Originally Published: May 9, 2012

Fresno State's Wright led softball to new heights

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

Short of winning the WAC conference tournament and earning an automatic bid, it appears increasingly likely that Fresno State could miss the NCAA tournament this season for the first time ever. It does not feel like the way things should end for head coach Margie Wright, who announced this week that she will retire at the end of the campaign after 27 seasons at Fresno State.

And yet for a coach with more wins than anyone in the sport's history, it's somehow perfectly fitting.

By the example she set as NCAA softball came of age over the past three decades, Wright made her own job ever more difficult.

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Keith Kountz/Fresno StateMargie Wright enters this week's WAC tournament with 1,454 wins in 32 seasons at Fresno State and Illinois State.

She helped build the sport to a point at which the competitive margin of error was small enough to potentially claim even her team. And the rest of softball owes her a debt of gratitude for it.

"I think after almost 40 years of going from August to August, with coaching, with school, with recruiting, with all those things -- that's a lifetime," Wright said at a press conference. "It's probably one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do, and still is. And I'm sure this is going to take me a while to get used to, and to try to wrap my arms around it, but I don't have any regrets at all."

Tennessee co-coach Ralph Weekly shared a dugout with Wright when they were assistant coaches on the United States Olympic team that won gold in 1996, the first Olympics in which softball was contested.

"She's a fantastic coach; she's an even better person," Weekly said. "What she's done for women's softball is amazing, especially standing her ground on some issues and winning some rights for women. I don't think they come any better and I'll be very sad to see her leave."

Wright retires with plenty of statistical evidence of her impact. She enters this week's WAC tournament with 1,454 wins in 32 seasons at Fresno State and Illinois State, more than 100 wins clear of any coach in any division of NCAA softball. She is one of just four Division I coaches, along with Arizona's Mike Candrea, Cal's Diane Ninemire and Michigan's Carol Hutchins, to win both 1,000 games and a national championship. Wright's 1998 title broke a decade-long stranglehold on the trophy by Arizona and UCLA (three of those championships were won at Fresno State's expense in the title game) and unofficially ushered in an era in which those two giants have at least been forced to share the stage with other powers on a regular basis.

But in a way that cannot be true for future generations of coaches, her legacy has as much to do with creating an environment as thriving in one. The Bulldogs, who finished second in the first NCAA softball tournament in 1982 under the direction of coach Donna Pickel, were a known softball commodity by the time Wright arrived in 1986 after five years at Illinois State, her alma mater. But Wright took that foundation and built a dynasty -- a program with more NCAA tournament wins than any school but Arizona and UCLA -- and a brand name in the sport.

Long before programs in the SEC and elsewhere started building stadiums with thousands of seats, suites and countless other amenities, Fresno State was a softball paradise in California's Central Valley. From its debut in 1996, Bulldog Diamond has averaged nearly 2,000 fans per game. And the stadium was built because Wright had already constructed a program that demanded it. Several years before the facility opened, Rachel Lawson and her University of Massachusetts teammates played at Fresno State, where the Bulldogs averaged more than 1,000 fans per game as early as 1989. Lawson's eyes opened wide on that visit. Today, she is one of the rising stars in coaching at the University of Kentucky, which didn't even compete in softball until 1997.

"It was one of the few places that already had a crowd, and they were just doing everything the right way," Lawson said of her visit. "I thought it was just such an honor to be out there. At the time, I didn't really think about going into coaching, but then here was this woman who is in front of me, and she was such a strong coach, and it really gave me a role model to look at and somebody who [made me think], 'You know, I could do this; I could create a program where there is a great fan base and a winning tradition and all that sort of stuff.'"

Not unlike another coaching giant who stepped away recently, Pat Summitt, Wright was a picture of intensity in competition She was demanding, uncompromising and the seat of absolute power in her program, traits that assuredly helped her succeed and hurt her at times. But she was always willing to fight for what she felt was fair. (In 2008, she and the university settled a gender-discrimination complaint related to pay discrimination and gender-equity issues within the athletic department, with the school agreeing to pay her more than $600,000.)

You can't tell the story of how college softball got here without including Margie Wright, which is why she'll remain a part of the story of where it goes from here.

"Margie Wright's one of my role models," Lawson said. "When you have women like that in the sport, it really opens the door for the rest of us in our age bracket. And hopefully we'll be able to return the favor and pass that along to the younger generation."

The NCAA tournament will be better this season if Wright makes it one last time. The tournament is what it is because of people like her.

Cal, Arizona St. could preview bigger matchup

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

It's entirely possible that in addition to settling the Pac-12 title, this weekend's series between No. 1 California and No. 2 Arizona State is a preview of coming attractions, the most concentrated collection of stars this side of "The Avengers" serving as a three-game trailer for the championship series in the Women's College World Series.

But whatever happens in Oklahoma City a month from now, we will see a lot more of a lot of the players on the field this weekend.

The two best teams in college softball at the moment hold those positions in part because both have bright futures.

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Tom Smedes/Icon SMICal and Arizona State playing for the Pac-12 title is a fitting end to the regular season.

If recent games are any indication, there could be as many as seven freshmen in the starting lineups this weekend (although, as always, projecting Sun Devils coach Clint Myers' lineup card for any given game is a fool's errand). Both teams lean heavily on familiar names -- Katelyn Boyd and Dallas Escobedo among those for Arizona State and Valerie Arioto and Jolene Henderson among those for Cal -- but youthful inexperience has served them well.

The Bears returned everyone who played a significant role last season, and added Arioto back to the fold after the All-American missed the entire 2011 campaign with an injury. Nonetheless, freshmen Cheyenne Cordes, Danielle Henderson (Jolene's sister) and Breana Kostreba have combined to make 145 starts out of a possible 150. They've also combined for 32 home runs in 50 games, which is only two fewer than the number of home runs the entire team hit in 58 games last season.

Cal's greatest strength coming off its run to last season's World Series (before falling short) was its continuity, but the newcomers ensured that never morphed into complacency.

"They are three impact players that have come up to the plate and hit home runs and played great defense," Cal coach Diane Ninemire said earlier this season. "And to have three players come in in one year and start and be impact players, now that doesn't happen every year. You might be lucky if you get one or two players that come in with your recruiting class that are able to break into that bubble and really be key people. But those three have added a great wealth of strength to our team this year. I think it's really pushed the players that were starters last year. …

"Competition breeds success because now everybody's got to start working extra hard."

Arizona State had more holes to fill after winning the national championship last season with seniors in four of the first six spots in the batting order in the championship series against Florida, but complacency was still an issue. The Sun Devils needed freshmen to step in and produce, and Elizabeth Caporuscio, Amber Freeman and Haley Steele have done that. Caporuscio and Freeman rank third and fourth, respectively, on the team in slugging percentage, while Steele has committed just three errors in extensive time at third base and has shown power at the plate. More than that, the freshmen and sophomore first-time starter Bailey Wigness have helped the Sun Devils do what every defending champion talks about doing -- measure themselves against the present and not the past.

"I think that they do a really good job of keeping us humble and keeping us hungry," Arizona State senior Hillary Bach said. "It would be easy to settle because of last year, but they want it just as bad as we do. We are a new team, and they do a good job of reminding us of that."

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