Sun Devils, Aggies ride seniors to championship series
OKLAHOMA CITY -- As usual, the championship round of the Women's College World Series will feature a member of softball's old guard trying to add on to the multiple titles it already holds. And per the norm, a Pac-10 team will be on the field in Oklahoma City.
That the two are not one and the same when No. 5 seed Texas A&M and No. 6 seed Arizona State meet for the championship guarantees a fitting end for a season of parity.
For Texas A&M, Sunday at Hall of Fame Stadium went from disappointment to delirium, with a timeout somewhere along the way for some downhill sledding. The Aggies needed just one win against Florida to advance and play for the championship for the first time since 1987. Unfortunately, they were still a win away from securing passage through after dropping a 6-1 decision against the Gators in the day's first game.
After taking some time away from the park while Arizona State and Alabama played, the Aggies returned to watch the final few innings -- which is when a few of the team's reserves transformed a piece of cardboard into an improvised luge while lounging on the hill beyond left field. Sufficiently loose, the Big 12 champions survived the tensest game of the weekend when freshman Kelsey Spittler's first hit of the World Series drove home Macie Morrow for the only run in a 1-0, nine-inning thriller.
"It was a tough first game for us, and it certainly didn't go the way we had planned," Aggies coach Jo Evans said. "And for our kids to regroup and play as well as we did says a lot about our team and our mental toughness."
Arizona State's day ended more quickly and less dramatically when the Pac-10 champs, needing only one win, knocked off Alabama 3-1 on the strength of a three-run home run from Jackie Vasquez and another strong complete game from lefty ace Katie Burkhart.
So now the first two teams eliminated from the World Series last season are the last two standing in Oklahoma City this season. And while Sunday saw them reach the final stage in different fashions, their shared starting point a year ago links them.
For the Sun Devils, the best-of-three series offers a chance to earn the program's first national championship. It's also a chance to solidify the Pac-10's place of pre-eminence, even as the sport spreads to all corners of the map. Arizona made a statement to that effect by winning the past two national championships, but a win for Arizona State would make it the fourth team from the conference to win a title, joining UCLA and Cal.
"I would lie to you if I said that it wasn't," Vasquez said of whether the specter of regional bragging rights rested somewhere in the minds of those involved.
And while Evans is perhaps the most gracious and magnanimous coach among the sport's elite programs, even she couldn't resist a subtle dig at all the talk about whether or not the SEC is closing the gap on the Pac-10 atop the game. After all, it's the Big 12 (and its predecessors), and not the SEC, that has the second-most titles.
"I've been getting a lot of questions about all these other great conferences, and we're really proud to be in the Big 12," Evans said. "And it's fun to be here playing in the championship, representing our conference."
That's the Big 12 conference, in case you missed it.
Regional differences aside, both teams are built around small cores of seniors who saw tremendous accomplishments last season tarnished by sour endings in Oklahoma City.
After his team scored two runs in two losses in last season's event, Arizona State coach Clint Myers stressed that he expected his returning players to step up their games or risk losing time to one of the largest and most talented incoming classes in the country. Many of those newcomers have indeed played key roles throughout the season, and in Oklahoma City for an improved Arizona State offense, most notably slugging third baseman Krista Donnenwirth and speedy outfielder Lesley Rogers. But as Vasquez demonstrated in perhaps the most memorable fashion with her home run, a group of seniors that includes her, Burkhart, Mindy Cowles, Kristen Miller and Rhiannon Baca has responded by stepping up on the field and opening up off the field.
"I think this year's team just has a much better chemistry," Myers said. "It just has a much better interactive quality. They get along, they like each other. There's not as much drama. And again, all year long, I think the seniors have just done a tremendous job of leading."
In fact, his biggest concern after watching his team win three consecutive games is that those seniors are trying to do too much in their final games. The Sun Devils outscored the opposition 10-2 in their wins, but they managed just nine hits along the way.
"They had phenomenal senior years," Myers said in noting the All-America and all-conference honors bestowed on Cowles, Vasquez and Miller. "These kids can play. And I'm trying to tell them just relax and do the things that got you all those honors. You don't have to do any more -- nothing. I mean, hell, that's my job, I've got to push the right buttons to make it happen. Because whoever we play, they're going to be a good ball team. So we better come with a little more offense. We're going to face good pitching, and we truly need to hit it better."
The same holds true for Texas A&M, which hardly racked up staggering offensive statistics in beating Virginia Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette and Florida twice to advance. Yet the Aggies did advance because senior Megan Gibson made the adjustments she needed after a rough first outing on Sunday. And because senior Jami Lobpries turned one inning into her own personal highlight reel in the outfield. And because senior Amanda Scarborough, out with a foot injury, found a way to contribute Sunday as an ad hoc pitching coach. And yes, because like the Sun Devils, the Aggies caught some fortunate breaks along the way.
But they also kept themselves in games long enough to benefit from those breaks.
"When you get a senior class like this, you recognize that there are so many really special intangibles that you have to have," Evans said. "I've had some senior classes in the past -- none so talented to match the leadership [of this class] -- but you don't always get it. And I think the teams that get here are the ones that have good chemistry. And then you see the two teams playing in the series, they're the ones that have the senior classes."
And it's no surprise that in a World Series loaded with emerging stars in the circle, seniors Burkhart and Gibson will toe the rubber in the final series.
Burkhart is the most statistically dominant of the two pitchers, and there is an undeniable benefit to having pitched only one game on Sunday
"It's huge," Myers said. "The rest that she gets to have, that's a plus. It keeps her strong, it keeps her going."
Of course, Gibson made a compelling case for player of the year honors in part because of how well she handled pitching more innings than were expected of her. And after she did it again against the Gators -- shutting out an offense that helped produce 70 wins this season -- she looked like a pitcher ready for at least two more days of work.
"I wouldn't trade any person in the world, any pitcher, for Megan Gibson," Lobpries said. "Even if she doesn't have the best stuff, I know what kind of competitor and what kind of fighter [she is]. I wouldn't want anyone else out there."
Monday at the Women's College World Series hasn't seen much of either Texas A&M or Arizona State. But like so many programs around the country, both rebuilt themselves on the idea that they could win national championships.
One of them is about to do just that.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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