ASU softball’s 2014 season in review

ASU softball began its season with a new coach, a senior class that had captured a National Championship as freshmen and were hungry for a second shot, a pitching staff that struck fear into the heart of any batter in the box, a legacy of greatness behind them and the talent to back it all up.

This season was going to be the big one: the repeat for the senior class and a time to send shockwaves through the Pac-12 and put an imprint on the collegiate softball program as seniors. The trouble was finding a person to fit the mold left behind by the previous head coach.

Craig Nicholson’s laid back manner but direct passionate approach made him the perfect hire to fill the spot Clint Myers left behind when he departed to become Auburn’s new head coach.

Nicholson was no slouch and came to the team with a 927-235 career record after leaving Ball State with a 204-145 record after seven seasons of coaching. He had the experience they needed and an attitude that fit the squad well.

It’s a difficult transition for a team, but the players took to Nicholson without difficulty and quickly created a bond that the team needed to be whole.

Once practice began, he made it clear that the offense was going to be strong and aggressive base running would be emphasized. The bats were strong with the Sun Devils, but he also wanted their feet to be quick.

He also brought in a sports psychologist and peak performance coach to make sure they were as mentally conditioned as they were physically.

The season began with an 18-game win streak without much opposition. This came crashing down in the Louisville Slugger Invitational, where the team lost three games in the weekend, including one to Nicholson’s former school, Ball State. They did not lose another game until they entered Pac-12 games.

ASU’s history always makes it a high contender to be the Pac-12 champion, a goal that was mentioned early in the season, so it seemed unbelievable to watch the team fall in its first conference series to a less talented Oregon State team.

But the early losses were negligible and they were still domineering in the softball world. Arguably the biggest weapon the Sun Devils had in their arsenal was senior pitcher Dallas Escobedo.

Senior pitcher Dallas Escobedo

Senior right-handed pitcher Dallas Escobedo pitches to the Michigan Wolverines batters during game two of the NCAA Tempe Regional Championships on Sunday, May 18, at Farrington Stadium. ASU lost to Michigan 4-5. (Photo by Becca Smouse)

Escobedo’s speed was intense, and her rise ball was known across the league. She was a leader in strikeouts the entire season, and it was almost a guarantee that she would send double digit numbers back to the bench on strikes.

Escobedo, paired with fellow top senior Mackenzie Popescue, a contact pitcher with a different style, wreaked havoc on opposing batters and left it up to a powerful offense to take care of the rest.

Nicholson stuck to his word, and the offense was stealing and pushing bases, especially in the early parts of the season, but it became clear that their bread and butter came in the power swing more than manufacturing runs through base running and short game.

Juniors first baseman Bethany Kemp, third baseman Haley Steele, junior catcher Amber Freeman and senior shortstop Cheyenne Coyle all hit more than 10 home runs on the season, and the team had a collective .322 batting average.

Its problem was leaving runners on base and not having timely hitting. It was the force that brought them down in most game they lost. Rarely did anyone say that Escobedo or Popescue didn’t do their jobs.

The Sun Devils came out on top in their much anticipated rivalry series against UA, winning bragging rights along with the Territorial Cup.

Then, just two weeks later, there was another emotional overload on the field when Nicholson won his 1000th career game at home against Utah. He was awarded, and tracks of thanks from players, both past and present, family members, friends, and colleagues were played over the stadium intercom after the game.

It was touching to see the big man tear up.

But they were still in conference play and there is no letting up in Pac-12 softball. The season rolled along and with the postseason approaching came the two hardest teams ASU had to face in the Pac-12 conference, top-ranked Oregon and UCLA.

In possibly the most anticlimactic weekend of the year, the Sun Devils tied the final game of their 1-1 series with a Ducks team that was ranked first in coaches polls, and led the Pac-12. The weekend was a true test and opportunity to make a statement, so leaving the series after being rained out without a victor left an empty feeling.

It also put them in a nearly impossible position to be the Pac-12 champion. Oregon pulled away to a place where it would have to lose almost all its games to give the Sun Devils a chance to sneak to first, an unlikely situation with the national leaders.

Plus there was still UCLA to think about, which was a mountain of its own to climb. It was the second and third best teams against each other in the final week of the regular season, and the standing would stay that way with the Bruins taking two of the three games.

Regardless, the Sun Devils would make it into the postseason, and host the Tempe Regional with a ninth seeded position. The general feeling of the team was that they thought they deserved a better seed, but they didn’t earn it in the last two weeks in conference.

This was the 10th consecutive appearance in the postseason for the Sun Devils but this season’s effort was a short one.

A decisive win over Dartmouth followed by a dramatic victory against Michigan put the Sun Devils in the finals for the Tempe Regionals, and they were highly favored to win.

Senior outfielder Alix Johnson

Senior outfielder Alix Johnson bats at a pitch from the Michigan Wolverines during the NCAA Tempe Regional Championships on Sunday, May 18, at Farrington Stadium. ASU lost to Michigan 4-5. (Photo by Becca Smouse)

The chance of a two-game upset seemed ludicrous, but Michigan stepped in for the last day of the tournament with a fighting spirit.

A sluggish opening loss for ASU brought it to a winner-take-all position as the day turned into a doubleheader.

Escobedo stepped into the circle, as she did for every Regional game in her entire career, and threw her last pitches on her home field, and as a Sun Devil.

The finale game was a home run jamboree and Michigan had two in their final at-bats of the game to push them ahead of ASU. With a runner on base and two outs, Freeman clobbered a ball that was headed over the fence for the win, but was caught by a leaping Wolverine center fielder to end the season for the Sun Devils.

Nobody would have said it early in the season, but the goal was always set on the Women’s College World Series. The graduating senior class takes with them those who took the National Championship as freshmen four years ago.

Seeing that chance to take it one more time before graduating is heartbreaking, but for players like Escobedo, what’s really important is the experiences they’ve had on the team.

“We all have our own memories, our own big games that we favor but every opportunity to step on that field and put on this jersey — not a lot of people get that,” Escobedo said. “It may be just a game, but I’m thankful for every game that we played.”

Senior outfielder Bailey Wigness runs for a ball hit by the Michigan Wolverines

Senior outfielder Bailey Wigness runs for a ball hit by the Michigan Wolverines during game one of the NCAA Tempe Regional Championships on Sunday, May 18, at Farrington Stadium. ASU lost to Michigan 3-4. (Photo by Becca Smouse)

Calling the final month a disappointment would be an understatement. It would have been hard to predict that they wouldn’t make it to the WCWS, let alone be eliminated before playing in the Super Regionals.

The graduating class takes amazing talent with it. Outfielders Bailey Wigness’s and Alix Johnson’s speed and offensive prowess were key to every part of the game. It goes without saying that the pitching staff will seem barren without its two ace starters, and even if she was only here for two years, Coyle’s presence in the lineup and at shortstop were invaluable.

Nicholson has his roots in with the Sun Devils and did make it to the postseason in his first year as head coach with a new team. They didn’t make it to the WCWS, but the years could offer another chance.

Freshman Chelsea Gonzales was an unbelievable standout in the lineup, where she mostly was used as a designated batter. She is expected to be the new shortstop and work in the middle infield with sophomore Nikki Girard, another underclassman whose fieldwork improved as dramatically as her swing did by the end of the year.

Kemp, Steele, Freeman and left fielder Elizabeth Caporuscio will all return as seniors, with three of them boasting big power at the plate.

There’s always another chance for redemption as a coach, but the players would tell you that this was not how they envisioned their final game.

Still, they leave behind a legacy that can’t be denied. A World Series championship says enough, let alone the continuity to continue the decade of postseason appearances.

But Sun Devil softball is a family, and they are not leaving as athletes, but as something as close as sisters.

“We’ve been blessed our past four years here, and we’ve gained so many great relationships with all the teammates,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t be happier to have gone through this journey with the girls that I have.”

 

Reach the reporter at Nkwit@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NolanKwit