As the Florida Gators traveled to Tempe for the Littlewood Classic, the ASU softball team understood that a serious challenged awaited on Friday night at Farrington Stadium.
After a back-and-forth matchup early on, Florida used a fifth-inning offensive spurt to breakthrough. ASU also had no answer late for star senior pitcher Kelly Barnhill, who finished with 14 strikeouts, as it couldn’t continue to produce any offense, falling 7-2 to the Gators.
“Things just didn’t go our way,” ASU coach Trisha Ford said.
No. 14 ASU (5-2) only trailed 3-2 to start the fifth inning against No. 4 Florida (8-0), but after sophomore Hannah Adams hit a lead-off home run over the centerfield wall, the Gators took control and capitalized on Sun Devil mishaps. After an error, a walk and single, Florida had the bases loaded. Then, it scored its final runs on a walk and two hit-by-pitches.
To some surprise, freshman Abby Anderson received her first collegiate start against a powerful Florida lineup. Anderson started against senior outfielder Amanda Lorenz, who seemingly welcomed her to college softball with a lead-off home run.
ASU quickly responded, though, as junior outfielder Kindra Hackbarth followed Lorenz, hitting a first-inning lead-off home run, a moonshot over the left-field wall, off Barnhill.
“I went into the box with no pressure on, and I was just swinging. I really wasn’t thinking about anything,” Hackbarth said. “I just went in with nothing to lose, that kind of mentality and just went with it.”
Florida regained the lead in the second inning on an overthrow error from junior catcher Maddi Hackbarth. She had an out in a pickle with senior infielder Taylor Becerra, but the overthrow allowed a run to come in.
Kindra Hackbarth, who finished 2-for-3 at the plate, dropped a perfect bunt down on the first pitch in the third inning. Then, senior outfielder Morgan Howe, who also finished 2-for-3, re-tied the contest with an RBI-double.
Hackbarth and Howe accounted for every hit, RBI and run scored against Barnhill, but she had the final say as she came back to strikeout both and didn’t allow a rally.
Despite the task and a shaky start, Anderson didn’t back down, which reminded Howe of former Sun Devil pitcher Breanna Macha. After Lorenz hit another lead-off home run in the fourth inning to give Florida a 3-2 lead, Anderson was replaced with fellow freshman Mikayla Santa Cruz.
“(Anderson) is gritty,” Howe said. “She wants the ball. She wants to be in there, and she is going at each batter.”
Although Ford said ASU had too many pitching mistakes, she was pleased with how Anderson, Santa Cruz and redshirt junior Cielo Meza performed on the mound.
“It is just going to take some time,” Ford said. “These are some of the bumps we are going to hit, and that is alright because we are going to get better when it comes time to get through conference.”
Hackbarth added that she knows the pitching will continue improve, especially with Anderson and Santa Cruz gaining experience against a high-caliber opponent.
This season, Howe admits ASU doesn’t have the strikeout pitch it had last season. With that, she said the defense will have to continue to play well and improve, too.
“Me, Kindra and Skylar would joke about it all time, ‘Ah, we don’t have to just stand out here anymore. We actually have to do something,’” Howe said. “We definitely have to grind. We knew that, though, going into the season that balls are going to be up into play and it is up to the defense to make plays.”
However, Howe believes this performance, going back-and-forth with a top program, will reset every players’ mind, especially the newcomers, showing that ASU can compete with the best and is one of the best teams in the country.
Howe ended the postgame interview session with a confidence-fueled statement.
“I have no doubt that if we face (Florida) again, we will win,” Howe said. “I think, nine times out of 10, we beat Florida. That just happened to be that one time.”