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ASU softball enters the 2018 season ranked No. 23 in the nation

The team will play Tennessee for its first game is in just over a week

Chelsea Gonzales

ASU then-senior short stop Chelsea Gonzales (11) gets ready to make a run towards third base during at match against UT Arlington at Alberta B. Farrington Stadium in Tempe, Arizona, on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017. The Sun Devils won the game 8-0.

With 10 new faces and a core group of returning players, ASU softball is looking to build off of last year's 31-22 season under head coach Trisha Ford.

Now in her second year with the program, Ford has the Sun Devils ranked No. 23 in the nation in this year’s National Fastpitch Coaches Association preseason coaches poll.

Last year, the Sun Devils finished sixth in a stacked Pac-12 conference, and their season came to a close when they were knocked in the Oxford, Miss Regional of the NCAA tournament. 

“For us this year, it’s to build upon last year, and just continue to lay the foundation that we started last year, and play our ball,” Ford said. “I think we have gotten some athletic new kids in the program this year, so I am excited to see how we mesh.”

The biggest question mark entering the season is how the Sun Devils will fill the voids left by two of their best players from last season, Chelsea Gonzales and Sashel Palacios. 

Last year, Gonzales and Palacios accounted for 23 home runs and 89 RBIs while both hit over .300. However, one of the most integral aspects of the their game was how effectively they played defense. 

Gonzales had a .937 fielding percentage at shortstop while Palacios was a mainstay behind the plate working with the entire pitching staff. Although both players have graduated, they are still with the program as graduate assistants. 

To fill the two open slots on the field, this offseason, Ford, the former head coach at Fresno State, brought in three transfers from the Bulldog program, including sophomore catcher Maddi Hackbarth.

As for the shortstop position, Ford brought in another transfer from the University of Texas, sophomore infielder Jade Gortarez. Both transfers earned playing time with their respective programs as freshmen last season, and both players look to be the front-runners to replace last year’s senior class, at least for now.

“Jade will most likely play shortstop for us, and then for the catching position, it will most likely be Maddi right now, so both of those (players) are transfer kids that came in,” Ford said. “I never like to talk about replacing team players because you can never replace a player. We have to figure out what our mold is this year.”

As for the freshman class, Ford is looking forward to what a star-studded recruiting class will bring to the table. The class includes infielders Denae Chatman, Danielle Gibson and Bella Loomis.

ASU’s freshman class is full of unique talent who all boast versatile skill sets. Ford noted that Chatman played well in the fall and is likely to see some at-bats and said Loomis can play anywhere on the field.

While Sun Devil fans might be intrigued by all of the new names on the roster, it is hard to overlook what key players the team has brought back.

Although Gonzales and Palacios are no longer on the team, there is certainly plenty of firepower left from last year, including junior third baseman Taylor Becerra and junior outfielders Skylar McCarty and Fa Leilua

Becerra and McCarty were table-setting slap-hitters at the top of the lineup, while Leilua brought the power, delivering 13 home runs, tying for the team lead in long balls.

“We are going to shock the world I feel like,” Becerra said. “We have a lot of new talent and a lot of new players, so it’s going to be interesting to see how teams handle not knowing what our players are going to do.”

Aside from the position players, one of the areas where the Sun Devils will look to dominate is in the circle. ASU is returning a pitching staff that tallied a 2.32 team ERA, which was the third best average in a lethal Pac-12 Conference.

Toward the end of conference play last season, Ford implemented a three-game pitching staff that featured a different starter every day, similar to a weekend rotation in baseball. 

While many programs might rely on the strength of just one or two power arms in the circle, Ford will have the luxury of calling upon any one of her four returning pitchers.

The staff includes seniors with Dale Ryndak and Breanna Macha, as well as the sophomore tandem of Giselle “G” Juarez and Alyssa Loza. Together, the pitching staff could pose problems for a lot of opponents.

“It’s really good to know what each one of our strengths are and what are weaknesses are,” Macha said of the pitching staff. “I think we just complement each other really well and we all do work together, so it’s pretty awesome.”

With a lot of new faces, a core group of returning starters and a lights-out pitching staff that is looking to repeat its success from last season, ASU is in for an enticing season in an ultra-competitive Pac-12. 

But first, the Sun Devils will focus on a rigorous non-conference slate, beginning with hosting the  University of Tennessee on Feb. 8. The first pitch of opening day is set for 7:30 p.m. from Farrington Stadium.

“I think opening up your first day in front of the crowd and your first game playing against a really strong SEC program, it’s the matchup,” Ford said. “It’s the Pac and the SEC, and for us, it’s exciting.”

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