No. 13 ASU softball continues to take advantage of a restructured Pac-12 schedule this season by using it as an opportunity to improve player development and prepare for postseason play.
Pac-12 softball utilized a three-game series for conference play in past years. All three games counted toward conference standings and would typically take place over the course of a weekend.
This season, each conference series consists of four games, with a doubleheader on the second day of the series. Although the Pac-12 added an extra game to each series, only three of the four games count toward a team's conference record.
ASU head coach Trisha Ford said when the conference made this decision, "there were teams that were anticipating the inability to play a lot of preseason games."
"We all kind of bought into, 'Let’s play a doubleheader to make sure that we are in a good position at the end of the year, with our RPI (rating percentage index) and amount of games, that the Pac-12 is represented in the postseason,'" Ford said.
The Sun Devils played 21 non-conference games prior to Pac-12 play. Sophomore outfielder Jazmine Hill believes the way ASU's non-conference games were scheduled, which at times included consecutive days of doubleheaders, prepared the team for the new conference schedule.
"I think the coaches prepared us for this," Hill said. "For preseason we had weekends where we were playing up to six games in four days, so this isn’t anything new for us."
On the other hand, freshman pitcher Allison Royalty saw a notable difference in the consistent quality of teams between non-conference and conference play.
"I honestly think (Pac-12 play) might be a little more challenging just because of the level of teams. The Pac-12 is very competitive," Royalty said. "Playing that many games and having to be focused every day, it’s a lot. It’s really intense, but I do think that the preseason did help our team."
Another challenge the team needed to overcome was its limited pitching staff. This season, the Sun Devils have used just three pitchers: fifth-year senior Cielo Meza, sophomore Lindsay Lopez and Royalty.
ASU uses fewer pitchers compared to the rest of the Pac-12. Washington, Oregon and UA have each used five pitchers this season, while Stanford has used seven.
The pitching staff has performed well as of late despite utilizing so few players. After ASU lost its first Pac-12 series to UCLA, the team has picked up three consecutive series wins.
One of those series wins came against Washington, which sports the 16th highest-scoring offense in the nation. ASU's pitching staff also possesses a strikeout-to-walk ratio in the nation's top 30.
With only three pitchers available, one pitcher must start two games each Pac-12 series. Royalty said the staff takes the necessary precautions to recover during the week, but she feels the increased workload is taking a toll on her.
"I think any athlete at this point in the season is going to feel a little fatigued, but we have a great staff that helps us manage that," Royalty said. "As long as we’re on top of it with our recovery and our pregame work, we’re good."
Ford said although having just three pitchers is tough, she sees it as an opportunity for her young pitchers to grow.
"I keep telling (Royalty and Lopez), 'This is a great opportunity. A lot of kids your age aren’t getting as many innings as you are, and you’re going to be able to learn from this,'" Ford said. "Is it tough? Yes, but it’s going to make them better."
Much like how she views her pitching staff, Ford sees the extra conference games as an opportunity to better prepare her team for postseason play.
"If we can get through this, we’re going to be really prepared for (the) postseason," Ford said. "At the end of the day, our kids are learning how to play and compete against very good competition."
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