ASU is early favorite for 2nd straight national softball title

The Arizona Wildcats took their place on the pedestal of college softball at the start of the 1990’s, beginning a rivalry with mighty UCLA, which had ruled the college softball world in the 80’s.

Now there appears to be a new sheriff in town, and suddenly it is becoming a three-way dominance of the game.

Arizona State won the national title in 2008 and again last year and is currently ranked the No. 1 team in Division I softball in pre-season polls.

Arizona won the national championship in 2006 and again in 2007 and, between the two schools, they kept the crown in the desert for nine of the past 20 years.  Seven of those titles belong to the Wildcats.

For the past 20 years, whenever Arizona or Arizona State wasn’t tucking away the national title, it was UCLA taking it home.  The Bruins won six during those two decades, the most recent in 2010.  They also picked up back-to-back trophies in 2003 and 2004.

Oh yeah, the team UCLA had to beat in the championship game in 2010… yep, Arizona.

But this year, ASU starts out at No. 1 and Arizona at No. 8 in both the USA Today/Coaches poll and the ESPN/USA Softball rankings.  The Bruins are No. 13 in one and No. 19 in the other.

A closer look at the votes, submitted by a select committee of NCAA D-I head coaches, shows the respect the Sun Devils are getting again this year.  In the USA Today poll, ASU received all 30 votes for No. 1; in the ESPN poll of 20 coaches, No. 4 Florida was the only other school getting votes – the Gators received one.

And, perhaps most impressive, both programs have been fueled in recent years by local athletes.

The most glaring example of that appears in the release of the Top 50 Watch List for the 2012 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.  Four Arizona players appear on the list, two apiece from ASU and UofA.

All four were recruited from local high schools.

Arizona State  is represented by senior shortstop, Katelyn Boyd, and sophomore pitcher, Dallas Escobedo.  Boyd was a top-three finalist last year for the prestigious national honor, when she was named a First Team All-American and finished the season with a .429 batting average to lead the team and rank 25th in the nation.

Boyd played for Horizon High School in Scottsdale and Escobedo graduated from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, where she was the Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year as a senior.  Escobedo threw 37 no-hitters at St. Mary’s and five perfect games, set school pitching records, and led the school to a state championship.

She didn’t stop when she got to Tempe, notching a 37-3 season and leading the team to the national title as a freshman.  She quickly took her place in the ASU record books by recording the second-most wins in a season and the fourth most strikeouts.

The Wildcats countered with two selections, Brigette Del Ponte and Kenzie Fowler.  Neither is a senior yet, so they have another shot at Player of the Year if this year doesn’t work out.

Fowler is a fireballin’ pitcher from Canyon del Oro High School in Tucson who was a two-time Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year and led her high school to three state championships before stepping up to the college level and asserting herself in much the same way.  She posted a 38-9 mark her first year and became just the second freshman in school history to record a 30-win season.

Last year, her sophomore season was slowed with injuries, but she still has managed to carry a 1.67 ERA into her third year and has climbed to seventh on the school career strike-out list (614) in just two seasons.

Del Ponte is also a junior, a career .723 slugger who the Cats picked up from Sunrise Mountain High School in Peoria where she was named to the All-State first team her final two years.  The third baseman set school freshman records for RBIs (80) and home runs (21) when she arrived at Arizona, and then followed up by setting the record for doubles (23) as a sophomore.

But, in the final analysis, it’s ASU that is on a roll, with two national titles in four years, its second Pac-10 Championship last season, and sitting at the top of the national pre-season rankings -right where they left off at the close of last season.

And let’s not forget another important accomplishment last year.  The Devils swept Arizona on the road, the first time that’s happened in program history.

That should make for an interesting meeting between the two teams when they begin a three-game series in Tempe on March 23, which will be the only time they meet in the regular season.

Both schools have undoubtedly circled those dates on their calendars.

And fans should be doing the same thing, if they want to get an early glimpse of two teams likely bound for the College World Series.