There may never be another pitching duo quite like the one that just graduated the Arizona State softball program, but second-year head coach Craig Nicholson has a good jump on developing another pitching staff that could lead the Sun Devils back to the Women’s College World Series, and maybe even another national championship.
A couple of freshmen headline the new staff, but remember that Dallas Escobedo – one half of last year’s dynamic duo – was just a freshman when she led the program to its last national title in 2011.
ASU fans will get a look at what’s ahead for the Devils in 2015 when they open the season by hosting the annual Kajikawa Classic this weekend. Their first game will be this afternoon at 4:30 against Creighton.
Escobedo, who led Phoenix St. Mary’s High School to four state titles before assuming the role of pitching ace at ASU, was joined by Mackenzie Popescue to form one of the top college pitching tandems in the country. Popescue, also a local product from Chaparral High in Scottsdale, really came into her own during her junior season and capped her career with a 20-3 record as a senior.
Together, the pair accounted for over 90 percent of ASU’s total team starts during their last two seasons in maroon and gold uniforms.
But Nicholson, who took over the program after former head coach Clint Myers left to take over Auburn’s program, has begun the re-loading process by adding not one, but two, former Gatorade Players of the Year to his pitching staff – and then throwing in a transfer junior to provide a little experience and an immediate impact on the mound until the two freshmen get their footing in the college game.
Breanna Macha, a local standout from Red Mountain High School in Mesa, joins with Dale Ryndak to form the freshman franchise that Nicholson hopes will be the program’s future. Macha was last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Arizona, while Ryndak earned the honor pitching for Downers Grove North High School in Illinois.
It marks the first time the ASU program will feature two Gatorade POY recipients on the same roster.
Macha finished her senior season with a 22-5 record and a very impressive 1.02 ERA, while Ryndak posted a 22-1 regular-season mark and an insane 0.23 ERA. Both contributed at the plate as well, with Macha hitting .365 and Ryland swinging the bat at a .451 clip.
This ASU pitching staff goes deep with four more hurlers behind the much-hyped freshmen, including three juniors and a freshman. The one that is expected to see some immediate mound time is Kelsey Kessler, a 5’10” lanky right-hander who was the primary ace for the Kansas Jayhawks last year, taking that program to its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament before transferring to the Sun Devil program with two years of eligibility left.
Juniors Jenna Makis and Alexis Cooper and freshman Shea Koepnick round out the staff. Cooper pitched 15 innings last year and posted a 3.65 ERA, while Makis, from Pinnacle High in Phoenix, saw playing time in just one game. The towering 6’4″ Koepnick is another local, from Desert Vista High School in Phoenix.
The Sun Devils also return Amber Freeman to this year’s squad, the 2013 Pac-12 Player of the Year that will help break in the new pitchers from her position at catcher. Freeman led the team last year with a .406 batting average, despite an injury-plagued season, and currently ranks fifth all-time in home runs and 10th in RBIs.
But today’s focus will undoubtedly be on the two freshmen as ASU fans want to judge the rookies for themselves.
Keep in mind Escobedo’s accomplishments as a freshman. She was on the mound for every one of the 10 post-season games that season and kept the Devils undefeated through the regionals, super regionals, and the WCWS as the team became the first in a decade to enter the season with a No. 1 national ranking and then go on to win a national championship.
She was the first freshman in 20 years to carry a school to the national title. And now there are two more at ASU with the potential for a repeat performance.
But there are six seniors on the roster this year that will also have something to say about how this season finishes. They had high hopes last year that were shattered when the Devils faltered down the stretch. The team finished the regular season 44-10-4 and ranked fourth in the nation going into the post-season, but a loss to Michigan in the regionals crushed their hopes for a 10th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
So these seniors have a chip on their shoulders. Since the Sun Devils also won a national title in 2008, this will be the first class since 2004 that hasn’t won a national title.
Their quest to avoid graduating with that dubious legacy begins this afternoon.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)