- Mary Buckheit, Page 2
- 0 Shares
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Usually when a baseball player returns to his alma mater, he wanders around campus for a peek at the new athletic complex, passes nostalgically by his freshman dorm, then heads over to the field for an alumni game -- after which he'll get lost looking for the dive bar that no longer exists.
But when Clint Myers went back to his old haunts in Tempe, Ariz., it wasn't to take a family picture with Sparky the Sun Devil and down a burger at The Library on Mill.
Myers returned to Arizona State to inherit the Sun Devils softball team -- an ambitious task for the 1973 grad, who would have his work cut out for him.
The 2005 squad finished the season squarely in the conference cellar with a feeble 4-17 Pac-10 record, but Myers was undeterred by the hefty chore at hand. He was eager to prove that an old dog can teach a young bunch new tricks. He made the 45-mile trek from Central Arizona College and the subsequent jump from 19 years of Vaqueros baseball to the softball-slinging Devils.
Myers took the maroon-and-gold reigns after coach Linda Wells announced her retirement at the end of last season. Wells had once forged her own success in Tempe, leading the Devils to nine regional appearances and two trips to the College World Series, but after a respectable 16-year tenure, progress was becoming sluggish. Quite simply, the program was ready for a change.
Enter Clint Myers.
Under Myers, Arizona State woke up on the right side of the win column, taking 35 of its first 38 games in 2006 before heading into Pac-10 play. That's five more W's than the Devils mustered in 56 games last year.
The Devils proceeded to beat every team in the Pac-10 at least once -- with the exception of top-ranked UCLA and Oregon. (The Devils have yet to play the Ducks, whom they'll face three times this weekend to wrap up the regular season.)
One major highlight of this season was a 4-2 win in 10 innings against intrastate conference rival Arizona on April 14. Arizona coach Mike Candrea was quick to praise Myers' efforts.
"There's always bragging rights at stake when any teams go at it in this state," Candrea said. "[Arizona State] got us once this year. Clint is a good friend of mine and a great coach. He has done a hell of a job with that program. He's turned everything around with basically the same players. It's really remarkable."
After starting the season unranked, the Sun Devils burst into the No. 22 spot after their first week of play, accelerating to No. 16 after two weeks and climbing steadily all year, peaking at No. 6 before landing at the present No. 7 spot.
How's that for remarkable?
"It's been a good year for us -- a year of firsts, for me, for the girls, regardless of their year in school, we're all new here together," Myers said. "Nobody thought we'd be where we are, and that's something to be excited about. I'm excited!"
Myers is happy with the team's position at this point of the season, although he acknowledges several lapses and disappointing losses that have come along the way. He keeps the ups and downs in perspective, recognizing the team's youth and the noteworthy detail that three starters in his typical lineup aren't even scholarship players.
"If I had to try and pinpoint something that needs to change, I think that first and foremost, these kids have to learn to believe in themselves -- and I understand why they don't," he said. "They're in a position that they've never been in before. They're not used to this."
And maybe they're not, but a winning season never hurt anybody.
"As soon as they start to really and truly understand themselves a little better and what they are capable of I tell you what, I see great things down the road," he said.
There is plenty to be optimistic about when you look individually at the players who have already set the school's single-season wins record.
Start with sophomore southpaw Katie Burkhart, who can give you 312 reasons to be hopeful about the future of softball in Tempe. That's her season strikeout total, by the way, which complements a potent cocktail of a 1.16 ERA and .155 opponents batting average.
If it's in the long ball you trust, check out the only choice for Rookie of the Year, Kaitlin Cochran, whose .451 average leads the Pac-10 and puts her at No. 8 in the country. The freshman center fielder also leads the conference in slugging percentage (.784), on-base percentage (.556), RBI (52) and total bases (120). She's averaging .95 RBI per game in her first year and plays the game as if she wrote the textbook on fundamentals.
Need more? Freshman outfielder Jessica Mapes is steadily growing into the Myers system, hitting .291 (23 hits) with 20 runs in only 29 starts. Sophomore shortstop Mindy Cowles has 39 hits on the season, 15 of which are home runs, and junior Michelle Smith leads the Pac-10 in stolen bases with 30.
In short, if Dick Vitale provided color commentary on the road to Oklahoma City, ASU would top his list of diaper dandies.
Myers knows what his young players are capable of once they realize what he already knows about the responsibility that comes with the enjoyment of this game.
"We can play with any team," he said. "We're right there. It's the perpetual mental toughness and understanding of the need to come out here with the same ingredients and enthusiasm and confidence, no matter who you're playing against, every single day that has to develop. And it's not easy, it's it's a grind. It's a grind. But here we are. Welcome to the grind."
Myers explained what the grind meant to him as a first-year coach.
"It's tough. You've got to figure out how to stimulate, teach, and encourage. We have to be a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a disciplinarian, a friend, a teacher and a listener. It's not easy, and of course, you can never be quite sure what you're going to get out of them," he says with a smirk, a shake of his head and a bemused look, "but to be honest, that's what makes this game so great."
And what seemingly makes the Sun Devils so great is the new man at the helm.
"It was quite a change, and it was one where we didn't really know what to expect, but coach Myers made the transition easy for us," said Burkhart, who was recruited by Wells and played last year under her system. "He works so hard and he came in telling us that we were going to be winners and we are going to establish this program as something great, and it was easy for us to get behind him and that message."
Having spent only a few days with Myers and his club, I too found it easy to get behind him and his revitalizing efforts in the desert.
"This club has good character," he said. "They have heart and they have talent and they've done some things this year that I'm very proud of. I'm loving this job."
And I'm sure he is. After all, he is clearly a man who loves the game so much so that he simply can't help himself from wanting to help others get better. Teaching the sport that he knows inside out is something that seems to drive his every thought, a character trait I learned when he interjected mid-interview to invite me to come out and practice with the team and absorb a few pointers in the cage.
"Just bring your glove," he said earnestly.
Something I'd love to take him up on, if I wasn't so busy trying to organize his coach of the year campaign.
Mary Buckheit is a former college softball player and regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.