April 8, 2009

By Kyle Kensing
Special to NCAA.com

William McKinley was President and Arizona was still over a decade away from statehood when a teachers’ college in Tempe and new university in Tucson first met in athletic competition.

That inaugural football game in 1899 lit the fuse for a rivalry that 11 decades later encompasses over a dozen sports and is intense enough to have received a nod on Saturday Night Live this past week.

And on the softball diamond, the Arizona–Arizona State feud has evolved beyond a tussle for state supremacy – it’s become something of a College World Series preview. The programs have accounted for the last three national championships, with Mike Candrea’s Wildcats winning in 2006 and 2007 and Clint Myers’ Sun Devils taking the crown a season ago.

“In any rivalry you want to win,” said Arizona State senior Kaitlin Cochran. “But Arizona is such a great team and great program it makes it that much more important if you can get those wins.”

Cochran has been through three seasons’ worth of Duels in the Desert, and was a part of a Sun Devil team that last year went a perfect 3-for-3 in the series.

UA players remember last season’s Sun Devil dominance well, said senior Jenae Leles. “Of course we respect them, they swept us last year. They were the better team. But every year’s a different year.”

While 2009 does mean a clean slate, with the championships of past and series records meaning nothing come Friday, one thing is consistent – both teams are ranked in the Top 10 heading into the two-game set. That makes the series that much more important.

But according to Candrea, that’s nothing new in the Pac-10.

“When you’re in the Pac-10, there are no weak links. Every weekend is competitive,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the Wildcats and Sun Devils are treating this weekend as they would any other, however.

“We talk to the younger girls about what it means to play ASU and to uphold the tradition,” Leles said.

And up I-17?

“We definitely talk about [the rivalry],” Cochran said. “We want to show everyone what it means to be a Sun Devil.”

Sam Bannister, another senior for No. 10 UA, added: “Getting the right to say ‘we beat ASU’ is huge. You’re not supposed to treat any one game bigger than any other, but the first thing my math teacher said to me when I came into class was, ‘Beat those Sun Devils.’”

Bannister came to UA from Petaluma, Calif., and said as a freshman didn’t grasp the important of the rivalry previously.

“Being a part of something this big, you don’t realize it until you’re actually involved in it. One can be the best team and the other worst, and it’s still a duel,” she said.

One player getting her first introducing to the rivalry is Sun Devil pitcher Hillary Bach. The 6-foot-2 hurler from Tulsa, Okla., has been a top weapon for the fifth ranked team and gets her shot at making a mark in the Duel in the Desert annals.

“I’m excited to be a part of that history, that competitive spirit,” she said. “[Arizona has] had such a long legacy of being a quality program, so beating them is important.

“We want to put on a show for our fans and put everything on the line,” Bach said. 

The Sun Devils roar into the weekend tilt not only the defending flag bearers of the series, but with a more recent notch in their collective belts. ASU tied a collegiate record Tuesday, belting 10 home runs against UNLV.

“What happened [Tuesday] was great,” Cochran said. “We’re really feeling confident and that should give us a lot of momentum.”

Hot bats should prove pivotal.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a lot of runs put on the board,” Candrea said.
Candrea had high praise not only for ASU’s offensive prowess, but for the man behind it.

“Clint and I go way back. He’s a very fine coach, and I always know his team will be well prepared,” Candrea said.
“We’ve tried to do what we can to leave a legacy at Arizona, and ASU now is doing the same thing, just like the UCLAs,
Cals and Stanfords. That’s what makes the Pac-10 experience unique.”
The tradition that Myers has already established in just three seasons, Candrea said, has been a positive for the rivalry.

“It’s great for our sport, and it’s great for the state of Arizona,” Candrea said.
There’s no doubt Arizona State and Arizona share a respect for the others accomplishments. But at the end of the day, it’s still a rivalry.

Perhaps Arizona State’s Bach may have summed it up best: “Not too many Sun Devils like Wildcats.”

And in the same vein, Arizona’s Bannister: “There’s definitely a lot of respect between the teams, but it’s not like we’ll be running over to the other dugout to say ‘hi.’”