- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Even in softball, location is everything.
Put the Arizona State Sun Devils in another state -- say, New Mexico or South Dakota -- and the program would be a model of success, a veritable family movie in the making. It's a program that has been playing softball since 1967, making 12 Women's College World Series appearances and posting just one losing season (1994) in its existence.
Unfortunately, the number that has seemed to dominate Arizona State softball is 114 -- as in the distance in miles between its campus in Tempe and the University of Arizona's campus in Tucson.
Put it this way: Arizona coach Mike Candrea ran the ship for the United States softball team during the 2004 Olympics in Athens; Arizona State coach (at the time) Linda Wells skippered Greece's team. Even in international play, Arizona State somehow ended up in the shadow of its neighbor.
But in beating conference foe Oregon State 3-1 in an elimination game on Saturday afternoon in Oklahoma City, the Sun Devils continued to prove that things are going to be different under new coach Clint Myers. No matter what happens against Tennessee in Saturday evening's elimination game (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), the first win for the Sun Devils at the Women's College World Series since 2002 represents another step forward for the program.
It also suggested that what may happen against Tennessee is another win, if sophomore pitcher Katie Burkhart pitches like she did against Oregon State.
Despite Burkhart pitching well and allowing just two earned runs in the team's WCWS opener, the Sun Devils came up short against Cat Osterman and Texas. It was less a failure than a learning process.
"I'm a firm believer in the mental side," Myers said. "We're honest. I mean, we ran into Cat and she was on. She was just named Player of the Year for the third time, and she goes out there in the opening game for her and she kind of stuck it [to us]."
Candid assessment aside, Myers, a former baseball and softball coach at Central Arizona College, whose sun-drenched face surrounds eyes left white as home plate by months spent under sunglasses, has seen enough games in his life to appreciate the big picture.
"But the thing of it is, is that it was our first game and we were a little nervous," Myers said. "We had some pretty good plays; we didn't stay with the plan as well. So what we did was we talked about relaxation, and we talked about staying focused and locking in to the job. I mean, if we're locked in and making mistakes, hey, we're locked in. But if you're not locked in and making mistakes, that's where we have to step back."
Burkhart, who Myers credited after the Texas loss with pitching a terrific game in defeat, set the tone for a young team that had its head in the right place on Saturday. Third in strikeouts behind Osterman and Tennessee's Monica Abbott among pitchers whose teams advanced to Oklahoma City, Burkhart fanned five of the first six hitters she faced on Saturday.
The Sun Devils gave their ace some run support in the top of the third inning, as catcher Heidi Knabe led off with a home run to left field. Arizona State tacked on another run in the inning. With runners on first and second following walks, Bianca Cruz flew out to center, only to have Oregon State fail to cover center fielder Adrienne Alo's throw to third base, resulting in a two-base overthrow.
The Sun Devils later added another insurance run on a sacrifice fly in the fifth, but Burkhart didn't need much, allowing only Brianne McGowan's home run in the bottom of the fifth and another single in seven innings. She finished the game on another roll, striking out four of the final six batters to finish with 12 strikeouts.
"I came out there with a fire in my stomach, because there was no way I wanted to go home," Burkhart said. "Personally, I came out with that desire and I know our whole team did, and it showed."
With freshman slugger Kaitlin Cochran, who might have been the most dangerous hitter in the Pac-10 despite not winning Pac-10 Player of the Year, and Burkhart in the circle, the Sun Devils have the foundation of a championship team.
"I'm still young and I'm still learning," Burkhart said about McGowan's home run.
Taking that next step may be a journey for another year, but in bouncing back from a loss by playing their game, the Sun Devils proved the Lady Vols will be in for a battle on Saturday night. And perhaps just as important, they continue proving that Arizona may be facing a battle for state supremacy for years to come.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
In beating conference foe Oregon State 3-1 in an elimination game on Saturday afternoon in Oklahoma City, the Sun Devils continued to prove that things are going to be different under new coach Clint Myers.