Aggies stun stacked Kajikawa field


TEMPE, Ariz. -- It was an opening statement worthy of Atticus Finch.

Arizona State will play host a four-team tournament called the Pac-10 Versus Big 12 Challenge in early March, but No. 14 Texas A&M used its five games in the season-opening Kajikawa Classic in Tempe to deliver a message of its own to softball's upper echelon. In short: Don't mess with Texas.

Facing one of the toughest schedules of any of the 18 teams playing a total of 56 games split between Farrington Stadium on the campus of Arizona State and the nearby Tempe Sports Complex, the Aggies went a perfect 5-0. On the road to perfection, they knocked off No. 1 Arizona, No. 3 UCLA, No. 4 Northwestern and No. 20 Fresno State, respectively. The Aggies won in dramatic fashion, hitting a pair of walk-off home runs against Northwestern and Arizona, the two teams who played for the national championship last season, and they won in convincing fashion, scoring double-digit runs against Fresno State and Utah.

Only the host Sun Devils, who played exclusively in the familiar confines of Farrington Stadium against six middle-tier teams, left the weekend similarly unscathed.

Coming off a disappointing exit from last season's NCAA Tournament, where they lost twice against upstart Lehigh after being sent to a regional hosted by the University of Massachusetts, the early schedule was daunting, but also laced with opportunity.

"Of course we were looking for wins, but we just really wanted to get the job done and make a statement on what a new team we had this year and what he had to prove," junior Megan Gibson said. "We were really just looking to come out and play hard."

Texas A&M began erasing any of those lingering bad memories before most teams had even taken the field for the first time in Tempe on Friday.

Playing No. 4 Northwestern in the tournament's opening game on Friday morning, the Aggies opened a weekend of upsets by rallying from a two-run deficit in the bottom of the seventh. Although they allowed the Wildcats to break a 1-1 tie in the top of the inning, the Aggies quickly got two runners on base to set up Jamie Hinshaw's three-run home run over the temporary fence in center field.

Fittingly, one of the runners on base when Hinshaw hit the home run reached by drawing a walk. The Aggies had just three hits against Northwestern ace Eileen Canney, but they drew seven walks in the game. And all those free passes weren't just evidence of Canney's rust. The Aggies added 10 more walks in a 10-2 win against No. 20 Fresno State, four walks in a 5-4 win against No. 3 UCLA and four walks in a 10-3 win against Utah. Even after drawing just two walks against Arizona in their final game, the Aggies left the weekend averaging better than five walks per game.

For a team that isn't necessarily loaded with top-to-bottom firepower, slugging a modest .415 last season, that kind of plate discipline can do as much damage to an opposing pitcher's mental health as the quick burst of a home run. As coach Jo Evans often reminds her team, what separates a good hitter from a great hitter is often nothing more than pitch selection.

For all the collective success at setting up scoring opportunities (the Aggies actually left seven runners on base against Arizona), the story of the weekend might have been Amanda Scarborough's return to form. Scarborough pulled a rare personal trifecta, going the distance to beat three different top-five teams in just over 48 hours.

An all-conference selection who burst on the scene in the circle and at the plate as a freshman, Scarborough suffered through something of a sophomore slump last season, watching her ERA climb from 0.73 to 2.47 and her home runs tumble from 11 to five.

That sparked an offseason decision to rededicate herself to the craft -- adding a drop ball to her repertoire -- and to the team, asserting herself as a leader on a roster that includes just five seniors. As the weekend came to a close, and as good as Scarborough was on the field, Evans made a point to praise the relatively soft-spoken Texan's vocal leadership so far this season.

"[I feel] completely different," Scarborough said, laughing. "I think it's preparation and feeling really good in the offseason and taking that into [the season]. And also being an upperclassman and being one of the leaders on this team."

Fellow junior Gibson, who teams with Scarborough to pitch and play first base for the Aggies, was nearly as impressive. Gibson rebounded from own sophomore slump to strike out 16 and walk just one in beating Fresno State and Utah, while hitting .727 and adding to the dramatics with a walk-off home run at the plate against Arizona.

That win against Arizona offered an appropriate conclusion to the weekend, forcing the Aggies to prove one more time that their newfound mental toughness was no fluke. Not surprisingly, Scarborough and Gibson were right in the middle of things at the end.

After battling the top-ranked Wildcats to a 1-1 tie through six innings, just as they had against Northwestern, the Aggies surrendered the lead in the top of the seventh. Caitlin Lowe, who Scarborough had struck out twice in the game, reached base on an infield single, advanced to third after a stolen base and a ground out, and scored on Kristie Fox's sacrifice fly. Considering Arizona's first run had scored on a passed ball with two outs, it seemed that Texas A&M's magic might have run out.

But leading off the bottom of the seventh against Taryne Mowatt, who came on in relief the inning before, Scarborough drove a ball into right-center for a ground-rule double, setting the stage for Gibson. Arizona coach Mike Candrea previously had ordered his pitchers to walk Gibson twice before in the game, but with no outs, he had little choice but to pitch to her. After bluffing a bunt on the first pitch, Gibson swung away and drove a ball out to center field, just beyond the reach of Lowe, whose diving attempt at a catch knocked over the temporary fence.

"We actually do a lot of pressure situations in practice, so I think that helps a lot," Gibson said of the team's late-inning resilience. "We don't skip a step -- I mean, yeah, we're down, but we have all the confidence in the world that everybody can get it done. Put whoever you want up to bat and they can get the job done."

As much as the weekend script seemed to play out like a Hollywood movie, the Aggies weren't ready to roll the credits as they left the desert. Although the wins merit a spot in the top five (and it would be hard to argue against anyone voting the Aggies No. 1), no team wants five games in February to be the highlight of a season.

So perhaps the best part of the weekend for Evans was that she didn't see everything.

"I still see room for improvement," Evans said. "And as long as you see that, you've got to feel good."

And while the Aggies must continue to present convincing evidence for the next four months, the season's opening weekend suggests they have the makings of a compelling case.

"We know there is a lot to improve on, and we're going to take it from there," said Scarborough. "Think about if we're right here now, if we improve on those things, how good we can be."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's softball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.