Oregon State's success is closely tied to rival
Oregon State's ascension to college softball's ultimate stage has been a process more than two decades in the making. And perhaps not surprisingly, the story really begins at UCLA.
OKLAHOMA CITY -- The first time is rarely ever the same thing as the beginning.
Coach: Kirk Walker
Road/Neutral record: 26-8
Pac-10 record: 10-10
Road to Oklahoma City (No. 7 overall seed)
vs. Nevada, 2-1 W (Corvallis Regional)
vs. Baylor, 5-3 W (Corvallis Regional)
vs. Baylor, 3-1 W (Corvallis Regional)
vs. Cal 2-1 L (Corvallis Super Regional)
vs. Cal 3-0 W (Corvallis Super Regional)
vs. Cal 1-0 W (Corvallis Super Regional)
Notable nonconference wins: Baylor, Cal State Fullerton (2), LSU, Northwestern, Texas A&M, UC Santa Barbara
Notable nonconference losses: Nebraska, Northwestern, Portland State
Lineup note: Walker used six different batting orders in Oregon State's six postseason games leading up to the College World Series. McGowan hits for herself when pitching, while DeWall and Iapala share at-bats in the outfield and Ewing and Iapala share at-bats as the designated player (usually batting for second baseman Lowe or third baseman Galvan).
Getting to know the Beavers
A year after sharing the Pac-10 title, Oregon State's emerging program took another leap forward by staging a dramatic rally to knock off Cal in the super regionals and advance to the team's first College World Series. But don't label the Beavers -- who were the higher seed playing at home in Corvallis against Cal -- a Cinderella. Under coach Kirk Walker's direction, the team has spent years gradually building toward this goal and taking its lumps in the Pac-10.
Ace Brianne McGowan, who is also tied for second on the team in home runs, made a statement about her place among the game's elite pitchers by beating Cal's Kristina Thorson twice in one day to clinch the spot in Oklahoma City. And McGowan has support at the plate, led by sophomore slugger Cambria Miranda, who hit .313 with seven home runs in 20 Pac-10 games this season. Ranking fifth in the conference in team batting and team pitching, and fourth in team fielding, the Beavers win with a balanced all-around approach.
Player to Watch: Mia Longfellow, SS
Hitting consistently in the Pac-10 is enough to get anyone down. It's a league where a road trip might begin with Anjelica Selden and end with Danielle Lawrie, or shift from Alicia Hollowell to Katie Burkhart in the heat of the Arizona desert. But against Cal in the super regionals, Mia Longfellow and the rest of the top of the order for Oregon State didn't let the past prevent them from prolonging the present.
Longfellow, a junior shortstop and three-year starter for the Beavers, led the team with a .335 average this season. But after hitting .389 in nonconference action, she saw he average tumble to just .200 in 20 Pac-10 games. Facing Cal (against whom she had just one hit in nine at-bats) with the season on the line after dropping the opening game of the super regional, a lesser player might have given in to pressure. But Longfellow's first-inning fireworks helped give pitcher Brianne McGowan the comfort of a lead in both games on Sunday, sending the Beavers to Oklahoma City. Oregon State has stars in McGowan and slugger Cambria Miranda, but the contributions and toughness of the other regulars played just as big a role in the team's success.
So in saying that Thursday's game between Oregon State and Arizona was the first appearance for the Beavers in a Women's College World Series, it's not like the team from Corvallis, Ore., just started swinging bats yesterday.
The school's ascension to college softball's ultimate stage has been a process more than two decades in the making. And perhaps not surprisingly, the story really begins at UCLA.
"I worked alongside Sue [Enquist] for 11 years, and so much of my philosophy and so much of who I am is a direct reflection of those years with her and Sharon [Backus]," Beavers coach Kirk Walker said about his time as an assistant under the two UCLA coaching legends.
While at UCLA, Walker was a part of six championship teams and made 10 trips to the Women's College World Series. In all, the Bruins lost just 17 total games in those 11 years.
The biggest lessons he learned from Enquist?
"I couldn't even separate myself out and say it's this, this and this, because it's really part of who I am," Walker said. "But probably the biggest thing is competitive fire and love of the game. Those are probably two things that stand out that I can put my finger on. There's nobody more competitive than Sue Enquist and there's also nobody who respects the game more than Sue Enquist."
With those lessons in hand, Walker headed north to Corvallis in 1995 for a whole new kind of challenge, taking over a program that barely had a Pac-10 pulse. In his first season in charge, the Beavers went just 13-43, losing more than twice as many games as the Bruins had in more than a decade.
It was clear Walker wasn't rebuilding; he was simply building.
"No. 1, we asked the kids to believe that they were good enough to be playing in the Pac-10," Walker said. "That was the immediate thing with that team that needed to change, just changing the mind-set and the mentality, that winning is expected and it wasn't a luxury. The second thing was -- going in hand in hand with that -- was bringing in athletes at a higher level of athleticism."
Given the state of the program when he arrived, Walker worked extremely quickly. By his fourth year, the team flirted with a .500 record and the following season posted a school-record 47 wins and a 14-14 Pac-10 record (the Beavers had won just 21 Pac-10 games in the previous four seasons). That 1999 team represents the beginning of Oregon State's postseason presence; the Beavers have reached the NCAA Tournament every year since.
But despite six 40-win seasons in seven years, including a share of the Pac-10 title last season, the Beavers couldn't take the final step in changing their image by reaching Oklahoma City.
That all changed Sunday, when the Beavers completed their comeback to beat Cal in a three-game series and clinch a spot in the final eight.
"We [were] the only Pac-10 team that's never been to the College World Series," Walker said.
"Where you can say we're obviously a top-20 team, we're competitive, we can beat anybody all that stuff is great, but to be able to be a team that has been to a College World Series -- and we're a program that is about trying to get to that College World Series, and we've done it -- it's certainly nationally a big deal."
And there were the Oregon State players, wearing black warm-ups and carrying orange flowers, marching into Don E. Porter Hall of Fame Stadium during Wednesday evening's opening ceremony. The procession was the culmination of years of work, including four years of toil for a senior class of Lisa Allen, Adrienne Alo, Vanessa Iapala and Amy Klever (the class also includes Ingrid Lochelt, who transferred from Kentucky and Maggie DeWall, who transferred from Portland State).
"It is a huge deal to our senior class," Walker said. "Obviously, they came in very highly recruited, and it was their goal from the first season that they were here that they were going to be with the team that would go to the first College World Series. That was absolutely in their focus, so for them to accomplish that, even though it's in their senior year, it's absolutely phenomenal."
Of course, even amidst the glow of a goal realized, danger lurked for the Beavers upon entering their opening game against a conference foe. Having expended so much energy in reaching Oklahoma City, how would the team respond to the next challenge?
"We were a little tight in practice, but it is good to get it out now before our first game," junior ace Brianne McGowan said after the team's final practice Wednesday morning. "Our team is usually pretty loud, but it was quiet on the whole field. But it got better."
Oregon State didn't look like a team new to the Women's College World Series on Thursday, fighting Arizona tooth and nail and forcing extra innings. It wasn't enough, however, as Kristie Fox singled in Caitlin Lowe in the bottom of the ninth inning to give the Wildcats the win. McGowan allowed 10 hits, struck out four and walked four.
"We were disappointed in the outcome, but by no means disappointed in our effort and our game plan," said Walker. "I thought we played a very good ballgame, certainly dealing with the first-time jitters. I felt our team did a tremendous job of going after it."
Walker had learned that gameplan from Enquist, who has made a career of coaching young players through their WCWS jitters.
Before the game, he said, "The important thing is just trying to give them a knowledge about what is going to happen, and trying to let them know what emotions they're probably going to experience. But you can't ever fully prepare them for what they're going to experience."
Looking at Walker's success in turning Oregon State into a national power, which is likely making the first of many trips to Oklahoma City, you can't help but wonder if Sue Enquist did just that for her protégé.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.