College softball continues to thrive in sun-drenched Arizona

As might be expected in a climate that offers year-round opportunity for outdoor play, softball enjoys both popularity and success – something most evident at the college level.

The three major college programs that inhabit the lower desert environment of  Arizona, where early spring temperatures have been in the ’80s, are thriving again this year.

In Tucson, the University of Arizona softball program is 23-11 on the year and is the No. 17 ranked team in the country.   And the Antelopes of Grand Canyon University, a Division II program in Phoenix moving to D-I next year, are 27-10 and ranked No. 18.  The Antelopes are currently tied for first place in the Pacific West Conference.

But it’s the Arizona State Sun Devils over in Tempe who are really tearing up the base paths again this year with plans for a return trip to the Women’s College World Series and a shot at a third national title under current head coach, Clint Myers.

They got off to a great start this year, winning their first 21 games to set a new school record for consecutive wins to start a season.  The old record of 19 straight was set back in 2006, which was Myers’ first year after being hired away from Central Arizona College where he spent 19 years perfecting his craft.

Top coaching is critical at this level, and Myers is among the game’s top college coaches.  An 8-2 win over Pittsburgh on March 9 enabled him to reach the 400-win plateau.  And, in seven years in Tempe, he has taken the program to the WCWS six times.

The Sun Devils have played 37 games so far this season – and lost just three.  All three of those losses were to nationally-ranked teams and in all but one the margin was just one run.  Their biggest setback of the season came against then-No. 20 Baylor, a 6-2 decision on March 3.

Last weekend’s sweep of No. 23 Oregon State ups their Pac-12 record to 5-1, with the lone loss to then-No. 12 UCLA in the conference opener.

The final game of the OSU series illustrates what can happen when the Sun Devil offense is hitting on all cylinders.  The 11-0 romp was fueled with five home runs and the eight hits in the game were spread among seven different players.

There is no lack of power with this team.  Amber Freeman, the sophomore catcher, parked two homers – her 10th and 11th of the season.  Second baseman Sam Parlich, a senior  from Basha High School in Chandler, hit her eighth of the year; junior shortstop Cheyenne Coyle notched her 12th; and Elizabeth Caporuscio, another sophomore, rounded out the homers with her fifth of the season.

And it was a grand slam home run by Coyle in the first game of the series that got the ball rolling in the Devils’ home opener on the Pac-12 schedule.

ASU also benefits from one of the better defenses in the country – keeping opponents off the scoreboard in 16 appearances – and one of the best pitchers on the national stage, Dallas Escobedo.

Escobedo, the junior right-hander from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, helped pitch the Devils to the national championship as a freshman, carried them back to Omaha for a third-place finish at the WCWS last year, and is 18-3 so far this season.  Her 79 career wins have already moved her into fourth place on the school’s all-time list.

The six-foot-tall hurler was one of three ASU players put on the pre-season watch list for USA Softball Player of the Year consideration.  The others are Freeman and Alix Johnson, a junior outfielder.

And the five home runs against OSU was not the first time that’s happened this year.  ASU accomplished the feat against North Dakota State back in late February.

Going into the Oregon State series, the Devils ranked third nationally in team batting averages with a collective .361, and second in win/loss percentage at .912.

But the going gets tougher as ASU begins to work its way through the Pac-12 schedule, arguably the strongest in the country.  Even before the season started, seven of the top-25 pre-season picks were in the Pac-12, and three of them were ranked in the top five.

No. 14 Stanford (24-9, 2-4) is up next for ASU, a three-game road trip this weekend.  Grand Canyon is also on the road this weekend, playing in the Tournament of Champions in Turlock, Calif.

Arizona gets to play at home, but will be faced with a top-10 opponent.  The Wildcats will host No. 5 California (27-3, 3-0) in a three-game series tonight and tomorrow at Hillenbrand Stadium.

(Photo: Arizona Athletics)