Tincher ends career without title, but with lasting legacy

OKLAHOMA CITY -- No phalanx of agents and handlers waited for Angela Tincher when she exited the interview room at Hall of Fame Stadium after her final college game. No seven-figure contract will find its way in front of her in the near future -- even if you count the decimal points on any contract she signs to extend her softball career.

Instead, Tincher stood by a low wall on the stadium's main concourse, ice wrapped around a shoulder that provided the momentum for 160 pitches and 19 strikeouts in nine innings against top overall seed Florida, and signed autographs for a line of young girls. That her face was red was only partially related to the heat of the Oklahoma summer, but while Virginia Tech's 2-0 loss was painful for the Hokies, it was a passing memory for the kids awaiting a signature.

What will linger far longer for at least a few of them is the image of a pitcher at her peak.

Like Texas' Cat Osterman and Tennessee's Monica Abbott before her, Tincher came to Oklahoma City with staggering strikeout totals. She leaves college third in all-time strikeouts behind Abbott and Osterman and second in strikeouts per seven innings behind only Osterman. She added a player of the year award upon arrival in Oklahoma City, just as Osterman had in 2005 and 2006 and Abbott did last season. And she left without a national championship, just like the two aces who made the journey before her.

And yet also like Osterman and Abbott, Tincher leaves her sport in better shape than it was before she appeared on the scene.

Osterman, Abbott and Tincher are not the cause of softball's popularity boom in recent years, but neither are they strictly an effect of its growth. At their best, all three pitched a softball better than any other college athlete in the country -- not to mention well enough to at least find a way into the conversation as the best in the world.

A couple of hours after Tincher and the Hokies boarded the bus for the last time, as Arizona and Alabama battled to extend their own seasons, two girls who appeared to be in their early teens strolled along the walkway separating the two levels of seats in the stadium. One wore a Tennessee T-shirt; the other wore a Texas T-shirt.

Even if the Lady Vols and Longhorns aren't represented on the stadium's championship banners -- or in the field this season -- they still have a presence here and always will.

Perhaps the same girls were also in attendance on Friday night, as part of a crowd of 8,230 that represented a single-session attendance record for the tournament. And even if neither ever plays in the World Series, they may be among the increasing legions of girls playing youth softball all across the country. And they may follow Tincher's lead off the field, where her GPA in accounting was about seven times higher than her heralded ERA.

Along with sister and head coach Kate Drohan, Northwestern associate coach Caryl Drohan is another part of the equation. Young, talented coaches like the Drohans are building championship programs in new places and growing the game's base. But in attendance at the World Series, she offered an insider's perspective on how stars like Tincher influence and respond to the game's growth.

"I think that the game is so big that Tincher is now a household name, and I think that's great for the sport," Drohan said. "And I think it's going to have a great impact on the young kids that want to play the game."

Even in defeat, Tincher put on a show worthy of closing out an illustrious career. Trouble loomed immediately when Florida advanced runners to second and third with no outs in the first, but she responded by striking out the next three hitters. Each went down swinging on the ace's trademark rise, as did the first two hitters in the next frame. All told, she threw 25 strikes and two balls to the first six hitters she faced after getting into trouble.

Tincher cruised into the ninth inning, but after she chalked up her 18th and 19th strikeouts to begin the frame, Ali Gardiner and Francesca Enea reached on back-to-back singles. That brought freshman Tiffany DeFelice to the plate for a 17-pitch at-bat that ended when Tincher bounced a ball several feet shy of the batter's box, where it hit DeFelice on the rebound. That paved the way for Mary Ratliff's two-run double that provided the final margin of victory for the Gators.

"I think it did take a lot out of me," Tincher said. "At that point in the game, with the heat and everything, it was hard. But she did a great job battling."

A fun collection of softball overachievers, the Hokies came up with big hit after big hit in support of Tincher during an impressive march through Knoxville and Ann Arbor that earned them countless new fans and thrilled old fans. But ultimately the Hokies couldn't convert on the limited opportunities that separate success from failure in Oklahoma City.

There's no shame in that. Tincher gave the team an opportunity to win almost every time they stepped on the field, and they kept winning longer than all but six other teams.

After the game, Hokies coach Scot Thomas said the team would go down as one of the greatest in the history of Virginia Tech athletics in any sport. Just as its pitcher will go down as one of the greatest in the game's history -- championship or not.

"She makes coaching a lot easier," Thomas said. "As the old saying goes, the better the pitcher the smarter I get, or something like that. She has been unbelievable for us. I think the other thing, too, is there has been no other Virginia Tech pitcher that has that much attention drawn to her and the way she handled it with the media and everything, she's been a tremendous representative of our university, of herself and of her family."

Judging by the crowds descending on softball's biggest spectacle this week, she's also been a tremendous representative for her sport.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.