Craig Nicholson has been busy this off-season stockpiling arms in the weapons race that is called college softball.
In a team sport where one player, standing alone on a pile of dirt, can have such a significant impact on the outcome of a game, the head softball coach at Arizona State is making sure he has enough pitchers to carry him through the season – and maybe even on to Oklahoma City for another trip to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS).
Nicholson, who is preparing for just his second season in charge of the tradition-rich program in Tempe, just signed a transfer from University of Kansas that will provide an immediate impact to his pitching staff for the coming season since the NCAA does not require transferring softball players to sit out a season.
Kelsey Kessler, a tall (5’10”), lanky right-hander was the Jayhawks’ primary ace last season and took the program to its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
That post-season experience could be a key to success next season, should the Sun Devils get that far – and early expectations for Nicholson and the 2015 team definitely include post-season play. That comes with taking over for a coach who took his teams to the WCWS seven times in eight years and won two national championships. Clint Myers left to take over as head coach at Auburn after the 2013 season.
Kessler’s arrival in Tempe will really load up the talent on the mound since Nicholson’s recruiting nets have already landed a pair of Gatorade Players of the Year in Breanna Macha and Dale Ryndak.
The two freshmen will have a couple of years to understudy with Kessler before taking over leadership roles as upperclassmen – but neither of them will be spending much time watching and waiting. They both should get plenty of work in their college debuts since the pitching cupboard was left bare after last season graduations.
Nicholson could hardly have done a better job of re-loading after losing some of the best Division I pitchers in the game to graduation. Dallas Escobedo pitched ASU to its last national title as a freshman and was selected last April as the first overall pick in the National Pro Fastpitch League draft. Mackenzie Popescue provided the other half of the Sun Devils’ 1-2 punch the last couple of years and compiled a career record of 59-14, going 20-3 in her senior campaign.
Together, the pair accounted for over 90 percent of ASU’s total team starts during the last two seasons.
That kind of talent is difficult to replace. But the trio that will take the mound for the upcoming season could end up doing just that.
While Escobedo (St, Mary’s High, Phoenix) and Popescue (Chaparral High, Scottsdale) were local recruits, Macha is the only one of the incoming freshmen pitchers that fits that bill. She took her Mesa Red Mountain High School program to four consecutive 5A state championships before being named the Gatorade Arizona Softball Player of the Year, as well as the Arizona Republic’s Big Schools Softball Player of the Year as a senior.
She was the winning pitcher in each of the four state title games, so she’s also accustomed, to some degree, to the pressure that will come at the next level.
And she has been in the ASU pipeline since she was nine years old. That was when former coach Myers picked her during his first season in Tempe to work as a bat girl for the Sun Devil program. That experience hooked her for life and now she will get back into the maroon and gold uniform, just a larger size.
Macha was 22-5 her senior season at Red Mountain, with a dominating 1.02 ERA. She struck out 256 batters in 186 innings and also contributed at the plate, where she owned a .365 batting average and collected 23 RBIs and four home runs.
The 5’6″ right-hander has been compared to Popescue in style and size, and she will wear Popescue’s No. 99 for the Devils.
Ryndak earned her Gatorade Illinois POY honor pitching for Downers Grove North High School in Illinois, where she posted a regular-season 22-1 record and a 0.23 ERA. She, too, was productive with a bat in her hands, boasting a .451 batting average.
But, while innate talent is crucial to success, the experience that Kessler will bring to the program can’t be understated. She is coming off a sophomore season in which she pitched a no-hitter against Texas Tech and became one of just two pitchers in the country to shut out eventual NCAA Champion Oklahoma. That was the first win in the history of the KU program over a No. 1-ranked opponent.
Kessler wrapped up her senior campaign with a 20-15 record in 35 starts, posting a 2.47 ERA and striking out 250 batters. That strike-out total was the 22nd best in the nation last year.
Interestingly, ASU will open it’s fall schedule on Oct. 9 with a game against Phoenix College. It was another JUCO, Independence Community College, that Kessler faced in her very first college start with the Jayhawks as a freshman. She threw a five-inning no-hitter that day.
The 2014 season for the Sun Devils came to an abrupt -and terribly disappointing – conclusion when the University of Michigan came back from an 0-1 best-of-three series deficit to claim two straight wins to eliminate the No. 4-ranked Devils in the regional they hosted at Farrington Stadium. It was the first time in nine years that the Sun Devils have failed to make it out of regional play.
ASU is generally expected to make the annual trip to the WCWS. They’ve been there all but twice in that same nine-year span. So, for the first-year head coach, it was particularly embarrassing to be sent home without even a super-regional appearance.
But it appears he has picked up the pieces from that debacle – and added the pieces he will need to avoid the same fate in the coming season.
(Photo: KU Athletics)