Arizona State keeps Pac-10 empire alive
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The outfield wall at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium doesn't look impenetrable. Sure, it's more imposing than it used to be back in the days before the height was raised from 4 to 6 feet. And it looks noticeably sturdier than the clearly temporary breakaway fencing that used to mark the edge of the playing field. But all things considered, it does not belong to the same class of obstacles as, say, the Great Wall of China or Hadrian's Wall.
And yet few barriers have lasted longer in at least symbolically separating a frontier from the empire to the west.
Arizona State came, it saw and and it conquered the Women's College World Series. With a 7-2 win against Florida on Tuesday, the Sun Devils clinched their second national championship in four seasons and became one of just four programs to win multiple NCAA titles in softball. In seven seasons of the best-of-three format in the championship series, no winning team put together a bigger cumulative margin of victory than Arizona State's 15 runs.
"They played the best softball of the year here in the College World Series," Arizona State coach Clint Myers said. "They beat a very, very talented Florida Gators team. And they did it with a young pitcher who had lots of friends and lots of help in the circle -- with great defense. I don't think we made an error. And we had timely hitting."
Two of the programs Arizona State joins with multiple titles reside in the Pac-10, winner in 24 of 30 championship games or series (even in the one later vacated by UCLA, a Pac-10 team was the opponent). Almost 1,000 miles from the nearest hub of Pac-10 civilization, Oklahoma City was in many ways the edge of the softball universe when the Women's College World Series first came here in 1990.
That is no longer the case for a sport gone national. The Pac-10's hold on success still is.
Every year a new wave of challengers come, and every year the Pac-10 turns them back at the wall.
Rarely has it sent as complete a team to accomplish that task as this group of Sun Devils. The best fielding team in the nation, Arizona State used a batting order devoid of easy outs to swamp an opponent previously unstoppable at the plate. And did it all behind a freshman pitcher, Dallas Escobedo, good enough on the biggest stage to earn a share of Most Outstanding Player honors.
"If you want to think of a perfect team, a cohesive team, that has every piece of what you need to win a championship, that's what this was," Arizona State senior outfielder Lesley Rogers said. "And it feels awesome."
She wasn't alone in at least the first part of that sentiment.
"I was most impressed not just in their offense but how well they did it all the way around," Florida coach Tim Walton said. "If I had to argue, it's probably one of the best teams to ever come through Oklahoma City, top to bottom, one through nine -- maybe one through 12 -- and then what they do defensively and in the circle."
Arizona State was particularly well equipped to defend conference pride, adept as it was at defending everything else. The Sun Devils became just the third team to win a title without committing an error in the World Series, an accomplishment entirely in keeping with a season in which they committed just 26 errors in 66 games.
That domination started with as good a left side of the infield as there is to be found at the college level. Asked after Game 1 of the final series what makes third baseman Krista Donnenwirth so good at the hot corner, Myers volleyed back and asked what made Brooks Robinson so great. Whatever Donnenwirth didn't get to, Katelyn snared at shortstop. But plenty of teams have a couple of good defenders; certainly, all the teams here did.
Arizona State had nine. The primary starting outfield of Lesley Rogers, Talor Haro and Annie Lockwood combined for one error in 183 starts between them.
The balance didn't end there. Eight players drove in runs for the Sun Devils, and seven drove in multiple runs, led by Annie Lockwood's eight RBIs. One of three finalists for USA Softball Player of the Year, Boyd hit .353 with six RBIs in five games and was treated almost as an afterthought. Only two teams struck out fewer times than the Sun Devils during the World Series -- and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State played just two games each.
The biggest piece missing last season, when Arizona State lost to Florida in the Gainesville Super Regional, was an ace of the caliber usually required to make the trip to Oklahoma City. That changed with the arrival of Escobedo, an Arizona product long touted as the best pitching prospect in the country. She became the first freshman pitcher to win a title since UCLA's Heather Compton in 1990 -- two years before Escobedo was born. Yet even a pitcher who finished her first season with 37 wins and 326 strikeouts spent most of her time in front of a microphone at the World Series talking about how she learned to trust the team behind her to do a lot of the work.
"There's a reason why it takes 20 years for a freshman to lead a club to a national championship because it's such a rarity," Myers said. "It just doesn't happen. Only a unique, special-type person can have that. But as Dallas said, it wasn't the single entity that brought her the success. She throws hard, she throws strikes, but we didn't make an error in the College World Series. We had timely hitting."
Even with another season of Boyd and the enticing prospect of three more years of maturation in the circle from Escobedo, the Sun Devils will inevitably face challenges in turning this run of success into a dynasty. Eight seniors put on the uniform for the final time against Florida, including the four key contributors who were in the starting lineup in the finale. Myers called it the best group of leaders he's ever coached. Long overdue for a program of his own to run, associate coach and hitting guru Robert Wagner may well follow them out the door if the right offer comes along.
No empire lasts forever, and the Pac-10, too, will eventually fall from so lofty a perch. From Rome, N.Y., to Carthage, Mo., and Athens, Ga., there are too many girls playing softball, watching it on television and benefiting from improved coaching for one conference to maintain such a stranglehold on the championship trophy. What Oklahoma did in winning a title in 2000 and Michigan the same in 2005 will at some point cease to be aberrations and become the normal ebb and flow of competitive balance. Parity will come to Oklahoma City.
But we've also been saying that since long before the Sooners won more than a decade ago, breaking a string of 12 consecutive titles for teams from Arizona or California. When it comes to the final stage of the college season, there is something about the Pac-10. There has to be after six consecutive titles split between four conference schools.
"Every single weekend is a grind," Wagner said by way of explanation about the Pac-10 regular season. "And honestly, when our kids get into postseason, they're so prepared for that, that it's almost like a relief. It's like, 'Oh, we don't have to face Pac-10 pitching or hitting anymore; we can go face other teams.' And it is a relief. They relax and they feel a lot more confident.
"Part of it too -- and it might be a small part -- but some of the other conferences and teams that are representing those conferences are pressing a little bit. The Pac-10 has done it. Where, I think, some of the other teams feel like there is a lot of pressure on their backs to be that first team to win that first one."
Long after four Big 12 teams left, after first Alabama and then Florida returned to SEC country wondering about what could have been, and even after the dust settled from Arizona State's team bus pulling away from Hall of Fame stadium to take the party elsewhere, the outfield wall stood silent sentry over softball's east-west divide.
"This is a unique team," Myers said. "I don't know if a team like this will come along for a long time."
But for another year, the empire remains unconquered. Arizona State made sure of that.
Graham Hays covers women's college softball for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.