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Louisville Slugger: Allie Skaggs and Arizona’s Newest Assistant Share Bluegrass Roots

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Allie Skaggs is the daughter of Arizona alumni. She attended Mike Candrea’s softball camps as a kid. Her extended Tucson family showed up en masse to watch her play even then. 

A Gold Glove winning, home run hitting, no-nonsense All-American, she was made to play in Hillenbrand Stadium. The place fits the senior like a, well, glove. But make no mistake about her roots. This second baseman was forged on the banks of the Ohio River, shaped by the land of horses, bourbon and basketball, not the desert vistas of the Southwest. Born in Tucson, yes, her family moved to Louisville when she was barely old enough to walk, let alone backhand a sharp grounder. 

Thanks to the advent of NIL, she officially reps the 502, Louisville’s area code, these days. But she didn’t need an endorsement deal to be as good a softball ambassador as Louisville could hope to have. 

“I owe my whole personality and my whole life to it,” Skaggs said of her hometown. “That’s where I grew up. My best friends growing up are from there. I kind of got to develop as a human there. And then I just brought that personality out to Arizona when I got here. … 

“I’m super proud to rep it. I’m proud of where I’m from.” 

It’s where she learned the game. From one person, in particular. 

Now, as the model Wildcat who was made in Kentucky plays out her final season, she shares the dugout with a familiar face. The newest member of head coach Caitlin Lowe’s coaching staff, and the coach as responsible as any for putting Skaggs on the road to Tucson almost a decade ago, Josh Bloomer is a Kentuckian. Reunited for one final season together, they’re ready to lend a little Bluegrass magic to the bluest of college softball blue bloods.  

“He was honestly at the start of my journey,” Skaggs said. “If I wanted to go play beyond [travel ball], he was the first guy who was going to help me get there. He was my first coach who held me to that standard.

“Being able to share this last year and share the experience of ‘We started this together and now we get to end it together,’ I just think is really cool.”

Skaggs slashed .333/.476/.687 and drove in 64 runs in 2023 (Marison Bilagody/Arizona).

Learning to Teach

Skaggs wouldn’t always have sounded so sanguine about a reunion with her travel ball coach. Indeed, as she put it in a social media post celebrating his arrival at Arizona, “If you would’ve asked 14-year-old Allie if she wanted to play for Bloomer in college, she’d say no way.”

When Skaggs tried out for the Southern Force 14-and-under travel team, she was a relative newcomer to the world of competitive youth softball. She had played mostly on local teams in local leagues, alongside friends from the neighborhood. Coaching so young an age group for the first time after primarily working with high school athletes and 16U and 18U teams, Bloomer was, in a word, terrifying. Actually, Skaggs used two words: “extremely terrifying.” 

Not intimidating, exactly, and certainly not bullying, but decidedly uncompromising. Instead of a pat on the back if she made a boneheaded play or swung at three straight pitches above her head, there was likely to be a seat on the bench and some terse words. 

“I was less mature at that point, so a little bit louder, a little bit more intense and didn’t always know when to maybe tone it down with a first-year 14-and-under team,” Bloomer recalled. “But she just took it all in and was like ‘OK, what’s next?’ You gravitate to those kids. Not because she was the best player but because she was the best competitor, the best teammate.” 

Too many mentors helped Bloomer too much along the way to describe him as a self-made coach, but he was unmistakably part of what might be called a self-made softball culture that replicated itself in states across the footprint of conferences like the ACC, Big 12 and SEC. 

By 1995, Arizona had already won the first three of what now sits at eight NCAA championships. That same year, on the other hand, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association finally began sponsoring fastpitch softball. Also at that time, amid the rapid expansion of NCAA women’s sports that followed on the heels of events like the landmark Cohen v. Brown court case and the spotlight of seminal events such as the 1996 Olympics, the University of Kentucky finally payed its first softball season in 1997 (the University of Louisville followed in 2000). 

All of this is to say that Kentucky in the last decade of the 1990s was still the softball frontier, a place where an 18-year-old former high school baseball player could end up coaching his sister’s newly-formed high school softball team. That’s how Bloomer got his start. He never really planned to make a life in coaching—until not that long ago he was at least as much a high school math teacher as softball coach. 

But for someone who loved the problem solving nature of mathematics, coaching was a natural fit—whether solving strategic riddles or helping athletes unlock their potential.

“The reason I learned so much so quickly was because [early mentor John Skaggs—no relation] taught me you can coach young women the same way you coach guys in terms of toughness,” Bloomer said, “But you just got to let them know that ultimately they’re not just being viewed as softball players. You care about them for more than just their performance on the field. And you can say that, but if you say that, you better circle back with them. I loved that part of it. ” 

Josh Bloomer’s final Male HS team won a state title and was No. 1 in the nation (Mike Christy/Arizona).

“Be Better”

Terrifying, perhaps. Demanding, certainly. But Skaggs soon realized that Bloomer not only could help her achieve goals that were still coming into focus in her own mind—but was invested in helping her do so. If he got on her about a lapse of focus or told her to “be better,” it wasn’t because his results were all that mattered. It was because he believed she could be better. 

Their second year together, the Southern Force traveled to Sioux Falls, S.D., and finished in the top 10 in ASA Nationals—one of the best ever showings for a 14U team from Kentucky. She played for him until she moved to Tucson for her senior year, one of the only players from the original 14U roster to go the distance. She kept playing for him in travel even when she began attending Ballard High School, whose arch rival was Male High School, where Bloomer coached three state finalists. 

Their bond trumped all. Bloomer’s teams won regional championships in six of his seven seasons at Male, a regional they shared with Ballard. The only interruption came when Skaggs was a junior and Ballard beat Male in the regional. Not long before the meeting, mired in one of the worst hitting funks she could remember, Skaggs called Bloomer, also her personal hitting coach. Not for the first time during her high school career, they met like something out of a Cold War spy novel, waiting until no one from the Male team was likely to be around to notice him working with the enemy. 

In the subsequent regional, Bloomer elected to have his pitchers pitch to Skaggs for just about the only time in the years in which they faced each toehr. She promptly hit a first-inning home run in a game in which her team never trailed. The next time up, Bloomer called for the intentional walk. Lesson learned.

When they started together, back when she was in eighth grade, Skaggs decided she wasn’t satisfied merely being pretty good in small settings. She was at the Southern Force tryout that day because she had decided she wanted to see where softball could take her. She needed a challenging environment. Even if she never dreamed then that it would be back to Arizona, maybe there would be an opportunity to play in college. She found someone who could teach her how to get there. Someone who could teach her to be better.

“I carried over so much of what I learned from him and just the sense of treating the game with respect,” Skaggs said. “That’s why I still play the game as hard as I do, and why I play it the way that I do. I don’t play with like a ton of extra fluff to me. But that’s kind of how I grew up, especially playing for Bloomer. It was show up, do your work and just compete.”

Skaggs had a 4.54 WAR and led the Pac-12 with 24 home runs in 2022 (Rebecca Sasnett/Arizona).

And all those years ago, when Bloomer first saw a lanky kid “who maybe weighed 75 pounds” gliding around an infield with unmistakeable natural athleticism, he thought to himself that he’d like to coach someone like that. Ever the teacher, he figured he could help. It turns out he found someone who taught him how to be better, too.

“Allie taught me that maybe you can frame some things in different ways, the timing of when you say some things,” Bloomer said. “But I also think she confirmed some things. If a relationship is at the core of where you are with a person, then you can be your authentic self. She allowed me to be my authentic self. I’ve always tried to allow her to be her authentic self, and I try to do that with all my players. This is how you play, this is your personality, so I’m going to do my best to allow you thrive in that. But you also have to allow me to be my authentic self as a coach.”

Which may be why their journey together didn’t end when the game took them far from Louisville.

Two Paths Meet in Tucson

At the same time Skaggs went off to Arizona, playing her final high school season at Tucson’s Ironwoods Ridge High School and maturing into the otherworldly player who would both lead the Pac-12 in home runs and earn Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and Rawlings Gold Glove honors in successive season, Bloomer took the plunge into college coaching. He had reached out to Kentucky and Louisville in the past, hoping to balance a volunteer role with his teaching duties, but the stars never aligned. Eventually, as he used even the time between class periods to study video and develop hitting plans, he gave up teaching to open a training company and focus on private instruction, in addition to coaching at Male and in travel ball.

Out of the blue, he got a call one day from Duke head coach Marissa Young, telling him about an opening with the Blue Devils. It turned out that Shelby Walters, one of his former players, had recommended him. His first thought was it was a prank. His second thought was to confirm his interest.

Still building out its new program, Duke’s offense reached new heights after Bloomer arrived ahead of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. By 2022, the Blue Devils ranked in the top 10 in a host of offensive categories. He moved on to South Carolina for the 2023 season. 

Coach and former pupil remained in touch over the years. It wasn’t quite surreptitious batting practices of old, but Bloomer was still first on Skaggs’ call list when she needed some hitting advice. And as Walters had at Duke, she talked him up more than once in conversations with Lowe. Sure enough, after last summer’s announcement that teams would be able to hire a third assistant, Lowe called Skaggs into her office. 

She was going to start looking for a new assistant. Did Skaggs still think Bloomer should be near the top of the list? 

Skaggs didn’t hesitate. It would be Arizona’s loss if they didn’t at least try, she told Lowe. 

For Bloomer, who began his softball coaching days devouring every video and tutorial Mike Candrea ever made, the opportunity to go to Arizona was hardly less of a dream destination than it had been for Skaggs. 

He’s a little more mellow these days, Skaggs notes, maybe because that comes with age and maybe because a roster full of women committed enough to reach Division I invites a different approach than a roster full of teenagers not yet old enough to drive. 

“He’s able to have those adult conversations and have a little bit more of a calm energy,” Skaggs said. “He’s still holding us accountable, and he’s intense and he wants us to be the best that we can be. But it’s not like he has to round us up because we’re not listening or doing what we need to be doing. He’s still going to tell us when we’re not performing to the standard, but it’s not like he needs to have a full freak out, if that makes sense.” 

She’s still a sponge, Bloomer notes, eager to pick his brain and learn new information that might help her unlock new excellence. But she’s also wiser, more confident in the knowledge she’s already worked hard to amass. She’s a teacher in her own right these days, giving hitting lessons in the Tucson area. She can, Bloomed chuckled, even be a little stubborn on occasion, not unlike another young coach he remembers.

It’s confidence born of commitment. It helped carry Arizona to a surprise World Series appearance in 2022. And even after a disappointing injury to heralded freshman pitcher Ryan Maddox, it will be almost as important as her home runs, highlight defense and 4+ WAR if the Wildcats are to return to the postseason in 2024 (in acknowledging it will be bittersweet to see her take her final swing, Bloomer pointedly makes Oklahoma City the setting for that moment). Her old coach no longer cuts a terrifying figure . Then again, not much scares the woman Skaggs found at the end of the journey from Louisville to Tucson.

“There’s nothing that I’m going to do this year that’s going to make Allie super great—she was already super great,” Bloomer said. “She got here on her own. She got here because she was super dedicated. She had a dream, and she did everything in her power to use the resources available to her to make her be the best version of herself that she could. I was just a small piece of that journey. 

“I’m just fortunate that I get to sit in the third base coach box and watch her do that all this year.”

Together one more time, a player and coach made in the Commonwealth. And in these changing times, as the bluest of blue bloods plays its final season in the conference it helped make into softball royalty, maybe Skaggs and Bloomer can impart a little Bluegrass magic. 

“I have so much pride in being from the 502,” Skaggs said. “It’s just cool being from a place that is unexpected, and that we both get to do it now, especially for him as a coach, getting to the level that he’s at now. It’s cool to represent the University of Arizona, this place that every kid, if they got the chance, would want to go to. It’s bittersweet. I have a ton of joy, a ton of pride, and it’s cool that we get to do it together.”

Read more from D1Softball’s Graham Hays