A new semester means new sports begin and no team is more excited than softball as the Sun Devils prepare for their season opener on Feb. 6 against Creighton University and the University of New Mexico in the Kajikawa Classic.
Following the end of the 2013 season, the Sun Devils appointed new head coach Craig Nicholson, who has fit in seamlessly with the team and carried momentum from last season.
“I think these guys have been waiting since June, when the season ended last year, for opening day,” Nicholson said.
The Sun Devils are coming off a three-game sweep in the last days of the fall season, but as spring approaches, the real challenges begin to present themselves.
“The fall is a chance to put the uniform on, a chance to play someone who you may not know what they’re going to do,” Nicholson said. “But what we’re doing now is more important that the fall piece of the season.”
The team is back together on the field after taking a month off for winter break, and though there was no team practice, most athletes such as senior pitcher Dallas Escobedo made sure to stay sharp in the offseason.
“I’d come out to pitch and call up a catcher and see three of four girls hitting in the cage,” Escobedo said. “A lot of us put in our own work when we needed it to try and stay up and not be that sore.”
The team resumed regular team practices in January, mixing drill work, live pitching and scrimmage situations in preparation for game action. Drills are emphasized early in practice, and practice often ends with the girls facing live pitching about three times a week.
With opening day on everyone’s minds, it can be difficult for some players like senior outfielder Bailey Wigness to wait for opening day. Wigness is part of a group of seniors that won the World Series as freshmen and are eager to begin their last season.
“January is always a very long month, because we’re ready to go, and all we can really do is play each other,” Wigness said.
Nicholson has not changed the program much and the athletes consider the team largely the same. The team will be going into the season, not with a newly tuned game strategy, but as a very similar team under different guidance.
“The coaches we’ve had in the past and Coach Nicholson are very similar with their philosophies,” Wigness said. “I think he’s done a good job at not trying to change the older girls, but tweak some things to make us better.”
Who would want to change the team anyway? With 13 girls who can be offensively dangerous according to Nicholson, the one-two pitching duo of Escobedo and senior Mackenzie Popescue and a top-10 D1 ranking after the 2013 season make the Sun Devils a dangerous contender in the spring.
Nicholson does have one area of change he is emphasizing: base running.
“If you look at the numbers last year, there wasn’t a ton of stolen bases,” Nicholson said. “The running game was not a big part of the offense, and we want to make that a piece of what we do.”
Nicholson’s small changes and the teams unfailing work ethic have brought them here, just two weeks short of opening day with only one trial to conquer.
“I think we have a hungry team,” Nicholson said. “The biggest challenge for us on opening day will be containing the excitement.”
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