Instant Impact (Arizona Daily Sun)

April 11, 2005

Instant impact

By ED ODEVEN
Sun Sports Staff
04/10/2005

TEMPE

Rudy Baca sits in the stands behind the third-base dugout on a beautiful, sunny spring day.

There's not a cloud in the sky. But there's a matchup between two of college softball's top teams -- 17th-ranked Arizona State and No. 6 Stanford -- at Farrington Stadium.

And there's no place Baca would rather be on this picture-perfect afternoon.

His daughter, Rhiannon, a former Flagstaff High School star, is the starting shortstop for the Sun Devils as a freshman.

Baca watched last Sunday's game, while casually chatting with a reporter.

'I'm just a parent, a spectator, a supporter,' the Eagles' longtime softball coach says, pausing to discard a handful sunflower seeds into a tall plastic cup.

A dozen or so family members and friends sit a few feet away. They are Baca's vocal supporters, or what she calls 'my cheering section,' including, on this day, her mom, Patty, younger sister, Jessica, aunts and uncles and ex-Eagle teammate Kelsey Schaeffer.

'It's just kind of relaxing to be up here at times to watch,' Rudy Baca continues. 'But more than anything, it's just being proud of her, watching her play at this high-caliber (level) of ball.

'All the hours that she just put in, many times she could've gone out with her friends to the movies and stuff. But she kind of set that aside and took some extra ground balls (and) extra cuts. She knew what it was going to take to get better.'

During her four years at FHS, Baca was one of the best all-around athletes in the Grand Canyon Region. She helped lead the Eagle basketball team to the Class 4A Final Four as a senior. She also earned four successive GCR Player of the Year honors on the softball diamond, going 43-1 in league games as the Eagles' ace and batting .600 or better in her freshman and senior seasons.

In other words, Baca was the prototypical recruit for Sun Devils coach Linda Wells.

'She's got all the tools to play, and she'll be a great career player here,' says Wells, who served as the Greek Olympic National Team coach last summer.

'She's an excellent defensive player. She knows how to play team ball. She's a team player. She's a good leader. She's a good person, and so she's a good part of the team community.'

***

Baca has made an immediate impact as a Sun Devil, starting all 36 games this season at shortstop. She's been the leadoff hitter and spent time in the second and sixth spots in the lineup as well.

Through Wednesday's 1-0 loss to archrival Arizona, Baca, who leads the team with 112 at-bats, was hitting .196.

At the plate, of course, she now faces much tougher pitching game after game -- like UA ace Alicia Howell, who struck out 15 in the Wildcats' win -- than she did in high school.

'We want her to drive the ball a little more,' Wells says. '... We want her driving the ball in between players, and she's getting the idea.'

There have been some tough games along the way. For instance, in the April 2 game against California, the speedy Baca grounded out three times to the shortstop and finished 0-for-3.

'You hit a little tapper to the shortstop at this level, they are going to throw you out,' the elder Baca observes. 'The arm strength and the ability level here is so much stronger. So I think she's going to have to learn to read the fielders.'

Which is precisely what she's doing.

'That was a big adjustment coming into college from high school, but I'm trying to get there,' Rhiannon says.

Now that she's there, playing for a Pac-10 team, she's not taking anything for granted.

'I knew it was going to take a lot of hard work,' the elementary education major says. 'I'm just happy being on the team. I knew to be a starter I was going to have to work pretty hard in the preseason and hopefully get a chance. And coach gave me the chance.' In the field, Baca's natural ability has taken over. Along with fellow freshman Mindy Cowles, the second baseman and team's top hitter, Baca gives the Eagles a solid foundation for years to come in the middle infield.

'She goes out there like she belongs there,' Cowles says. 'She doesn't go out there like she's a freshman. She doesn't go out there intimidated.

'I love her attitude on the field. It's so positive. She's an awesome shortstop.'

Wells, the seventh-winningest coach in NCAA history, agrees.

'Well, she has just been money on defense,' the coach says. 'To me, the consummate shortstop is the shortstop that makes all the fundamental plays, and she does that, and then is also capable of making the outstanding play. She's made game-savers for us.'

Baca demonstrated her game-altering defensive ability against Cal in the championship game of the National Invitational Tournament in Sunnyvale, Calif., March 13.

With runners on second and third and one out in the first inning, Cal was threatening to take the early momentum.

Then a Cal batter hit 'a shot (to Baca), a hard-hit ball that took a skip,' Wells recalls. 'The runner was running and so she went to her knees to get it and then was able to throw the runner out at the plate.'

The Devils won, 1-0.

***

When she was 8, Baca attended her first Sun Devil softball camp. In the years to come, she went to numerous camps run by Wells, grew more and more fond of the sport and devoted countless hours to become the type of player she is today.

'She's very confident in her game and she's very dedicated,' Wells says. 'She's confident that's she's going to give 100 percent and I think that allows her to be confident in her game.'

Baca says she comfortable being a student-athlete, juggling academics (she's on track to finish with a 3.0 GPA for the 2004-05 academic year and earn a Maroon and Gold Scholar-Athlete accolade) and softball.

And she's enjoying the college experience, living away from home for the first time. Cowles, freshman pitcher Katie Burkhart and Baca share a two-bedroom, dorm-style suite on campus.

'We all get along,' Baca says, smiling. 'We all have our little quirks, but it's good. I love living with those two girls.'

As much as Baca is enjoying her time at ASU, her father is equally happy to pass on her story -- and the similar never-stop-working-to-fulfill-a-dream tales of ex-Eagles Teresa Diaz (a former NAU basketball player), Missy Passley (a star pitcher at the University of Mobile) and ex-Sinagua standout Ashley Elliott (a star guard at the University of Wyoming) -- to the current crop of Flag High players.

'It's kind of nice to have that kind of role model at Flagstaff High School and Flagstaff, Ariz., in general,' he says. 'People can see that with a little bit of hard work and effort you can go anywhere you want to go if you work at it.

'And the kids that want to go on (to play sports in college), I really do believe that they see that.'

When Baca was weighing her options to play at the next level, Oklahoma and Hawaii also recruited her. But when it came time to sign on the dotted line, the choice was an easy one for her to make.

'I knew that in my heart I wanted to go to ASU,' she says.

The reason?

'I knew I'd have the support of my family for almost every game. ... It's really important for my family to be here.'

So what's it like to be a starter on a top 20 team?

'I love it,' Baca says. 'It's a lot of fun, like a dream come true.'
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