TEMPE, Ariz. -- It might seem odd, but the Arizona State softball team isn't eager to talk about its 2011 Women's College World Series championship. It doesn't want to be looked at as the 'defending' or 'reigning' champion. That's so last year.
With the 2012 season just days away, the ASU softball team has put its 2011 championship season out of mind, essentially hitting the reset button in its quest for a third title.
"We're not looking at it as defending a national championship," coach Clint Myers said. "We're looking at it like we've got to go out and win another one. We don't want to be on the defensive, which is implied by that. We want to be on the offensive like we were last year."
Myers said that mentality has been a constant for ASU softball in recent seasons, and this year is no different. The players understand last season's achievements do not guarantee repeat success.
"We've talked a lot about not letting last year's championship get into our heads," senior outfielder Annie Lockwood said. "We're trying to move forward from that and build off of it.
"Right now we're really positive and going with the mindset that we need to pick up where we left off. Just because we lost some of our players doesn't mean we can't do the same thing."
The Sun Devils open the season ranked No. 1 in the nation even with just half the everyday starting lineup returning. That's a testament to a pitching staff that returns intact, led by Dallas Escobedo, who won 37 games last season as a freshman and was dominant in the Women's College World Series.The rest of the lineup will undergo some shuffling, although it does return the team's two biggest offensive threats in senior shortstop Katelyn Boyd, a national player of the year finalist in 2011, and outfielder Lockwood. There are but two other returning regulars: junior second baseman Sam Parlich and senior outfielderTalor Haro. With that kind of turnover, Myers anticipates an early season adjustment period ashe'll tinker with lineup combinations.
Seven freshman and three upperclass transfers join the 17 players returning from the 2011. There have been ups and downs in the adjustment process, but they enter this weekend's Kajikawa Classic confident about the product that will develop during the early part of the season.
"We've definitely had some off days," Lockwood said. "We've got freshman in positions left open by All-Americans who shined for four years. It's going to be difficult, but I think they're growing into their positions."
Lockwood said she and other key veterans, particularly Boyd, have assumed greater leadership roles after losing the likes of Kaylyn Castillo and Mandy Urfer to graduation. They want to provide an outlet beside the coaching staff for new players to seek advice.
Lockwood and Boyd provide reason to believe ASU's offense won't miss a beat after losing several key hitters. Boyd hit.429 average last year with a .549 on-base percentage, while Lockwood led the team in RBIs (72) and home runs (19). ASU was the nation's third best scoring team in 2011 and feel they can do even more this year.
"I think this is one of the best hitting team's we've had," Lockwood said. "We had a great hitting team last year, but with the freshman that we have coming in and the transfers it's going to be a great hitting season. We're going to shock some people with how we hit."
Among the top newcomers is junior transfer Danielle Muniz, who comes to Tempe after helping Yavapai College win a National Junior College championship in 2011. She hit .437 with 69 RBI at Yapavai last season and could take over at third base. Myers and his staff also lured some of the nation's top high school recruits to Tempe, including catcher Amber Freeman of Santa Ana, Calif. and outfielder Elizabeth Caporuscio of Lake Arrowhead, Calif. Both will compete for starting jobs.There's no shortage ofstability and experience in the pitching circle, as ace Dallas Escobedo returns following a 37-3 freshman season that ended with her becoming the first freshman since 1990 to earn a win in the clinching game of the Women's College World Series.
Having accomplished so much already, Escobedo faces the challenge of continuing to improve. Myers isn't concerned, though, as he knows her mentality isn't one of entitlement.
"A real competitor never believes that anything's going to be handed to them," Myers said. "They've got to earn what they receive. (Escobedo) understands that. She understands that it was the first of four years."
Hillary Bach also returns for her senior season after taking on a reduced pitching role last year, and sophomore Mackenzie Popescue will also see time in the pitching circle. All three have won at least 13 games in a collegiate season, so the Sun Devils are protected against injury and posses the depth to rest Escobedo when necessary.
Myers said he'll give each pitcher two starts in this weekend's seven-game slate. He'll use variations of the three leading up to Pac-12 play, at which time he'll likely use Escobdeo for two games per weekend.
The Pac-12 certainly brings an elevated level of pitching and overall competition, as seven of the conference's nine softball programs rank in the preseason top 25, with California, Arizona and Stanford all cracking the top 10.
In six seasons under Myers, ASU has brought home two national titles. While the Sun Devils embrace that history, they refuse to lean on it.
"This year's team has got to make its own name," Myers said. "We need to play Arizona State softball. We've created a pretty good tradition of what the expectations are, and we just need to carry out the mentality that if we do the things that Arizona State is supposed to do then we won't be upset with where we are when the season's over."
ASU opens the season Thursday with games against Western Michigan and San Jose State, followed by games with McNeese State and Northwestern on Friday, Texas State and Tennessee on Saturday and Cal Poly on Sunday.
Saturday's games can be seen live on foxsportsarizona.com.