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Sun Devils rely on game's deepest roster in championship run

6/4/2008

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kaitlin Cochran didn't get many chances to swing the bat in the Women's College World Series, but it took only one to break open a close game against Texas A&M and send Arizona State to its first national championship.

While the final margin of victory was 11-0 after the floodgates opened late against the Aggies, from the point Cochran's ball sailed over the left field fence in the top of the fifth, the Sun Devils could sense they were on their way.

A kid who grew up idolizing Ted Williams -- and who still soaks up any reading material she can find on the Splendid Splinter -- found herself treated like the greatest hitter who ever lived for much of the week. The NCAA single-season record holder in intentional walks added six in the World Series to push her total to 29.

But the most feared hitter in the college game was also its most famous decoy in an Arizona State run fueled by the game's deepest roster.

"It wasn't frustrating at all, because I knew if I got walked, I'd score," Cochran said.

Cochran's blast gave the Sun Devils plenty of breathing room to savor their final few innings in Oklahoma City, but it wasn't the hit that provided the winning run. That honor went to Jackie Vasquez, who slapped a ball just beyond the reach of Texas A&M shortstop Macie Morrow with one out in the top of the third to score Jessica Mapes.

On a team with a hitter like Cochran and a pitcher like Katie Burkhart, a well deserved unanimous choice as the Most Outstanding Player of the World Series, Vasquez is the embodiment of what separates this year's team from the incarnations that won just one game with Cochran and Burkhart in the last two World Series combined.

As one of a group of five seniors in coach Clint Myers' regular rotation of starters, Vasquez helped lead a team that added more than a dozen newcomers this season.

"We've never had a whole senior class to start; we've never had that kind of leadership," Vasquez said. "We all kind of talked about it this year, that we wanted to challenge each other -- that we wanted to lead on and off the field by example. We wanted to be the sparks for this team. And I think that's been a big difference; we've really tried to handle a lot ourselves."

Given the team's unbeaten run through the NCAA tournament, capped off by the most decisive win in the history of the championship round, it's easy to forget just how fragile Arizona State's chemistry appeared when the season opened. Arizona State's players took umbrage at being seeded sixth in the NCAA tournament after winning the Pac-10, but the soft early schedule that helped put the team in that position might have been a far bigger benefit in building positive momentum than a better seed ever could have been.

As Burkhart recalled, "At first, it was like, 'Oh my goodness, we have 12 incoming freshmen [nine first-year players ended the season on the roster]; this is going to be a lot of girls.' But it doesn't take long to bond. Whenever you have one goal and one dream, it doesn't take long. And I think over time, after all the ups and downs that we've all gone through as a team, it's just really bonded us.

"And some days you love your family, some days not so much, but it's one of those things that it doesn't matter. We're sisters, so we get over it real quick."

As critical as leadership is, it's best served with an oversized portion of hits and runs.

And as a hitter who found herself slotted into just about every spot in the top half of the lineup at one point or another, Vasquez was one of many veterans who came up with far and away her most productive offensive season. Affectionately described as his "five-foot-nothing" outfielder by her coach after hitting what proved to be the game-winning three-run home run Sunday against Alabama, Vasquez hit .422 this season -- 110 points better than last season and 118 points better than her Arizona State career.

"Jackie is a phenomenal player," Myers said. "She's very versatile; she can hit, she can slap, she can bunt. She's turned into an outstanding defensive player; she has a great first step. She can hit anywhere from leadoff to fourth, and a few times at the bottom of the order. … It's the seniors that have really allowed us to achieve the success that we've had. And she's a big part of it. Anybody who hits .420 has got to be a mainstay of your lineup. We work things around her and she scored runs and she drove in a few."

Cochran and Burkhart were always going to be the mainstays, but when players like Vasquez, Mindy Cowles, Kristen Miller, Lesley Rogers and Krista Donnenwirth filled out the lineup, the Sun Devils suddenly looked like a championship team. The message they preached throughout their stay in Oklahoma City was an ability to find a different hero every game. That would be easy to dismiss as clichéd if it wasn't so accurate.

When Alabama walked Cochran on Thursday, freshmen Rogers and Mandy Urfer combined for three hits and all three of the RBIs in a 3-1 win.

When UCLA walked Cochran on Friday, the three hitters directly behind her put pressure on the Bruins with three hits and two walks and produced all four runs in a 4-1 win.

When Alabama pitched to Cochran in Sunday's rematch, Vasquez hit her fourth home run of the season en route to a 3-1 win.

And when the Aggies coaxed three ground outs and a single from Cochran in Monday's championship opener, Donnenwirth looked little like a freshman in twice going the other way with tough pitches for RBI singles and pulling a fatter pitch out of the park.

"One through nine, they're a threat," Burkhart said. "I just know when I'm on the mound, we're not going to lose. If they're five runs ahead of us, that doesn't matter, because those girls are not going to stop. They're going to keep fighting, fighting, fighting; we did that all year long."

For his first two seasons in Tempe, Myers got this team to the World Series largely on the strength of an acerbic iron will and two of the best individual talents in the game. For his third trip to Oklahoma City, he took a whole team.

"I'm not an easy man to play for," Myers said. "They've gone through a lot. … What they were able to do in this playoff system, truly amazing. They're champions."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.