It was a Ford that took the Arizona State softball team to the 2018 Women’s College World Series.
And next year could bring a Cadillac kind of season for the resurgent Sun Devils.
Trisha Ford, in just her second season as the ASU head coach, guided the Sun Devils to a 48-13 finish, the program’s best season record since 2013, and through regional and super regional wins on the way to Oklahoma City. It was the first time in five years that the Devils made it to the WCWS.
All the more impressive, Ford did it with a young squad that had been predicted in the preseason to finish no better than sixth in the Pac-12.
ASU fans will be looking for a return trip to Oklahoma City next season, now that they feel they have a coach who can get them there on a more regular basis. That’s the expected goal for any coach taking over this tradition-rich program that has been to the WCWS 11 times and brought home four national titles.
And those fans are expecting big things from a team that is loaded with talented young players who will only get better. Many of the key players that helped propel the Devils to a No. 7 national ranking at season’s end will be back — for several years to come.
The Sun Devils were unable to get past the top-ranked team in the country, Oregon, in the first game at the WCWS, and then fell to the two-time defending national champion, Oklahoma, in the elimination game. But the experience of competing against two of the top teams in the country, on the sports’ biggest stage, will serve them well if they make it back to Oklahoma City next year.
Ford will lose the services of six graduated seniors, but what she has to fill in the holes and take up the slack is impressive.
The biggest hole will be in the circle, where the Devils lose Breanna Macha to graduation. Together with Giselle Juarez, Macha provided this year’s team with a pitching tandem that was one of the better duos in the country. But Juarez, a local recruit from Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale who finished the season with a 1.22 ERA and 26-6 record, carried the majority of the load — and she’ll be back for two more years.
Juarez will be joined in the circle by another junior, Alyssa Loza, who worked just 48 innings in her first two seasons with the Devils but was effective in the limited time she saw in the 2018 campaign. She appeared in just six games, but finished with a 2-0 record and a .58 ERA.
That leaves plenty of opportunity for the newcomers to contribute. Ford added two more local players to the pitching staff for next year, Abby Andersen from nearby Hamilton High School and Mikayla Santa Cruz from Tucson’s Canyon del Oro High School.
Ford also just added a little pitching insurance in the form of a transfer from Long Beach State. Cielo Meza just wrapped up her third season at the California school, finishing with a 22-5 record, 219 strikeouts, and a 1.46 ERA. She took a redshirt season her freshman year after a shoulder injury sidelined her, so she will be able to play immediately at ASU and will have two more years of eligibility remaining.
There are plenty of veterans and transfers to provide the foundation for next year, but the development of some talented young players in key roles will make the difference in the coming seasons:
Danielle Gibson is coming off a freshman year in which she finished as the team leader in home runs (12), second in slugging percentage (.633), and third highest batting average (.343). Another freshman with a big impact offensively was DeNae Chatman, who contributed 11 extra-base hits, smacked 26 RBIs, and posted a .292 batting average over 43 games.
And perhaps the one position considered almost as important as the pitcher is the teammate behind the plate catching her. Again, it was a sophomore last season that filled that role and will move into next season as the perfect complement once again to Juarez. Maddi Hackbarth started 55 games last season and was a power at the plate as well, putting up six home runs. The two are close friends who work well together and are expected to be one of the most successful batteries in the conference next year.
And there’s also Jade Gortarez, a 5’6″ infielder who was one of three sophomores who started all 61 games. A transfer who played her freshman year at Texas, Gortarez was a big contributor on both offense and defense. She finished with a .287 batting average, .482 slugging percentage, and hit eight home runs. Add to those offensive stats an impressive .938 fielding percentage. Last month she was named to the 2018 Women’s National Team that will play for the World Cup at the end of August.
ASU Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson, who hired Ford almost exactly two years ago, apparently likes what he sees so far: “You can never honestly say, ‘Oh, yeah, we expected the turnaround to happen in two years. I couldn’t have expected this quick a turnaround.
But we’re sure going to take it.”
(Photo: ASU Athletics)