It looks like Arizona State softball may have become one of the early casualties from the new NCAA transfer rule.
The Sun Devils were just eliminated from postseason play after losing two games to Alabama in the Tuscaloosa Regional. They opened regional play with a 4-3 victory over Lipscomb, fell to the No. 8-ranked Crimson Tide in the second game, 7-4, beat Lipscomb a second time, 10-0, then lost again to Alabama in the final, 9-8.
ASU (35-20) did its share of scoring throughout the four contests, putting 26 runs on the board and spreading 33 hits over the series. But the 28 hits they allowed, particularly the 19 that the Tide collected, spelled the difference.
And that’s where the new transfer rule took its toll.
Third-year head coach Trisha Ford, who has been tasked with bringing some stability to the Sun Devil program after becoming the fourth head coach in five seasons when she was hired in 2017, is working through a shake-up to her program. She lost a handful of players who left the program after the NCAA instituted a new rule last October that allows players to transfer without the usual requirement of sitting out a season following the transfer. The exception would be if the player transfers to another school within in the same conference.
That group that decided to take advantage of the new rule included a couple of key players from last year’s squad that won 48 games and finished the season as the No. 6 team in the nation: infielder Danielle Gibson and pitcher Giselle Juarez.
Gibson’s loss was a blow. The sophomore infielder, who left for Arkansas just days after the transfer rules went into effect, finished the 2018 season with a .343 batting average, which ranked third on the team. Her .633 slugging percentage ranked second and she led the team in extra-base hits, with 24.
But Coach Ford was able to replace much of that firepower at the plate. The team’s .320 batting average and 7.55 runs per game during the regular season ranked fifth nationally and tops the Pac-12 teams. And the 85 home runs were the sixth-most in a single season in program history.
But replacing Juarez’s contributions in the circle proved a lot more difficult.
A recruit from nearby Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Juarez also made her exit from the ASU program before October was over, leaving the Sun Devils without the one-two punch it needed this season to be able to go deep into the postseason and have any hopes of returning to the Women’s College World Series (WCWS).
Last year, Juarez teamed with another local. Breanna Macha from Red Mountain HS in Mesa who graduated ASU after the 2018 season, to lead a four-pitcher staff that recorded a team ERA of 1.56, the lowest of any ASU pitching staff since the 2008 season when the team average was 1.48 and the Devils won the national title. Juarez recorded a 1.22 ERA and her 305 strikeouts were the most of any Sun Devil since 2014. There were only eight other D-I pitchers nationwide to post 300 or more strikeouts.
Without Juarez and Macha in the circle, ASU was lacking an ace to carry the load this season. The best ERA among the four pitchers this season was 4.14, a less-than-stellar mark held by Abby Anderson, a freshman from Hamilton High School in Chandler. Junior Samantha Meija was just a few points behind Anderson at 4.20 ERA. The team ERA was 4.64.
While Juarez pitched the Sun Devils to the WCWS last season, she spent this season carrying Oklahoma into the postseason, needing just a couple of wins in the super regional to lead the Sooners into the World Series. The junior has been the workhorse for the Sooners throughout the regular season, leading the Sooners to a 52-3 record, and putting the team on her back through the postseason as well, earning a No. 1 seed going into the super regionals. She was in the circle for 257 pitches during the regionals.
Now, Ford needs to begin looking ahead to next year when she will need to add another Giselle Juarez to the pitching staff if she hopes to get back to Oklahoma City.
Maybe she can use the transfer rule to her advantage this time and pick up a proven performer from another program.
That seems only fair.