On Jan. 20, 2006, the Pac-10 softball preseason coaches poll was released. Arizona State was picked to finish seventh out of eight teams, and frankly, that was the spot it deserved.
The Sun Devils finished 4-17 in the Pac-10 in 2005 and were knocked out of the NCAA tournament in three games. Arizona State was also adapting to a new coach.
But what the conference coaches could never have predicted was the impact of ASU’s new leader.
During Clint Myers’ initial team meeting, the first time he had seen some of his players, he told them they would make the Women’s College World Series.
Above all else, Myers brought in a demand for perfection not previously seen.
“When Coach Myers came in, he brought in a whole new work ethic, a whole new sense of pride,” said senior Michelle Smith, who played two years for Linda Wells before Myers was brought on board. “It was virtually the same team (as 2005) and they came in new to the program with so much confidence. They truly believed.”
For the players, the mental adjustment took a little longer.
“Yes, we saw it,” Myers said. “But the big thing isn’t the coaches seeing the progress but the players. They had to believe.”
A tremendous start to the 2006 season — the Sun Devils were 28-1 at one point — put the wheels in motion, and by the time ASU took four of five games from the Oregon schools to finish the Pac-10 season above .500, everyone was on board.
A sweep of the Hempstead regional and two wins over Florida State had the Sun Devils in the Women’s College World Series for the first time since 2002.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory as far as the coaching goes,” ace hurler Katie Burkhart said. “Coach came in and brought our program back.”
This year has been more of the same. Arizona State was ranked No. 2 in the nation for three weeks early in the year, and Saturday’s 8-4 win over Louisiana State has given the program its first backto-back World Series appearances ever.
Under Myers, the program has seen nothing but success, and the expectations now have jumped from simply making the postseason to continually booking that plane ticket to Oklahoma City.
“That’s the plan,” Myers said. “Plans don’t always come true, but it doesn’t mean we stop striving for them. We think we can do that (every year).”
The future looks bright.
Arizona State has only two senior starters and coveted recruits waiting in the wings. If the team can stay together, it has a great shot at a third straight World Series appearance. But that’s a big “if”.
Burkhart and star hitter Kaitlin Cochran have both been invited to try out for the 2007 U.S. National Team — a precursor to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.
If they earn roster spots, it would effectively force them to redshirt next season at Arizona State.
Lose one or the other — or, gulp, both — and it is a big step back.
“It’s kind of a catch-22,” Myers said. “You don’t have your best players, but they get one of the highest honors, which is playing for your country. (Ultimately) the sun comes up and you work with the people that are there. You have the same goals, things just might need to be tweaked on how to get there.”
With one of the nation’s finest stadiums and yearround softball weather, it’s easy to see Arizona State staying a perennial contender.
Then again, World Series appearances in 2000 and 2002 were followed by three lackluster years.
But Myers has worked tirelessly to change the culture.
Asked if anything less than a College World Series berth in coming years would be considered a disappointment, he didn’t have an answer, because “we haven’t experienced that yet.”
Smith’s been around long enough to have seen the good and the bad. She knows how far the program has come.
“We’ve set a new tradition,” she said.
“It’s expected that we’re supposed to be this far. That’s going to be the new standard.”
Women’s College World Series
Where: Oklahoma City
When: Thursday through Tuesday or Wednesday
Competing teams: Arizona State,
Northwestern, Washington, DePaul, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Baylor, Arizona
ASU opener: Noon Thursday vs. Northwestern
Format: Double elimination