Hollowell solidifies legacy with WCWS championship

OKLAHOMA CITY -- After all the innings and all the strikeouts in a four-year career, did winning one game in Oklahoma City define Arizona senior Alicia Hollowell as a great pitcher?

Greatness -- the act of excelling at something to a degree far beyond the abilities of most -- is by its very nature a unique accomplishment. And it's evident that the majority frequently enjoys an uneasy and uncomfortable relationship with the unique.

Applying Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's "I know it when I see it" definition (granted, for a slightly different topic) is a convenient solution, as long as you have the authority granted to a member of the nation's most powerful court.

But for the rest of us, subjective observation leaves us right back in a quagmire of uncertainty. How do I know that what you see as greatness is the same thing I see as greatness?

Which is where numbers come in.

Being able to quantify something that we can't relate to on a physical level -- be it throwing a rise ball, avoiding a zone blitz or controlling a puck on ice -- is comforting. By reducing the physical artistry to tangible numbers, it's easier for us to comprehend and judge the accomplishment.

Hank Aaron's 755 home runs are more than Barry Bonds' 716 home runs. And 500 home runs is a dividing line between the great and the merely good.

Hollowell certainly has her own array of impressive numbers. With 1,768 strikeouts in her four years at Arizona, Hollowell ends her career ranked behind only Cat Osterman and Courtney Blades among career strikeout leaders.

With 12 strikeouts against Northwestern in the first game of the championship series, she passed 400 strikeouts in a season for the third year in a row. And with 13 more in the clincher on Tuesday, she set a single-season record for strikeouts in a Women's College World Series.

All together, it's an impressive record of power pitching, but it's also only an extension of what she had been doing since arriving at Arizona. And it was missing something.

It's an oddity of college softball, where power pitchers seem to rule in the postseason, that before Tuesday night, Texas A&M's Shawn Andaya was the most prolific strikeout pitcher to win a national championship. And Andaya, who starred for the Aggies from 1984-87 doesn't even rank in the top 10 in career strikeouts.

"I think what happens with power pitchers is you come in to the postseason and you try to throw hard and throw it by people," ESPN analyst and UCLA legend Stacey Nuveman said. "Lisa Fernandez and I spent a lot of time praising her this week for using her offspeed and not trying to necessarily outduel everybody she faced head to head. That's being smart. That's knowing what you're up against and staying within yourself. I think the tendency in the past with some power pitchers is they come in and they try to be extra special and throw extra hard. And it flattens out and people hit them over the fence. You credit her again for being mature enough to know what she needed to do to win ball games."

And there is the catch. In team sports, there's always something else cluttering this tidy spreadsheet of understanding. Individual success does not always correspond with winning, and no stat is easier to understand than wins and losses.

So no matter the numbers, no matter how magnificent the individual performance or how mitigating the circumstances, the lack of a championship seems to automatically cloud a player's legacy.

Bill Russell's 11 NBA titles are more than Patrick Ewing's zero NBA titles. Russell is universally viewed as one of the greatest of all time. Ewing? That's up for debate, no matter how impressive his other statistics.

Fair or not, it's the way things work. Just ask Cat Osterman. Or Michele Granger. Or Danielle Henderson.

The pitchers most often celebrated as the best of the best in the college game -- Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Jennie Ritter and others -- are the ones who, in addition to all of the other numbers, put up stats in the win column in Oklahoma City.

So maybe the real question is did Hollowell need to win a championship for us to understand and appreciate her greatness?

Not for those immersed in the world of softball, said Arizona pitching coach Nancy Evans. But she admitted the championship may change the way others view Hollowell.

"Getting that national championship has just been the icing on the cake," Evans said. "It's basically sealed a career that has been phenomenal and exceptional for a great pitcher. And for the casual fan, yeah it's a big deal."

As Evans said, Tuesday's win was the culmination of four years of work.

As a freshman taking over for Finch, perhaps the most popular player in the sport's history (let alone Arizona's history), Hollowell posted a 40-5 record. The 40 wins were six more than Finch had ever recorded in a single season and Hollowell's 394 strikeouts that season were 28 more than Finch had ever whiffed. Granted, Hollowell wasn't the Ruthian two-way threat that Finch was, but it was a rather astounding debut performance.

"She came in as a freshman and had great talent, but was just raw," Evans said. "But she wanted to learn and wanted to be the best. So we took it and we ran. And to see her grow the last four years has been amazing."

After back-to-back appearances in the title game in 2001 and 2002, including a championship in 2001, the Wildcats fell short of the final stage in Oklahoma City in Hollowell's freshman season. They missed again in her sophomore season, when after improving her own numbers 41-4 with 508 strikeouts, she and the Wildcats failed to advance to the Women's College World Series for the first time since 1987.

Coming the same year Mike Candrea (who took a sabbatical that season) and Finch teamed up to win gold, the early exit seemed to make it somehow easier to overlook Hollowell's numbers in Tucson.

And if ever there seemed to be a sign that Hollowell would forever be relegated to the list of underrated aces, it came in Oklahoma City last season, when despite allowing just four earned runs in 30 innings, the Wildcats were bounced in three games, including an 11-inning epic loss to Osterman and Texas.

But instead of bowing to all the heartbreak, Hollowell seemed to use the experience and grow tougher.

"Adversity builds character," Nuveman said. "She has struggled [in the WCWS] in the past and this year was on a mission. She has a very good relationship with Nancy Evans. When Nancy Evans was a pitcher for Arizona, she was one of the most mentally tough people you've ever met. And I think that has rubbed off on Hollowell as well."

It certainly seemed that way in Oklahoma City, as it had all season. After bouncing back from getting hit in the face by a line drive against Texas earlier in the season, Hollowell was the rock of Arizona's attack in the Women's College World Series. In 43 innings against the best teams in the country, she allowed just two earned runs.

"I think one of her strengths is her mental toughness," Nuveman said. "And she really put that on display this week, more than I've ever seen her, to be honest. Today she got rattled; she got some runners on and Northwestern challenged her. And she answered right back. That's the mark of a champion; the best pitchers in the world can do that consistently. And I feel like she definitely made a statement that not only does she have the physical tools, but the mental side of it has developed and she's the complete package."

So perhaps the answer isn't that winning a title makes Hollowell a great pitcher. Maybe it's that winning a title was the inevitable destiny for a great pitcher.

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