We’re beginning to get a chance now to evaluate Ray Anderson‘s somewhat unusual approach to running a softball program. The Arizona State athletics director put in place a ‘tag-team’ system that amounts to using two head coaches to direct the Sun Devil program this season.
When Craig Nicholson announced last October that he would be leaving the program “for personal medical reasons” Anderson immediately named Robert Wagner and Letty Olivarez co-interim head coaches.
An interesting call, since Wagner had been with the program for just one season after being hired away from Scottsdale Community Colllege, and Olivarez had been working as pitching coach in her first season on board. Wagner, however, was an associate head coach with the ASU program from 2006-2011 before leaving for SCC and has been coaching at the college level for the past 20 years.
Anderson, a former NFL executive, has proven to be just as decisive in academia as he was in a corporate environment and has generally needed little time to make decisions on new coaching hires. When Tim Esmay resigned as head baseball coach in June of 2014, Anderson had his replacement, Tracy Smith, on board in Tempe within two weeks. His first hire at ASU was wrestling coach Zeke Jones; that took one week.
In the two years since Anderson was hired at ASU, he has made 10 coaching decisions and never had trouble finding new blood to fill his coaching ranks. But this approach to the softball program has been out of the ordinary.
It’s also not what you expect to find in a major-college program, particularly one that is so tradition-rich and nationally prominent as the Sun Devil softball program.
But so far it appears to be working out – at least on paper.
Wagner and Olivarez had the Sun Devils off to a 15-2 start to the season and ranked No. 19 in the country in the USA Today/Coaches’ poll. However, yesterday they added a couple of losses to that record by dropping the first two games in the Judi Garmin Classic in California. Those losses to teams they should have beaten, Long Beach State and Cal State Fullerton, will likely drop them from the Top 25.
For a better perspective on the team’s performance so far, it’s important to look a little deeper at the record. Sprinkled among the usual early-season tune-up games were three games against ranked opponents. And the Devils’ performance in those games offers a better indicator as to whether this team is going to be up to the challenges that lie ahead.
A respectable record isn’t what’s expected of a head coach in the ASU softball program. Anything short of a trip to the Women’s College World Series is considered under-achieving.
Nicholson won ball games in his two seasons at the helm, but couldn’t produce in the post-season. He even took the program to a No. 4 national ranking in his first year and won 44 games. But he lost in the regionals in two straight games, and again didn’t make it into the Super Regionals the next year.
The kinds of teams that this year’s Sun Devil squad will have to beat are similar to the three ranked teams they’ve already faced. They upset Tennessee, which was ranked No. 8 at the time, but has fallen to No. 19. They were beaten by then-No. 18 Kentucky and No. 21 Minnesota.
But the Minnesota game is the one that needs a closer look to gauge the Sun Devils’ prospects once the season gets into the meaty part of the schedule, against the really good teams that will be standing in the way of making it through the post-season. And based on the game with the Gophers, there is plenty of room for improvement.
Softball is a game of pitching. The successful teams at the national level will be the ones with a fire-breathing ace and some back-up talent. And you have to be able to hit them.
That was not the case against Minnesota, which has one of the better pitchers in the country in All-American Sara Groenewegen. The Devils managed just four hits against the junior right hander as they fell hard to the Gophers, 10-1, in the first game of the Diamond Devil Invitational last week. She fanned 10 ASU batters, but gave up a home run to junior Sashel Palacios for the Devils’ only run.
Groenewegen was the Big 10 Pitcher of the Year as a freshman and the Big 10 Player of the Year last season, recording a 1.67 ERA in 39 starts. She also has a couple of years of international competition under her belt, playing for the Canadian National Team, and was a Pan American Gold Medalist last year.
That’s the kind of pitching the Sun Devils can expect to see many more times on the road ahead.
And how they handle it will determine just how well this new tag-team approach is going to work. After uncharacteristic early exits the last two years, that road needs to run to the Super Regionals…or beyond.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)