SB Nation

Cody Ulm | December 18, 2013

No Devil like Dallas

The last stand of Arizona State softball's senior pitcher

All she could think was “get me out of here.”

From 43 feet away, she stares down the outfielder who only a week later would be named the best softball player in the nation.

But she had to remember to breathe. If she didn’t breathe, she’d get too “amped.” If she got too “amped,” she’d tighten up. And considering her arm already feels like it might fall off at a moment’s notice, tightening up would be the last thing she needed.

Allowing the adrenaline to take over one last time, she winds up into the all-too-familiar motion and releases. The pitch rises, the bat glides underneath and in one fatal swoop, history is made.

"Her legacy is going to be that it doesn't matter the age; it's how mentally tough you are."
escobedo-white(Photo by Joey Post)

It’s the only moment she’s ever allowed herself to show emotion on the mound. And it’s the only moment she calls upon when she’s in a mess.

“I still think about it every day,” said Arizona State softball pitcher Dallas Escobedo about that last out against the Florida Gators. “[Pitching coach Chuck D’Arcy] always says there’s no perfect pitch but I say my last pitch to Kelsey Bruder was perfect. When I am struggling, I always think back to that moment against Kelsey Bruder because that pitch couldn’t have been more perfect to me.”

With the strikeout of Bruder, Escobedo won her 19th consecutive decision and became the first freshman pitcher in over two decades to register the victory in a Women’s College World Series title-clinching game.

Three years later, she’s looking to follow up the perfect pitch with the perfect ending.

* * *

Entering her senior season, Escobedo resides at No. 3 on Arizona State’s career wins list, 27 behind Katie Burkhart’s record of 118. Yet before sitting down for this interview, she didn’t have the slightest clue the record was even in range. And even though ASU’s first-year coach Craig Nicholson wasn’t too pleased of her newfound awareness, he still trusts she’ll handle it properly.

“The first thing that jumps out at you from a coach’s perspective is she’s very team-oriented and team-first,” said Nicholson. “I know she’s focused on having a great senior year, not for Dallas, but for Arizona State softball.”

Although Nicholson has been around Escobedo and the rest of the Sun Devils for only three months since coming over from Ball State, he quickly surmised “all that record stuff isn’t important to her.”

The man he replaced, Clint Myers, spent three years with Escobedo and couldn’t agree more.

“If anybody is going to be able to break Burkhart’s records, it’s Dallas,” said Myers, who left this past June to take over as Auburn’s head coach. “But she’s not one who is really into the accolades. She just wants to give her team the best chance to win every time she goes into the circle.”

"If we get to what our end goal is, how can you not say she is the best ever?"

But her lofty numbers might be more important to both gentlemen if they knew just how close she was to stacking that other school’s record book.

Esbedo-pitching(Photo by Joey Post)

After winning the Class 5A Division I state softball title and the Arizona Player of the Year award in 2007 as a freshman at St. Mary’s high school, it was clear early Escobedo would have no shortage of suitors. Knowing she didn’t want to leave the state, Escobedo naturally was attracted to the University of Arizona due to the program’s prestige and her strong connection with its pitching coach, Nancy Evans.

Yet even though the Wildcats were fresh off their eighth Women’s College World Series, Escobedo felt “there was just something missing” during her visit to Tucson. Not helping matters was Evans’ enigmatic resignation in December 2007 after 15 years at the university. That’s around the time Arizona State associate head coach Robert Wagner convinced her to come give Myers’ Sun Devils a shot.

“I felt like I had known him forever,” Escobedo said of meeting Myers. “He told me, ‘We’re gonna take care of you.’ They told me all the good stuff you’d hear on any recruiting visit but I truly believed them.”

Myers can still recall his exact sales pitch to Escobedo to this day.

“It was about the family that existed at ASU,” said Myers. “It was about how we [would] look after her and look towards achieving something special as a family. We feel that is important in anybody’s life and we said it with conviction and heart.”

And it certainly didn’t hurt that the golden age of Sun Devil softball was just beginning. In 2008, Myers led the Sun Devils to a program-best 66-5 record on the way to Arizona State’s first national championship.

Ironically, 41 of those wins came from senior Katie Burkhart, an ASU single-season record. Without Burkhart helping put Arizona State on the map that season, Escobedo, ESPN’s No. 1 softball prospect in the nation, likely could have committed to Arizona or UCLA.

Now, Escobedo is repaying Burkhart for her persuasive performance by attempting to knock her down a few notches in the record books.

escobedo_myers(Photo by Joey Post)

But as Burkhart will tell you, the situation couldn’t be more ideal.

“My records are records,” said Burkhart. “They’re meant to be broken. I would love nothing more than for her to break them.”

"If anybody is going to be able to break Burkhart's records, it's Dallas."

Since Burkhart’s professional fastpitch career took her all across the globe after that initial championship, she was never able to form much of a relationship with Escobedo. Even so, it’s impossible to ignore all the ways she indirectly affected Escobedo’s career.

Beyond bringing national attention to Arizona State in 2008, Burkhart taught the freshmen about “life, softball and the ASU way”, according to Myers. Three years later as seniors, those same players paid Burkhart’s guidance forward by ultimately providing the veteran foundation for Escobedo’s first-year success.

“I remember thinking when I was celebrating [their 2011 championship]: that just goes to show that team chemistry is so important,” said Burkhart. “For her just to be able to come into a team with Mandy Urfer and Krista Donnenwirth, who had been seasoned with us as freshmen; that was just the recipe for success.”

“When it’s all said and done, it’s the players’ team,” echoed Myers. “We’re there to give guidance, direction and knowledge but no program is bigger than one person. The idea of passing down tradition, expectations and standards was important to us.”

"Records, yeah, they show something. But heart shows a lot more."
Catching up with Katie Burkhart

Katie Burkhart, 27, has managed to keep herself quite busy since graduating from Arizona State in 2008. On February 18, just before her senior season as a Sun Devil, Burkhart was selected first overall in the National Pro Fastpitch Draft by the Philadelphia Force. The lefty was voted Player of the Year as a rookie and went on to help lead the USA Softball National Team to a gold medal at the Japan Cup in 2009.

Burkhart dabbled in a coaching briefly but ultimately walked away from the game in 2012. Her talents took her everywhere from a summer in Italy to Kariya, Japan as a member of the Toyota Shokki. She also played for the Force, USSSA Pride and Carolina Diamonds during her time in the NPF. Burkhart currently lives in Nashville, Tenn. and is studying to become an optician. She married Adam Gooch this past February.

Her Greatest Sun Devil Moment

Even though she has three perfect games, five no-hitters, a WCWS MVP award and the seventh most strikeouts in the history of NCAA Division I Softball, Burkhart believes her proudest moment came in a rivalry game in which she allowed eight runs.

The Arizona Wildcats’ bats came alive in the top of the seventh trailing 6-5. Laine Roth "slammed" a three-run bomb off Burkhart to give Arizona a two-run advantage. But after allowing two more to reach, Burkhart settled down and struck out Adrienne Acton.

"Burkhart never gave up eight runs," recalls Clint Myers. "She was out there, didn’t have great stuff but she was competing her ass off."

Yet what didn’t settle was that awful feeling in the pit of her stomach that she let her teammates down. But in the bottom of the seventh, the Devils paid back Burkhart for all the times she put the team on her back. A Mindy Cowles double platted a run before Kristen Miller’s single brought home the two go-ahead runs. Despite being caught up in the commotion of a walk off, Burkhart couldn’t help but think about the bigger picture:

"That moment right there was when I knew. Because we battled and we were so thirsty to win that game, I knew we were going to win the World Series. I had no doubt in my mind."

Long before they were collectively gunning for a title, Escobedo recalls “being in awe” of the eight seniors who remained from 2008’s ground-breaking team.

At her first team meeting as a freshman, Escobedo stared across the room thinking, “Oh god, I can’t believe I’m playing with them.” But with their unconditional support, those seniors helped make Arizona State softball feel like Escobedo’s “second home right away.”

“They had so much confidence in me, more confidence in me than I had in myself because everything was so new,” said Escobedo. “Having Mandy at first, Krista at third and the best catcher I’ve ever thrown to, [Kaylyn] Castillo…they were just like, ‘we’re not worried, we have your back.’”

Escobedo found their faith particularly inspiring when she hit a rough patch in the fall of her freshman year and begin to question herself.

“I was not used to getting home runs hit off me left and right,” said Escobedo, who had a 0.58 ERA in her final season at St. Mary’s. “I was upset a lot because I was wondering, ‘Why are they hitting me?’ But then I realized they were supposed to because I’m in college now.”

It was the support of her teammates that gave Escobedo the confidence to stick with her stuff. Looking back, Escobedo doesn’t know if her career would have played out the way it did if she wasn’t tested so early on.

“I’m so glad that in the fall I was able to figure it out and see what exactly I would have to think about,” said Escobedo. “I was just a freshman and I didn’t know any of these hitters; but it was also my luck because they didn’t know me either.”

Now, Escobedo feels determined to provide the same guidance and leadership that was offered to her, especially with the transition to Nicholson after Myers left for Auburn.

“I’ve just tried to welcome [the freshmen] even more, just to see exactly what they need,” said Escobedo. “A lot of us seniors remember back to how they treated us and how open everyone was with each other. That’s what we’re trying to get through to our teammates now.”

Escobedo describes the chain of positive influence as “an ongoing path.” Burkhart believes that trail was blazed long before her.

“Erica Beach was the reason I chose to go to Arizona State,” Burkhart said of the ASU hall of famer. “That’s what I feel any player hopes for; that what they did at that school will be seen by the kids and they’re going to want to walk in their shoes one day.”

Because of Burkhart, Escobedo and others, Myers was able to make seven trips to the World Series and bring home two national championships during his tenure at Arizona State. Looking back, it’s difficult for Myers not to get sentimental about the golden age of Sun Devil softball.

“Burkhart’s group started it and Dallas’ group just continued it,” said Myers. “No other team can say they did what Arizona State did in those eight years.”

Even though their careers didn’t intersect, Escobedo remembers the seniors constantly telling her how much she reminded them of Burkhart. Myers, the man who oversaw the evolution of both women, suspects their similarities stem from their rare cut of competitiveness.

“There were times in any given game that both Dallas and Katie would say, ‘Hey Listen; we’re not swinging. You gotta jump on my back and I’m going to get you this win’,” said Myers. “And there were other days were both would say, ‘Hey listen. I’m going to need some runs today.’ You could see what was taking place. Yet it didn’t change their competitive spirit.”

Burkhart does admit to seeing the same grit in Escobedo that helped her fight for the 2008 championship. But she still can’t fathom how quickly she developed.

“She was a tough cookie and she dominated. It was astonishing really,” said Burkhart. “Her legacy is going to be that it doesn’t matter the age; it’s how mentally tough you are. I think that’s something that took me four years to get.”

In a way, that was just as much a curse as a blessing for Escobedo. By spoiling the Sun Devil faithful with Arizona State’s second WCWS title in her first season, Escobedo set the bar astronomically-high. So where do you go from there?

“At first, I did have the ‘Okay, now I have to win it every year’ mentality,” admits Escobedo.

And can you blame her? After all, how do you improve on being nominated for an ESPY as a freshman?

But just like her reoccurring visions of that perfect pitch, Escobedo has maintained her lofty status quo by drawing on past experiences.

“I always say that if I can strike out these hitters and they’re the best hitting team in the country, then I can strike anybody out. Or if they can hit off me, then they can hit off anybody because I believe I am the best.”

"No other team can say they did what Arizona State did in those eight years."
escobedo_maroon(Photo by Joey Post)

Her numbers back it up too. Even in what Escobedo called her “junior slump,” she still had 30 wins (tied for sixth-most in ASU’s record books), 325 strikeouts (fifth-most) and registered the first postseason no-hitter in Arizona State history. All things considered, you can make a case that Escobedo is on pace to become Arizona State’s greatest softball player ever, if not the greatest Sun Devil across all athletics.

A collegiate softball pitcher arguably holds the outcome of a game in her hands more than any other position in any other team sport at this level. Obviously it takes a sound defense and an accommodating offense for a pitcher to take care of business. But with the frequency they’re called upon to operate and how deep they’re asked to go in games, a softball pitcher’s performance is essentially a make-or-break deal.

Of the 146 career games Escobedo has appeared in, she’s managed to register a complete game in 86 of them. In other words, Escobedo has pitched every inning of 63% of the games in which her services were required over the last three years. During that span, she’s emerged as the victor 91 times.

“I think it represents the type of person that she is,” said Myers. “It’s [her] ability to go out there and compete with every ounce of effort and knowledge she can muster to figure out how to beat people.”

escobedo-point(Photo by Joey Post)

Arizona State also has the recognition of being one of only five universities with two or more NCAA softball championships thanks largely in part to Escobedo’s 10-0 record in the 2011 postseason.

“She’s been a leader since her freshman year so she’s going to be a leader this year,” said Burkhart.

Burkhart has never been one for ranking herself but she still can’t ignore Escobedo’s impact. And it’s not even a matter of statistics.

“If anything, she’s better than I am,” said Burkhart. “Records, yeah, they show something. But heart shows a lot more.”

Myers shared a similar sentiment while elaborating on Escobedo’s activism in the community.

“I think she’s already the best whether [the team] accomplishes what they want or not,” said Myers. “She wants to make the world a better place and she’s going to do whatever she can to make that happen – on the softball field and off.”

Nicholson, much like Escobedo, is a pitch-by-pitch type of coach who never likes to get too ahead of himself. But once he admitted the team’s goal is to win a national championship, even he couldn’t deny what another title might mean to Escobedo.

“If we get to what our end goal is, how can you not say she is the best ever?”

As for Escobedo, she doesn’t try to get too wrapped up in that funny little word called legacy.

“I don’t think about it at all,” said Escobedo. “Taking it one step at a time will eventually get us where we need to be.”

And if all else fails, she can always fall back on that flickering moment of perfection.

Title Photo: Kyle Terada - USA Today Sports | Burkhart Photo: ASU Athletics

About the Author

I am currently a senior at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Arizona native born and raised. My one true love is the Denver Broncos. To share my devotion, I may or may not have built a Helga Pataki-esque shrine of John Elway from chewed bubblegum. And that may or may not be the reason he has a restraining order against me.

Beyond that, I’m an obsessive pop culture nerd whose head is crammed full of too much useless information to keep track of. About 78% of what comes out of my mouth is recycled from a movie or television show somewhere. Someday, I hope to be either a sports columnist or screen writer. Or a space cowboy. I haven’t decided yet.