What would Clint have done?
You can’t help but ask yourself that question, if you’re an Arizona State softball fan.
Clint Myers left Tempe last year after eight years guiding the ASU program to take over a similar head-coaching role at Auburn. But he left his successor a cupboard full of talent and high expectations for the 2014 season.
Those lofty expectations, which included the very real possibility of a national championship, were dashed over the weekend by the University of Michigan. The Wolverines spotted the Sun Devils a game, and then won the next two to wrap up the series at the Tempe Regional to eliminate ASU from the NCAA Tournament and put an end to its road trip to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS) in Oklahoma City.
To add insult to injury the Big 10 team accomplished the feat at Farrington Stadium, in front of a packed house of ASU fans who were there to cheer the Devils on to the next step on the road, the super regionals. But, instead, the players on the No. 4-ranked team in the country moved on to the final step of the season, cleaning out their lockers.
It’s the first time in nine years that the Sun Devils have failed to make it out of regional play. Heck, it’s only the second time in nine years that they haven’t appeared in the World Series.
And to make it worse yet, their hated rival down the road in Tucson won their regional and will be moving on to the super regionals to try to punch their ticket to the WCWS. It’s the Arizona Wildcats‘ ninth trip to the super regionals in the last 10 years and came at the expense of Louisiana State University after they beat the Tigers in the rubber game on Sunday, 13-5.
Arizona won the first of the three games, 9-8, but LSU came back with a 6-3 victory to force the deciding game. The Cats collected 14 hits in that game, including a two-run homer by Mo Mercado, and Shelby Babcock allowed six hits to run her record to 6-0.
The Wildcats are for real. They won 41 games in the regular season and finished ranked 10th in the USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll. The Cats came into the post-season leading the nation in home runs (100) and scoring (7.67 runs per game), and second in batting average (.353). Defensively, they are ranked 11th in the country with a .973 fielding percentage.
But Arizona State seemed to have the best chance to go all the way this year, despite breaking in a new coach.
The Sun Devils finished the regular season 44-10-1 and ranked fourth in the country in the USA Today/NFCA poll.
Their new head coach, Craig Nicholson, inherited a program that was not only expected to make its 10th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but was expected to play its way into the World Series. An early exit in the regionals was not an acceptable end to the season.
Nicholson, who came from Ball State, inherited a senior pitching duo in Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue that is among the best in the country, the return of four All-American players (more than any other school in the nation), three players on the pre-season national Player of the Year watch list, and the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year.
When Michigan hitters smacked back-to-back home runs against Escobedo in the final inning of the third game, it brought a disappointing close to an outstanding college career for the local pitcher from St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix who was on the mound when ASU won its last national championship in 2011.
But it was an equally disappointing start to a new era under a new head coach. Maybe it’s going to take some time to make the adjustment, but Nicholson knew coming in that he wasn’t going to have that luxury. He took the reins of a big-time program that has come to expect more than a trip to the regionals.
And to provide a little extra embarrassment, ASU was the only one of the four Pac-12 teams playing in the regionals that failed to advance.
The Auburn team that Clint Myers took over also made it to the regionals, but was eliminated by Minnesota.
Still, you have to wonder if he could have taken this ASU team to one more World Series appearance – and maybe even won one more national title to go with the other two he has already brought to Tempe.
It’s something we’ll never know.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)