TEMPE – Although last season was a relative success for ASU softball, coach Trisha Ford has to remind herself to stay patient with her team.
In what some dubbed as the first year of a transitional period for the program, the Sun Devils continued their winning ways in 2019, going 35-20 to earn a spot in the Tuscaloosa Regional before losing two close games to an Alabama team that went on to finish third in the Women’s College World Series.
This strong showing helped build momentum for the program heading into 2020. Still, Ford hopes that the need to exercise patience will go away as the Sun Devils continue to improve in the ways that she expects them to.
“Patience is not my strength … but I don’t want it to be,” Ford said last week. “I want them to demand greatness out of themselves. I don’t want us to be good, I want us to be great, and I’m not saying that as softball players. I’m saying that as people. If you want to be good and average, then we’re not a good fit, but if you want to be great, then this is the program for you.
Expectations are high for ASU this year, as it ranked in the top 25 in four different preseason polls released in late January, including a high of No. 20 on FloSoftball’s rankings. According to Ford, however, the national attention isn’t important in the grand scheme of things.
“It’s nice, 100 percent it’s nice, but it doesn’t mean anything,” Ford said. ‘I want to know who is going to win the dogfight, because that’s what the season is going to be. It’s not going to be who comes out of the gate right away.
“We’re going to play Pac-12, and that’s going to be grueling, but who is going to win the dogfight? That’s the type of DNA that I want in this program, that we grow, build and learn, but at the end, who is throwing the last punch? I’m very confident that we have those ingredients to be able to put in a good punch at the end of the season.”
The Sun Devils’ quest to be the last standing at the end began last weekend at the Kajikawa Classic, where they won four games and lost two in an impressive showing. The team had a new look compared to last year, as almost half of the players on the roster – eight freshman and three transfers – began their ASU careers at the event.
Because of the high number of newcomers, Ford knows what lessons she must teach her young squad in order for them to get where she wants them to be.
“Part of being great is … the stuff that’s hard and that other people won’t do day in and day out,” Ford said. “Patience, I’m probably not very strong at that, but I’m very happy and pleased with our progress. I think they’ve done just a tremendous job of really getting this thing right and being able to unify and move forward.
“It’s really about being where our feet are planted. I think they know that [taking the next step in the postseason] will happen if they follow the process and the program. They believe in what we do here and we have proven that what we do here gets those results.”
This young roster is not without experience, however, as a lot of the team’s biggest contributors were around for the 2019 postseason run, with a few also playing on the 2018 team that earned a Women’s College World Series berth. One of the members who played a big role last season is senior pitcher Samantha Mejia, who sees the end of last year as a good building block for the 2020 campaign.
“I think for a lot of us, we weren’t shocked or surprised at how far we went,” Mejia said about last season. “I think because there was so much adversity that happened last year with our team, we kind of didn’t see how much talent we still had. Ending our season the way we did against Alabama, seeing that and then coming back, it was like we could have done so much more. The way we’ve been building this year, it’s so exciting to see what we can do this year.”
Senior outfielder Kindra Hackbarth was around for each of the team’s last two playoff appearances, giving her an idea of what championship-caliber teams look like.
“We were just scrappy and we bought in,” Hackbarth said when asked what made the 2018 team so successful. “I think it’s just about buying in. It doesn’t matter what your talent is, it’s about your work ethic and how hard you push each other. You just have to really buy in and believe in what coach Ford wants, and believe in each other and have each other’s backs.”
Besides all of the new faces, the one thing Ford cites as the main difference between the 2019 and 2020 teams is the close bond that exists between all of the players.
“There are a lot of things that I love about this team, but I think that the thing that I love most about them is their chemistry,” Ford said. “When players come into my office and say ‘I’ve never been a part of something that feels like this ever in my life,’ that means we’ve got it. We’ve got it right and we’re moving in a good direction. To have players genuinely happy for each other when they’re working hard and making diving plays and all that stuff, and that energy is good, is really like, we got it.”
The players agree with this sentiment, as many of them have expressed their affinity for the tight-knit atmosphere that exists around the team this season.
“I just love how we’ve gotten really close and bonded together,” senior infielder Bella Loomis said. “We have a lot of different players that bring a lot of different things to the table, so I’m just really excited to see what everyone can do.”
Added sophomore outfielder Yannira Acuña: “What I like most about this team is that we’re like a family. We have so much energy and our team chemistry is so good right now.”
This chemistry is a big reason why Ford believes the Sun Devils are set up for success not just in 2020, but in the long run as well.
“We are about ready to bust this thing open,” Ford said. “Within the next couple of years, this program is going to be crazy good, and I’m so excited for that. I’m excited to see what this season does and then continue that forward.”