June 14, 2006 - On consecutive sweltering hot days during the summer of 2004, Adrienne Acton and Callista Balko sat underneath the stands at the University of Arizona's Hillenbrand Softball stadium, wide-eyed and uncertain of the task that lay in front of them as the newest members of the UA softball team.
On June 6, two short years since Acton graduated from Marana High School and Balko from Canyon Del Oro High, their dreams of one day winning a national title as Wildcats culminated in a 15-girl pile-up on a pitcher's mound in Oklahoma City. For the seventh time in school history, the Wildcats were the Women's College World Series Champs.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet, but it's starting to right now with everybody getting here," said a relieved Acton at the team's homecoming party on the floor of the McKale Center. "Gosh, I didn't know it was going to be this much work."
The night before, Arizona (54-11) capped its national softball title run with a 5-0 win over Northwestern University. The Wildcats went 5-1 during the World Series with both Acton and Balko playing significant roles in the team's success.
The final out - an Alicia Hollowell called-third strike on Northwestern's Jamie Dotson - wasn't an easy one for those on the field or for those, like Acton, anxiously waiting in the dugout.
"I think every pitch I was jumping and imagining us winning," said Acton. "I think I said 'come on Alicia just get her' on every pitch."
Hollowell's final pitch came to rest in the catcher's mitt of Balko, whose two RBI held up to be the game-winner.
"It was really nerve wracking," said Balko of being behind the plate during the final inning in which Northwestern loaded the bases with no outs. "It kind of made it better when we ended it with her looking, that's something Alicia's dreamed of all four years being here. I think it was kind of cool getting everyone's nerves going rather than just a blow out right away, one, two, three. It juiced things up a little bit."
A strong post-season vindicated an up-and-down year at the plate, said the UA catcher. Balko batted .286 in five World Series games with two doubles and three RBI.
None was more important or clutch than her RBI single to left field off of the University of Texas' Cat Osterman. The sophomore's single broke up Osterman's no-hitter in the bottom of the sixth inning and gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead. The Wildcats eventually held on for the 2-0 win.
Balko just rolls her eyes when she thinks of how badly Osterman had dominated her throughout her career - including nine strikeouts.
Acton hit .270 over the course of the World Series scoring four of the Wildcats' 24 runs.
Both Acton and Balko were among six players who started all 65 games for the Wildcats this season.
Arizona head coach Mike Candrea inserted Balko into the cleanup spot in his lineup and the dividends paid off. Balko walloped 13 homeruns and 44 RBI, good for second most on the team in both categories. Strikeouts were a problem for the catcher, whose 65 whiffs were 13 more than Laine Roth's for the team lead.
"She was just awesome," said Hollowell of her battery mate. "Just the growth she made from last year, the catching she did from last year to this year was amazing. She was a whole new player when she came in this year and it was just so much fun to see her get better as the year went on and see how much she has grown as a player."
Acton, a speedy slap-hitter, fits perfectly into the style of play that Candrea likes to employ. The right fielder hit .295 on the year and was a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts. Acton will have to wait a year before slipping into the leadoff role for Candrea. That spot belongs to junior center fielder Caitlin Lowe.
Next season, both figure to play an even more prominent role for the Wildcats as the fantasy for Acton and Balko continues.
"We dream about, we sleep about it," said Acton of the love of her sport and team. "I think maybe 20 hours a day goes into softball and it's well worth it."