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Sunday, June 5, 2011
ASU seniors have 2008 feeling

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- They came in as freshmen and followed one of the best senior aces in recent college memory all the way to a championship in this stadium. Three years later, they stand two wins from another national title and play as seniors alongside a freshman pitcher who might yet prove to be next in the line of succession of great aces.

Mandy Urfer
Mandy Urfer and her fellow seniors are going for two career WCWS titles.

From just about the time they arrived in Tempe through the day they leave, they will have been overshadowed in accolades and attention, first by ace Katie Burkhart and player of the year finalist Katie Cochran, now by ace Dallas Escobedo and player of the year finalist Katelyn Boyd.

They are Krista Donnenwirth, Lesley Rogers and Mandy Urfer, freshman starters when Arizona State won a national championship three years ago and starters still as seniors as the Sun Devils seek a second title against Florida.

And while it remains to be seen whether Arizona State can become just the fourth program to win multiple championships, and the only one other than Arizona and UCLA to do it since the pitching distance was set at 43 feet more than two decades ago, the attempt at a double is surely in good hands with three seniors who refer to themselves simply as "The Trio."

"We've been best friends since freshman year," Rogers said. "I love our whole team, I love all of our eight seniors, but I have to admit, I'm the closest with those other two girls. When they succeed, I feel like I do. I'm rooting for them secretly just immensely. We just have this bond, and it shows on the field."

Arizona State advanced to the best-of-three championship series with a 4-0 win against Baylor on Sunday, completing a perfect run through its part of the bracket with three wins in three tries in the double-elimination format.

The Trio was instrumental in victory, as usual. Rogers drove in a run and picked up two hits in all, leaving her batting average in this World Series at .455. In 16 career World Series games, she's hitting .353. Urfer took care of driving in Donnenwirth after the latter walked, hitting a second-inning home run that put the game Bears in an early hole too deep to dig out of so soon after the previous night's 13-inning marathon win against Missouri. The blast was Urfer's second this World Series, and she also walked twice, meaning she's reached base in eight of 10 plate appearances.

Each of the three brings her own particular skill set to the table and followed her own path to this final stage. Rogers is the steady slap hitter with plenty of gap power when she swings away and 134 walks against just 82 strikeouts in four seasons. A part-time player as a freshman until coach Clint Myers settled on her as a full-time starter in the postseason, Urfer battled injuries her next two seasons before emerging as a consistent power threat this season. And Donnenwirth, while unable to match the power numbers she put up as a freshman, is a tall, athletic physical specimen at third and a defender Myers calls the best he's ever seen at the position, baseball or softball.

"I trust them with my life," Rogers said of her two compatriots. "I don't ever have to be scared when they're in that box or on that field. I just have the utmost faith in them. They're great people and players."

As Rogers also noted, Arizona State's roster includes eight seniors, six of whom were on the roster for the two-game sweep against Texas A&M in the championship series in 2008. That was the year Arizona State finally escaped the shadow of its conference rival from Tucson, winning the program's first title in just the third season under Myers' direction. That team had Burkhart, the lefty who went 41-5 with a 0.75 ERA, and Cochran, a hitter so feared that Alabama memorably intentionally walked her to start an inning in which it held a one-run lead.

But if Burkhart, Cochran and that generation established the Sun Devils as a power once again in college softball, it's the current seniors, paced by Donnenwirth, Rogers and Urfer, who led the way in maintaining that standard, a step on which many programs falter in attempting to achieve long-term championship success. The brightest stars on this team are a freshman pitcher and a junior shortstop, but the seniors are the center of the universe.

"I trust them with my life. I don't ever have to be scared when they're in that box or on that field. I just have the utmost faith in them. They're great people and players."

-- Lesley Rogers on Krista Donnenwirth and Mandy Urfer

"We said early on that this ball club, the core, the center of the philosophy, the makeup, it is all the seniors," Myers said. "They run the ball club. I carry the bats and balls and bark a little bit, but it's their ownership. They took care of it. That's the way it's supposed to be. By the time you become a senior, you've been through the wars and you know what's right and wrong and you take care of business. This has been the best senior class that we've had."

Now those seniors find themselves back on familiar ground. Donnenwirth helped win a game in the 2008 championship series with a home run, but it wasn't just that. After Alabama issued its intentional walk to Cochran on the opening day of the 2008 World Series, Rogers responded with a double to tie the game. And with two outs, Urfer hit a ball down the line that scored two more runs for the eventual 3-1 win. Lost in the subsequent domination from Burkhart was just how close the Sun Devils came to the losers bracket.

"My favorite moment of softball in my entire life was that double I got to tie the game, and we ended up winning," Rogers said. "It's great being there, but it makes you feel really special when you're a freshman and nobody really thinks it's going to be a freshman that pulls through. It makes it that much more special."

Flying under the radar isn't an issue for Escobedo, the team' ace who improved to 35-3 with the win against Baylor on Sunday, but from the first time the freshman took the circle, the seniors found themselves with a familiar feeling.

"I remember our very first game," Rogers said of Escobedo's debut. "It wasn't a Florida, and it wasn't an Alabama we were facing, but I remember just standing out there [in center field] and not getting that many balls and thinking, 'This could be what I had in 2008.' She's a freshman, she's not seasoned, but she definitely has it -- whatever it is."

Something special is going to happen for a group of seniors in the championship series, given that a quintet of Florida seniors are looking to earn the first national title for both their school and their conference. But on the other side, three friends have earned the chance to claim a special share of history and finish their careers exactly as they began them.

"To bookend our careers with freshman and senior championships would be a dream come true," Rogers said. "A lot of people don't even win one, so that was amazing, but to win two, that would be a blessing.

"If that happens, I will just go nuts."

It's about the only thing that could cause any of these three to lose their composure.