned runs per game. Kenzie Fowler, Arizona’s ace, has a 16-4 record with 132 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.93.
At the plate, Arizona is led by All-American outfielder Brittany Lastrapes, who is batting .510 with 51 hits and 28 RBIs. Redshirt senior catcher Stacie Chambers has a team-high 12 home runs and 43 RBIs.
Northridge has its own one-two punch at the plate with junior Jaci Carlsen and Thielges. Carlsen has a team-high batting average of .390 with 30 hits, which ranks fifth and third in the Big West respectively.
Thielges has provided the power for the Matadors as her nine home runs and .762 slugging percentage are tops in the Big West.
With 27 games under her belt, Flowers said her players have been steadily improving.
“We have our goals set high and we are not where we want to be, but we are moving in the right direction,” Flowers said. “We (the coaching staff) are seeing some great things from these girls.”
Flowers is now following in the footsteps of Candrea as she will be an assistant coach on Team USA starting this summer.
“I don’t know if I will ever quite be a coach Candrea, but I’m excited for this summer,” Flowers said. “As a player, you have no idea what goes into it, so now I’m coaching and I know what goes into the college level, but I’m still not sure what to expect this summer.”