Will an Arizona pitcher be the next Jennie Finch?

When the queen of softball retired last month, there was no successor to the throne in waiting.  And that presents a problem for the sport.

Jennie Finch’s retirement announcement was somewhat unexpected. She just decided she wanted to spend more time with her family.  But she’s only 29 years old and has been the face of the game since her days at the University of Arizona.

Finch took her final bow last month at the World Cup of Softball, leading the U.S. National team to a 5-1 victory over Japan for its fourth consecutive title.  She threw two shut-outs during the Cup games and also played a relief role, allowing no runs.

Arizona may be the launching pad for the next Jennie Finch, with an outstanding pitcher coming off her freshman year at the University of Arizona and another getting ready for her first season at Arizona State.

But whether Kenzie Fowler in Tucson or Dallas Escobedo in Tempe will be able to step into the role Finch has left behind is anybody’s guess.

Finch had some advantages that helped make her a household name.

She arrived on the national stage when she the Wildcats rode her arm to a championship in the 2001 Women’s College World Series, also setting an NCAA record with 60 consecutive wins.  But she also had an international platform to since she was a two-time Olympian, winning the gold medal in 2004.

The sport was eliminated from Olympic competition after the 2008 Games, so until it is someday reinstated, that advantage is available to anyone coming after Finch.  She has been working since its elimination to try and return softball to the Olympics, and likely will continue in that effort.

In addition, Finch was blessed with the beauty of a cover model and an effervescent personality that made her a natural to represent the game.  Much of her celebrity came because of those attributes.

Fowler and Escobedo haven’t had a chance yet to show whether they could handle the spokesperson side of the job.  But their work on the diamond says they have as good a chance as anyone out there to step to the front of the line.

Fowler came blazing onto the scene in high school, running up a 56-5 record in just her first two years and committing to Arizona as a sophomore.  By the time she graduated, Canyon del Oro High School had won three 4A state championships and were runner-up the other year.

The 5’11” pitcher was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009 and was also the NHSCA National Player of the Year in 2009.  She also left her mark at the plate, setting school records for career hits (163), home runs in a game (2), and RBIs in a season (45).

When she arrived at UofA, she picked up where she left off by becoming the Wildcats’ ace on the mound as a freshman, taking the team all the way to the championship of the College World Series before losing to UCLA.  She was a workhorse all season long, making 52 appearances and literally carrying the Cats on her shoulders.

Fowler finished her freshman year with a 38-9 record, the second-best for a freshman in school history, and had a 1.53 ERA.  She threw four no-hitters and a perfect game, and stuck out 371 batters enroute to being named one of 10 finalists for USA Player of the Year.

This coming season, Dallas Escobedo (top photo) will be Arizona State’s answer to Kenzie Fowler, expected to make a huge impact in her first year.  Last season, she was generally considered the best high school pitcher in the country, honored with the 2010 Gatorade Arizona Pitcher of the Year.

As gaudy as Fowler’s high school accomplishments were, Escobedo’s career at St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix might be considered even more impressive.

In her first high-school game. Escobedo struck out 17 batters as she notched her first no-hitter.  She recorded 501 strike-outs as a freshman, a national high school record.

She only got stronger each year.  By her senior year, she had accumulated 1,882 strike-outs, another national high school record, and let St. Mary’s to the state championship game as a senior.  She went 33-3 last year, had a 0.58 ERA, 500 strike-outs, and 10 no-hit performances.

Over her storied high school career, Escobeda put up 37 no-hitters and five perfect games.

The annual match-up between the rival Arizona universities should be a fan’s delight for the next few years when these forces collide on the mound.

And perhaps one of these incredible athletes will follow in Finch’s footsteps.

It would be a great story line to have another Arizona pitcher pick up the mantle of fame.

(Photo: Heather Chapman)