When a new coach takes over a program coming off some down years, he’s generally given a few seasons to begin the rebuilding process. While that’s always a difficult job, it doesn’t come with the kind of pressure a coach faces when he’s handed the reins to a high-achieving program that is steeped in winning tradition – and wrapped in expectations for immediate success.
Welcome to the world of Craig Nicholson, the new Arizona State head softball coach. All he’s expected to do in his inaugural season is take the Sun Devils to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) for a fourth straight year and come back home with the national championship.
Just consider for a minute what his predecessor, Clint Myers, left for him when Myers departed last June for a similar position at Auburn. Myers filled the cupboards with talent so deep that many college teams would love to have some of those who sat on the ASU bench in their starting line-ups. He used that talent to make seven trips to the WCWS in his eight years running the Sun Devil program and won two national championships with it.
Hey, no pressure, Craig. Just git ‘er done, big guy.
Here’s what Nicholson inherited:
- Two of the premier pitchers in the country in Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue. Escobedo was on the mound as a freshman when ASU won its last national title in 2011.
- Four All-American players: Escobedo, Amber Freeman, Cheyenne Coyle, and Alix Johnson – more than any other school in the nation.
- Three players – Escobedo, Freeman and Coyle – who are on the pre-season watch list for national Player of the Year.
- The reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year, Freeman.
- The entire starting line-up from last year’s squad that went 50-12, with the lone exception of second baseman Sam Parlich who graduated.
And Nicholson – who spent seven seasons as the head coach at Ball State, where his teams won three Mid-American Conference regular-season championships – has a turn-key offense that has both power and depth. This year’s returning players combined for 80 of last season’s 95 home runs.
That talent was on full display over the weekend as the Sun Devils opened the 2014 season by rolling undefeated through six games in four days at the Kajikawa Classic, which they host every year. They outscored their opponents, 48-3, and piled up 64 hits, seven home runs, and 44 RBIs.
The one team in the field expected to give them the most trouble was North Carolina State, which is the 2013 ACC Tournament Champion. The Wolfpack lasted five innings before ASU run-ruled them for a 9-1 victory in the fourth game of the tourney.
Escobedo and Popescue split the pitching chores, each going three games, and combined for a sizzling .20 ERA while allowing just a single earned run.
To add to expectations this year, the Sun Devils have the advantage of a schedule that has them playing at home in Farrington Stadium for a 24-game home stand. ASU will host four straight tournaments that won’t conclude until March 2.
Nicholson has a tiger by the tail. His new team entered the season ranked No. 7 in the nation in both the USA Today/Coaches poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll. But that’s an insult to this team, which is considered by many to be the favorite to win it all again this year.
Everybody knows what’s expected of these players and their new coach. And living up to those expectations is what makes Nicholson’s new job a tough one.
With this stable of race horses at his command, this season will seem like it’s light-years away from his days at Ball State.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)