Fowler, Escobedo throw first pitches to open great rivalry

And so it starts… the battle of the young guns in college softball.

Arizona softball fans will be treated to a chance to watch two of the best softball pitchers in the country this season as Arizona’s Kenzie Fowler and Arizona State’s Dallas Escobedo take the mound.

Both are throwing in this weekend’s Kajikawa Classic at Arizona State, as the Sun Devils and Wildcats open their season by joining in the Classic, which each year draws some of the best teams in the country.

(Side note: The man after whom the event was named, Bill “Kaji” Kajikawa, passed away last year at age 97, just one day after the tourney was concluded.  This will be the first year of play without the legendary ASU coach.)

The Arizona schools aren’t scheduled to meet during the four-day event, but this year marks the first of many when these two youngsters will go head-to-head as they are both expected to build incredible careers at their respective schools and in the Pac-10.

The sophomore Fowler struck out the first five batters in the Wildcats’ opening game last night against Indiana, and then went on to post 12 strikeouts in seven scoreless innings enroute to a 4-0 Cats’ victory.

The freshman Escobedo started in the circle for ASU as the Sun Devils destroyed Western Michigan in a 17-0 rout that was pretty much over after the first inning, when the Devils racked up 11 of their runs.  Sam Parlich helped power the surge when she parked a grand slam home run on her first at-bat of the season.

Escobedo pitched just three innings of the game that was run-ruled at five innings, striking out four.  Hillary Bach and MacKenzie Popescue each tossed an inning apiece in relief of Escobedo.

Both are imposing figures on the mound, with Fowler standing 5’11” and Escobedo hitting the 6’1″ mark.

The one advantage Fowler will have over Escobedo this year is experience.  Fowler took Arizona to the finals of last year’s College World Series before the Cats lost the championship series to UCLA.  Arizona rode her arm throughout the entire season, as the freshman phenom handled the majority of the pitching duties.

Last year, the young flame-thrower posted a 38-9 season record and became just the second freshman in school history to record a 30-win season.  She led the Cats to a 51-14 mark and a No. 3 national ranking at the close of the regular season.

Both she and Escobedo are local products, which makes fan interest even greater.

While at Canyon del Oro High School, on the outskirts of Tucson, Fowler was twice named the Gatorade National Player of the Year and was also the 2007-09 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year.  After leading the Dorados to three state championships and one runner-up, she became one of the hottest recruit prospects in the country.

Escobedo attended St. Mary’s High School in central Phoenix, where she was the 2010 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year after posting a 33-3 record, with 500 strikeouts and 10 no-hitters.  Over her high school career, she fanned 1,882 batters, racked up 37 no-hit games, and threw five perfect games.

Each team faces a double-header today, with ASU taking on Cal Poly and Oklahoma State, and Arizona meeting Utah and Nebraska.

This is just the start of the long road that each school hopes will lead to Oklahoma City and a chance at a national championship.  The Sun Devils’ only national title came in 2008, while Arizona has picked up the hardware eight times.

And it will take a couple of competitors like Fowler and Escobedo to provide the firepower on the mound to get each school there.

But they’re off to a good start.  Arizona is ranked No. 1 in the nation by ESPN/USA Softball and ASU enters the season at No. 10.

The annual Duel in the Desert doesn’t roll around until late April, when the teams will meet in Tucson for a three-game series.  That seems a long time to wait for the match-up of a couple of great pitchers.

But it should definitely be worth the wait.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)