ASU softball media day: Home run derby shows offensive prowess

ASU softball hosted a media day and homerun derby Saturday afternoon, giving the athletes some fun competition and fans a chance to see
what this year will behold.

The girls got a chance to show off their offensive power during the home run derby, cracking ball after ball over the outfield fence. Senior outfielder Alix Johnson and reigning Pac-12 player of the year junior Amber Freeman both put on impressive displays, with Johnson prevailing.

The home run derby acted as a reminder as to how much power the Sun Devils return this season. This year, there are four returners who had more than 10 dingers last season: Johnson (11), Freeman (18), junior third baseman Haley Steele (12) and senior shortstop Cheyenne Coyle (20).

 
download-022114
 

This year’s roster hosts at least seven starters who have the ability to go up and smack one out of the park. And it’s not just the seniors. Freshman catcher Margaret Stahm had her time in the derby and hammered out several. Backup catcher sophomore Katee Aguirre had several of her own, and while she only has one home run on record from last year, she got it in only 11 at bats.

It’s not just power, but consistency that makes the girls so lethal. Six returning starters had batting averages over .300 last season, with senior outfielder Bailey Wigness leading the charge at .376.

Wigness is also one of the fastest on the field, stealing 14 bases last year, a part of the game coach Craig Nicholson is emphasizing strongly this year.

“We want to be aggressive on the bases on put pressure on people,” Nicholson said. “We were scrimmaging the other night, and nobody’s telling people to run, but they’re stealing and being aggressive and doing those things.”

It was the offense that was showcased Saturday, but ASU’s pitching is equally strong. Seniors Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue are the dynamic duo that will lead the team in the circle. The two earned a combined 49 wins last season while suffering just 12 losses. These senior pitchers are backed up by sophomores Jenna Makis and Alexis Cooper who relieve the starters and come in during special circumstances in a game.

“We understand our roles on the team, and we know that we bring a lot to the table those times it gets a little shaky,” Makis said. “They’ve taught us so much while they’ve been here, we’re really fortunate to have them in front of us.”

Raw talent and athleticism can only get you so far, but what truly makes this team a threat is its mentality. Nicholson’s emphasis on mental toughness and subtle parts of the game has largely affected player’s attitudes, especially for newcomers like freshman catcher Sashel Palacios.

“There was no one watching in high school. I was just playing my game,” Palacios said. “Now you’ve got thousands of people, watching on television and in the stands, so they’ve taught me to relax.”

Brian Cain, a sports psychologist, was also introduced to work on the mental part of the game. Cain works on everything from breathing to mental toughness.

Whether it’s the mental preparation or the undeniable Sun Devil atmosphere is hard to say, but these girls are ready to play, not just as athletes, but as a team.

This isn’t just a list of talented names, but a team that is ready to do whatever it can to make the wins come rolling their way.

Freshmen to seniors, this is a family. High spirits and jokes during the derby, celebratory high-fives created, and not a single athlete alone or with a frown.

The roster is strong, but it’s the championship mentality and family-like loyalty that are the true dangers of Sun Devil softball.

With media day done and less than one week until the first game the excitement is palpable.

The team is set, the coach is ready, the expectations high. ASU softball opens its season Thursday, Feb. 6, against Creighton at Farrington Stadium.

Additional notes:

–While coach Nicholson’s approach is extremely offensively minded, the pitching staff is not forgotten and thankful for the added offensive boost.

“We’re obviously very comfortable with the offense we have behind us, and I think we’re all just excited to get out and play at this point,” Makis said.

“I think we’re a lot deeper than just the two starters,” Nicholson said regarding his backups to Dallas Escobedo and Mackenzie Popescue.

“It’s great that we’ve has people like Dallas and Mac. You can’t have better leaders than that. They’ve been to the big dance, and there’s nothing that can compare to having them there,” Cooper said.

–The team is adjusting to a more relaxed mentality. The only thing that matters is what is happening at the moment, and this different, calmer play style is having a positive effect. They are taught to “control the controllables” and not focus on what’s not in their power.

“It’s laxed and not so much pressure, but we’re able to tighten it up. If we need to focus up, it can be in a snap, and it’s like, ‘OK, here we go,’” Cooper said.

–Nicholson has had nothing but a warm welcome and the athletes look prepared under his guidance. Nicholson’s presence on the field and the changes he brings with him are welcome.

“The fact that he’s able to come out and get that extra 1 percent out of us to get better – that’s what we love to see,” Cooper said.

“He’s giving everyone an equal opportunity, and that’s what you need as a freshmen, some confidence and knowing that he’ll give you an opportunity to show him what you can do,” Palacios said.

Reach the reporter at nkwit@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @NolanKwit