Softball's newest national champion has chance to be next superpower

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Softball's sleeping giant slumbers no longer.

Hall of Fame Stadium opened its gates an hour and a half before Tuesday's game between Arizona State and Texas A&M, half an hour earlier than normal, to allow fans an opportunity to watch the Olympic team take batting practice. Of the 15 players in red, white and blue, 10 played college softball for four different Pac-10 schools -- four at UCLA, three at Arizona, two at Stanford and one at Cal. Throw in Canadian Olympic ace Danielle Lawrie and shortstop Jenn Salling, who have eligibility remaining at Washington and Oregon, respectively, and the competition in Beijing will reflect the Pac-10's prominence in the college game.

Arizona State will not be among the schools with softball representation in China.

But like the host country -- which, while a subject of constant debate on a number of fronts, is inarguably changing the world as a rising economic power -- Arizona State has finally started cultivating the softball resources that used to lay fallow in the desert.

Softball's newest national champion has a chance to be its next superpower.

"This is a tradition we're trying to build," Clint Myers said after his team beat Texas A&M 11-0 to sweep the best-of-three championship series. "And this year's team put it on the map."

That softball is growing ever more balanced across geographic divides is obvious. It was obvious when Michigan won the national championship in 2005, when Northwestern played for the title the next season and when Tennessee reach the final series last season. And it was obvious when Alabama and Florida made it to Sunday at the World Series this year, and Texas A&M made the first appearance in the final series by a Big 12 school since Oklahoma won the national championship in 2000.

But more balanced does not mean balanced. When Arizona won the last two national titles, it was easy to explain away as a singularity -- a program with such an entrenched legacy was able to withstand the sport's prevailing winds. But the work Myers did in just three seasons to turn Arizona State from a Pac-10 also-ran to a national champion is evidence of both his coaching ability and the talent resources he has to work with.

This is still the Pac-10's world.

The Pac-10 is still the best softball in the country. … If you can do well in the Pac-10, then you should do well every place else, because that really prepares you for the playoffs.

--Arizona State coach Clint Myers

"The Pac-10 is still the best softball in the country," Myers said. "We had seven of eight teams make it to the regionals and we had six of eight make it to super regionals. And we had, what, three teams make it here. You face quality pitching every day in the Pac-10. Hell, there's years when all eight teams come [to the NCAA tournament]. If you can do well in the Pac-10, then you should do well every place else, because that really prepares you for the playoffs."

Texas A&M was the only team in the World Series that didn't have a player from Arizona or California on its roster. As well as coaches like Alabama's Pat Murphy and Florida's Tim Walton are doing in finding All-America talent in their own backyards, both also got their best individual production from Californians in Charlotte Morgan and Stacey Nelson, respectively. With so much talent in his backyard, Myers didn't have a hard time finding the missing pieces he needed to complete the work he had already done with the players he inherited from the former regime at Arizona State.

And within the Pac-10, the stage may be set for Arizona State to wedge its way into annual conference contention in a way California wasn't able to do after it won its first national championship in 2002. That task begins with measuring up to Arizona and UCLA.

"It's about time," Katie Burkhart said after Monday's result put her team one win from the title. "It is about time for the Sun Devils to start to shine, because we have been in the shadows of the [Arizona] Wildcats for a long time, and we have worked just as hard or harder."

In the short term, success for Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA will hinge on replacing their departing aces. Arizona has phenom Kenzie Fowler arriving in 2010, but next season will be about finding out whether Arizona's Lindsey Sisk, Arizona State's Megan Elliott and UCLA's Donna Kerr are ready to inherit No. 1 roles or if other options will emerge.

But the door does appear to be open in the long run. As much talent as UCLA has coming back next year, four tournaments have now come and gone since the Bruins won a title. Three tournaments have passed since they played for a title.

And while he stopped well short of suggesting he won't be back -- in fact saying he intends to be in Tucson -- Arizona coach Mike Candrea also sounded this week like a man who is at least intrigued by the world of options available to him. They include his roles in fighting for international softball's survival and working at the other end of the spectrum with the Responsible Sports program to keep youth softball a positive experience for the 95 percent of participants who won't ever play Div. I softball.

"There's a lot of things I would like to do," Candrea said. "And you know, I'm always looking at other opportunities, and if those opportunities arrive and it's a good fit for me, it may be a good time to take a challenge like that. But as of right now, I plan on going back [to the University of Arizona] and doing what I love to do.

"We have some fabulous teams here, some fabulous coaches and great programs, and I think the college game is as good as its ever been right now. But when you see it so good here, and you go through the fights that we're going through right now internationally, what's the obvious next step? That's to try and give more young kids an opportunity to have dreams, and part of that dream is -- there's no bigger [dream] than being able to play for your country."

Just because the softball world may be catching up to Arizona and UCLA does not mean its center is on the verge of relocating out of its cradle in Southern California and Arizona. The day may come for an Alabama or Florida dynasty or a run of championships for Texas A&M and other Big 12 programs. Looking at the facilities springing up throughout those conferences and some of the young, innovative coaching minds working in them, there are reasons to think the map will eventually be truly balanced. But even if the SEC finally breaks through next year or the year after that, a full transition is not going to happen overnight or even in the next five years.

For now, the most likely challenger to the throne has to come from the royal family that has ruled softball for decades. And all signs point to the team from Tempe.

"We were kind of nonexistent, I think," Kaitlin Cochran said. "Everyone had always dreamt about to going to [Arizona] or UCLA, and then there was Arizona State. So I think we were just kind of the second-rate school … I mean, we were in the Pac-10 and we were a good team in the Pac-10, but we weren't the cream of the crop in the Pac-10. And I think now, since Coach Myers has come in here, we have established a new legacy and a new tradition. And I think we've set the bar a lot higher than we ever have before."

And when a Pac-10 program sets the bar, you can bet the rest of the country notices.

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