The ASU softball team hosts the Kajikawa Classic on Feb. 6 to start off the year, and with less than two weeks until opening day, the players are becoming more eager to begin the first season under coach Craig Nicholson.
Nicholson stressed focusing on the day at hand, and that mentality matters even more while opening day approaches and athletes’ excitement reaches an all-time peak.
“You work and work and work, and when the time to go finally gets here, obviously you’re excited about opening day,” Nicholson said. “But we can’t lose sight of what we’re trying to do now.”
NCAA rankings placed ASU at No. 7, down from last year’s No. 4 ranking, but Nicholson says that it is “an insignificant issue.” No teams playing in the Kajikawa are ranked in the top 25, making ASU the team to beat in Kajikawa in the coming weeks.
“When people come in here people feel like it’s their chance to make a statement early in the year,” Nicholson said.
The team is filled with All-Americans, including Pac-12 Player of the Year junior Amber Freeman catching behind the plate. However, Nicholson said there is still room to improve, especially in the run game.
This focus is one of coach Nicholson’s adjustments to point the team in a more offensively minded direction — stealing bases in scrimmages, practicing hit-and-run situations and working to gain an extra advantage on the base paths.
“We’re going to be a team that’s aggressive on the bases,” Nicholson said. “If we see something we think we can exploit, we’re going to take advantage of it.”
Senior outfielder Alix Johnson led the team in steals (16) last season, in front of seniors outfielder Bailey Wigness (14), and shortstop Cheyenne Coyle (4).
“Coach (Nicholson) is very adamant about stealing and taking the extra base,” Johnson said.
Nicholson is also putting greater faith in his star hitters when in bunt, or hit-and-run situations, advising to “wait for that cookie, that nice pitch, and let them swing away.”
The team has also benefitted from additional work with sports psychologist and peak performance coach Brian Cain.
Cain has been helping the team in the month of January, conducting team meetings and working with players. His large role was one of the biggest changes implemented by Nicholson.
“When he came in it really changed a lot of our perspectives of the game,” Johnson said. “He kind of opened our eyes to other aspects of the game to make us a better player.”
Even Freeman is thriving with the help of Cain, working on breathing and different smaller aspects of the game.
“He’s teaching us how to enjoy the process and not really look at the result, because it will take care of itself,” Freeman said.
The team is well aware of its talent and the promising season to come but is working to not look too far down the road. Freeman said the team believes it’s “higher than a seventh-ranked team” but insisted no game matters except the one at hand.
One thing is certain: The girls are ready to go. The month of January has been heavy with drill and situational work, wrapping up with scrimmages and live pitching as the season approaches. It’s understandable that they are ready for the real thing.
“I’m tired of practicing. I’m tired of hitting off our pitchers,” Freeman said. “I want something new. I want to kick somebody else’s butt.”
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