Parity reigns supreme at Kajikawa Classic
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Seven years ago, the University of Arizona capped off a 65-4 season with the program's sixth national championship.
Six years ago, the University of Nevada hired Michelle Gardner to breathe life into a softball program that had been dormant for 14 seasons.
Five years ago, Katie Holverson won the first of three state championships at Cactus High School in Glendale, Ariz.
Sunday, Holverson shut the door on No. 1 Arizona with two innings of shutout relief for Nevada and preserved a 1-0 win that dropped the defending champions to 0-3.
It wasn't quite softball's version of Moore's Law, but the Kajikawa Classic offered plenty of evidence that college softball continues to grow more competitive at an almost exponential rate. And it proved that in a season that lacks a clear-cut front-runner, no team is perfect -- or safe.
It's a world where Nevada can go from afterthought to adversary in the blink of an eye.
Nevada finished last season with a losing record and missed out on the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five seasons back on the diamond. One of the losses came against top-ranked Arizona on the same field at the Tempe Sports Complex that hosted Sunday's matinee. Holverson started that game but watched four unearned runs cross the plate in the first inning en route to a 6-2 loss, one of five for her team in the tournament.
The Wolf Pack entered Sunday's game with more momentum, having defeated No. 25 Oregon State to open the event and added wins against Texas State and Missouri-Kansas City. They also had ace Jordan McPherson in the circle to begin the contest. The preseason WAC Pitcher of the Year, McPherson blanked Oregon State for five innings Friday before surrendering a pair of runs and giving way to Holverson to close out the win.
McPherson is a commanding presence in the center of the field, and when she's on, she makes life difficult for hitters looking to get the ball airborne.
"I think each year she's gotten stronger mentally and physically," Gardner said of her ace after the Oregon State game. "She is really the backbone and a leader for our team. And so for me, it's critical that she can come out and stay composed, even after she gives up two runs, and keep competing."
Those words proved prophetic Sunday when McPherson stymied the Wildcats for five innings and escaped a pair of bases-loaded jams despite a tight strike zone. By late in the top of the fifth, with the bases again full against her, McPherson was clearly laboring before she got Callista Balko to ground into a force at third base to preserve a one-run lead. Instead of trying to talk her way back into the game between innings, she grabbed Holverson's shoulders in the dugout and offered the sophomore some words of encouragement.
And when Holverson escaped her own bases-loaded jam by striking out Balko for the final out of the seventh, Nevada had its upset.
Off to a 7-3 start despite five games against ranked opponents, Nevada may have the same kind of staying power as Hawaii, last season's surprise out of the WAC. With freshman Danielle Patrick shoring up the infield defense at shortstop and a lineup that features gap power from top to bottom, the Wolf Pack may have the tools to pick up both of their pitchers the way they picked up the team this weekend.
"We had a rough year last year, but we were very young mentally and physically," Gardner said. "So I think we've got that on us now; I think we've got strong pitching. I think we have all the components."
Arizona StateNorthwestern had the most impressive performance at the Kajikawa Classic, beating a pair of top-five opponents in Arizona and Texas A&M en route to a 4-0 start, but Arizona State claimed the equally ephemeral distinction of tournament champion for the third year in a row on the strength of six wins, no losses and a dominant run differential.
The subtext is that, as usual, none of the teams the Sun Devils beat can be considered favorites to contend for an appearance in the super regionals, let alone the World Series -- even if plenty of teams in Tempe proved that's no guarantee of success for a favorite.
It's a philosophy of scheduling coach Clint Myers is willing to defend with a roster deep with newcomers he feels he needs time to evaluate and who need time to adjust gradually to various roles and scenarios.
"We've got a schedule that is going to afford us to make some substitutions," Myers said. "It's one of those things that you've got to get them ready the best you can. We don't want people to be tired. There have been a couple of teams in the Pac-10 that have used the same people, the same pitchers, day in and day out, and by the time the end of the season comes, 60-plus games later, they're a little tired and beat up. We want to be playing our best softball at the end -- not in February."
So while the wins against Western Michigan, Virginia, Nebraska, Memphis, Texas State and Missouri-Kansas City were nice, the individual effort turned in by freshman Krista Donnenwirth at third base may be more important in the long run. Donnenwirth leads the team with 18 RBIs through 11 games and if her long-term prospects with the glove at the hot corner aren't certain, she's at least proved capable of taking some innings there between at-bats elsewhere. With highly touted junior college transfer Renee Welty redshirting for undisclosed medical reasons, that's good news at an uncertain position.
"How good has she performed for a freshman?" Myers posited. "How many freshmen in the Pac-10 hit fourth? She's just done an outstanding job."
The same goes for freshman Lesley Rogers, who finished an already strong weekend with four hits in Sunday's two games, including a leadoff stint in one game. For a lineup with more than a few streaky hitters, a consistent contact hitter could prove a huge boon.
"She's probably the biggest surprise we've got so far," Myers said. "She's just done an outstanding job. … She's squaring it up, she's not striking out, she's seeing a lot of pitches. She's having quality at-bats, and that's a freshman. And she just learned how to slap this year."
Texas A&MIf not for five rain-soaked innings Friday during which Texas A&M staked Northwestern to an 8-4 lead that turned into an 8-7 win once the game resumed Sunday morning, it might have been the Aggies leaving Tempe with the most to talk about. That was certainly the case last season, when coach Jo Evans' team launched a campaign that would culminate in Oklahoma City with a perfect start at the Kajikawa Classic.
As it was, the loss against Northwestern this season only marginally dulled the luster of four high-quality wins against Arizona, Washington, Nevada and Notre Dame for a team with every intention of returning to the Women's College World Series.
Notably for the Aggies, seniors Megan Gibson and Amanda Scarborough followed up on a trend from the first week that saw the two versatile players essentially trade roles. Both players have been key contributors at the plate and in the circle since arriving in College Station, but Scarborough has always been the top ace and Gibson the top slugger.
Not so this season, in which Gibson is 6-0 with a 1.29 ERA in the circle and Scarborough leads the team with a .438 batting average, .688 slugging percentage and 11 RBIs. In the team's signature 3-2 win against Arizona, Gibson went the distance in the circle."She's really matured as a pitcher," Evans said. "She was always just a power hitter-power pitcher -- you know, wants to go throw hard at people. And now she's learning more the finesse of the game."
That maturity showed in the final frame against Arizona, when Gibson didn't hesitate before throwing to third on a grounder back to the circle with one out and a runner on second. Instead of facing Stacie Chambers with the tying run a wild pitch or passed ball away from scoring, she was free to work a strikeout with only a runner on first. Gibson, Scarborough, Jamie Hinshaw and Jami Lobpries seem like they've been around forever, but they are really the lone outposts of experience on a roster littered with young talent.
"The seniors, they're aware of what legacy they want to leave to our program," Evans said. "And of course, World Series and all that is important, but really more so is the leadership and the pride with which they play the game. That's what they want to pass down, and I think they're doing a good job with that."
Elsewhere at the Kajikawa• Arizona's 0-3 start and 2-3 overall record this weekend will raise a lot of eyebrows given all the offseason drama surrounding the program's coaching staff, but nobody is likely to feel sorry for the Wildcats. For one thing, even in defeat, the talent on display for the Wildcats didn't disappoint. Chambers proved well worth the wait after a head injury derailed her freshman season. She drilled a deep home run over a secondary fence at Farrington Stadium against Texas A&M and finished the weekend with six hits and a pair of home runs in four starts. And in addition to flashing a versatile glove at shortstop in one game against Southern Utah, regular third baseman Jenae Leles looked entirely comfortable in the middle of the order for much of the weekend.
What was missing, as assistant Dave Feinberg noted before the season, was the speed and short game that Arizona typically uses to torment opponents. Interim coach Larry Ray, long the master of the short game in Tucson, will have to figure out how the pieces fit together with senior Adrienne Acton and freshmen Brittany Lastrapes and Lauren Schutzler, or how he'll build a less traditional source of consistent run production.
• Arizona lost a lot when Caitlin Lowe, Kristie Fox and Chelsie Mesa graduated, but Washington might have been the team in Tempe most pining for the good old days. The Huskies were already without Dena Tyson and Dominique Lastrapes, who both graduated, and Danielle Lawrie, due to Olympic duties with Canada. To make matters worse, Heather Tarr's team was also missing All-American shortstop Ashley Charters. A star at last year's Women's College World Series, Charters' senior season will be pushed back a year after hip surgery. Pairing Charters and Lawrie together one more time makes for promising conjecture concerning 2009, but it also makes for a potentially rough 2008.
The Huskies dropped three of five in Tempe, including one-run losses to Texas State and Oklahoma State. Ironically, the best news might have come in the worst loss, a 10-4 defeat at the hands of Texas A&M. Not only did the Huskies manage 10 hits against previously untouchable A&M starter Megan Gibson, but freshman Aleah Macon came on to strike out 10 Aggies in five innings of one-hit relief for Washington.
• Not unlike Washington, Nebraska made arguably its best showing in a loss against a ranked team to close out the tournament. Playing the entire weekend without ace Molly Hill, who could return from knee surgery in time to pitch at least once next week, the Huskers didn't get consistent innings from either sophomore Alex Hupp or freshman Tori Tyson and struggled to give either of them much in the way of run support.
But trailing Northwestern 4-2 late in Sunday's finale for both teams, the Huskers rode home runs from Haley Long and Crystal Carwile to claim a 6-4 lead. The Wildcats stormed back with four runs of their own to claim the win, but along with a solid weekend from junior college transfer Amanda Duran, the Sunday power surge offered tangible evidence of the potential a young lineup showed at times in Tempe.
• After splitting six games last weekend, Oklahoma State made a mildly surprising 4-0 run at the Kajikawa, adding wins against Western Kentucky, Virginia and Temple to a win against Washington. Senior Kim Kaye continued a torrid start, totaling six hits, six runs, three RBIs and a pair of home runs. With five home runs, Kaye has already topped her total of four from last season, which ranked third on the team. On the other end of the experience spectrum, freshman pitchers Sarah Odom and Amanda Crabtree made the most of their opportunities. Odom got the complete-game win against Washington, while Crabtree tossed a shutout to wrap up the weekend against Temple.
• Notre Dame lost a shot at Arizona when weather washed out the scheduled contest between the teams Friday night, but the Fighting Irish still took something from the Pac-10 by preventing Cal from completing a 5-0 weekend with a 4-3 win on Sunday. The good news for Cal, which had dropped four of six to begin the season, was the performance of Marissa Drewrey. After another strong weekend, the sophomore is now 4-2 with a 1.33 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 47.1 innings. Throw in a terrific start at the plate and in the circle for freshman Valerie Arioto and five early home runs from Sanoe Kekahuna and the Golden Bears could be in better shape to challenge Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford than their Pac-10 neighbors to the north in Oregon and Washington.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.