Commentary

Kaylyn Castillo looks for first ring

Originally Published: June 6, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Like most of her senior teammates at Arizona State, Kaylyn Castillo remembers exactly what the celebration at Hall of Fame Stadium looked like after the Sun Devils won the program's first national championship in 2008. Unlike those classmates, she can't tell you anything about how that party felt, sounded or smelled in person.

But in the wake of Arizona State's 14-4 win Monday against Florida in Game 1 of the championship series in the Women's College World Series, Castillo is one win from sampling it all and filling the available space on her right ring finger.

"I was at home, watching on the couch, wishing I was there," Castillo recalled of the 2008 World Series, which she watched after spending her freshman season at the University of Louisville. "Little did they know I was already planning to come here. I was already on my way, but I was like, 'Ah, I missed it.'"

With perhaps only the exception of the Arizona State fan seated behind the dugout and dressed head to toe in yellow spandex, just about everyone in Sun Devils colors contributed to the rout Monday night. Eight players scored at least one run, and the team's 13 hits were distributed among six players. In addition to her standard highlight reel of defensive gems, senior third baseman Krista Donnenwirth hit two home runs, doubling her total from Game 1 of the championship series in 2008 as a freshman against Texas A&M. Annie Lockwood and Sam Parlich also hit home runs, and drove in four runs between them. And Castillo led all players with three hits, the first three runs scoring as a result of her hits.

Arizona State entered the game with all nine starters batting at least .300 and eight starters with on-base percentages of at least .400. Those numbers came to life as the Sun Devils circled the bases en masse against a team that had looked unbeatable just a day earlier. Florida was none too pleased with plate umpire Chris Drumm, for what the Gators felt was a missed hit-by-pitch in the first inning and an inconsistent or incorrect strike zone, but even they prefaced their harsh words with the admission that above all else, the Sun Devils simply "kicked our butts."

[+] EnlargeDallas Escobedo
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiDallas Escobedo benefits from having senior Kaylyn Castillo behind the plate.

It looked like a lineup assembled on a master architect's notepad, which makes it all the more remarkable how close one key component of the lineup came to never making it to Oklahoma City.

"I had to battle the old man," Castillo said of Sun Devils coach Clint Myers. "He wanted to cut me in the beginning."

Arizona State originally recruited Castillo out of high school in California, but that opportunity fell through -- in her words, she "messed it up a little bit." She instead went to Louisville, a quality program in the Big East but not a place with the Pac-10 competition she grew up wanting to be a part of or the players she grew up playing with and against.

After one season at Louisville in which she batted .187 and played in 35 games, she decided she needed to be closer to her family in California and to take another shot at the level of softball she craved. A player whose skills it's safe to say would have opened doors and scholarship money at hundreds of Division I programs got in touch with the Sun Devils. They couldn't offer her a scholarship, they told her, but she was welcome to come and try out as a walk-on.

Her confidence dented by the experience in Kentucky, she didn't necessarily put her best foot forward in those tryouts. But was she really as close to getting cut by Myers as she believes? Nobody knows better than the man on the Arizona State staff who originally recruited her out of high school.

"Yes and no," associate head coach Robert Wagner said with a slight smile after a hesitation. "I think there were some people that really didn't see everything that she could bring to the table, and then there were others who did. So in some ways she was [that close to getting cut], but we weren't going to let that happen."

Now the head coach, who is to effusive praise what the weather in Oklahoma this week is to snowball fights, can't help himself from raving about his senior stalwart behind the plate. Well, raving at least by his standards.

"She's a fiery little catcher that has been the heartthrob of this," Myers said. "She's done an outstanding job all year long handling the pitchers, especially [Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue], because they're two freshmen. She competes. ... She wants to win so bad she'll play with a broken leg. She just wants to compete."

I think without her, it wouldn't really be the same. She's an amazing catcher, obviously, but she adds something special to our team.

-- ASU senior outfielder Lesley Rogers

Castillo's hits against the Gators snapped her out of a 2-for-10 mini-skid in the World Series, but she stockpiled more than enough big hits over the course of the season to buy herself a game or two of balls not falling in for hits. As good as Arizona State looks now, it nearly found itself a game from elimination against Texas A&M in the super regionals until Castillo came through with a walk-off hit in the opening game. She followed that effort with a home run that put the Sun Devils in front for good in the second game against the Aggies. And as mature in the circle as Escobedo is on her own, and was again for the most part against a Florida lineup that prohibits a pitcher from checking out for even a batter, it doesn't hurt to have a senior catcher behind the plate who has earned her own respect when she speaks.

"Right when she got here, she helped tremendously," senior outfielder Lesley Rogers said. "She's our little spark plug; she's like the one who gets us pumped up and fired up, yelling out little things -- she's not a quiet player. She likes to, not boss around, but she's definitely very vocal. We need one of those on this team; we have a lot of quiet leaders. ...

"I think without her, it wouldn't really be the same. She's an amazing catcher, obviously, but she adds something special to our team."

In 2008, the Sun Devils turned a close win in Game 1 of the final series into a rout in the championship-clinching second game. The burst of power Florida showed late, albeit when already down by a staggering 14 runs, suggests the lineup that decimated Alabama on Sunday still has enough left in it to make Tuesday a fight to the end.

But an Arizona State team that seems to have all the pieces in place will be there ready to try to bring home the championship, including the piece who took a more circuitous route than most to Oklahoma City but who definitely will not be watching from the couch whatever happens in what remains of this World Series.

"She's always been the leader-type kid," Wagner said of Castillo. "She's always been the girl who would step up in big situations; she's always been the girl who is going to take charge of the team. She's always going to be a motivator; she's going to inspire other girls to play to their top ability. She's gotten better and better with her physical game, as far as hitting goes and catching goes. She's put a lot of work into that, and the improvements in those areas have been huge. But really, initially, it was more that this is the go-to kid you want.

"She might not be the most gifted athlete in the world, but mentally and the way she approaches the game -- and really the way she approaches life -- is a special kid that you don't see every day."

Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Follow ESPN.com's college sports coverage on Twitter and on Facebook.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

ALSO SEE