I couldn't believe that third-year ASU softball coach Craig Nicholson resigned on Monday because of medical reasons.
I talked with Nicholson on Friday after the team's alumni game. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. He was upbeat, excited that he was going to have four pitchers at his disposal this season instead of the two from last season. ASU was going to play the game differently in 2016, relying less on home runs and more on speed.
While this team analysis still may be true, who knows whether ASU is going to keep its players, much less those who have verbally committed to the school (or entice uncommitted players to join the Sun Devils) without a coach. National Signing Day is in a month, and ASU won’t have a coach for 2017 until after the 2016 season is over (at least seven months), though it should also be noted that many of the current players committed under the previous coach.
ASU is opting to make pitching coach Letty Olivarez and hitting coach/recruiting coordinator Robert Wagner co-interim coaches. It’s unclear whether Olivarez or Wagner would be considered for the head coaching position.
Olivarez is in her first year with the Sun Devils (and is the team’s third pitching coach in four seasons), while Wagner is starting his second (he was also with the Sun Devils from 2006-2011).
The outlook for 2016 didn't look great even before Nicholson resigned. You don't replace the players ASU lost without growing pains. Even the 2015 team went just 36-22, the team's most losses since 2005 after the team had its worst ERA ever.
However, getting pitcher Kelsey Kessler (32-21, 2.38 ERA at Kansas) eligible to play will be a major boost to the team's pitching staff, and ASU's two freshmen from 2015 should improve.
"Our staff feels this team had a chance to be special this year, and our goals remain the same," Wagner said in a statement.
Without a coach for an extended period of time, the onus shifts to the players in this time of turmoil.
“I think our seniors this year are very good leaders,” Nicholson said on Friday. “The thing is, they haven’t had to lead under pressure yet. You hope that they grow into that in the fall and early in the season.”
There's no "grow into that" anymore. You can't get much more adversity than not having a head coach. The veterans dealt with a coaching change before, but that search was relatively short in the summer, while this search is going to last more than half a year.
Nicholson leaves Tempe amid the realization that the Sun Devils’ run of greatness has ended. His predecessor, Clint Myers, was one of the best coaches in ASU athletics history. Myers went to the Women’s College World Series seven times in eight years, and won national championships in 2008 and 2011.
Myers’ last year at the WCWS was also his final one with ASU. He has since taken Auburn, a program that had never qualified for a super regional, into the WCWS. Myers took the Sun Devils to a super regional in all eight of his seasons, while Nicholson never took them that far in two.
I hope Nicholson gets better. But the season took a nosedive before it began.