The 2023 season for the Sun Devil softball team was disappointing. The team missed the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in team history and had their only second-ever season with an under .500 record.
But the team is different this year, and players and coaches all think they will have a "return to form" year.
"This team is very special," graduate student Jordyn VanHook said. "With all the different transfers and the freshmen, we're coming along very quickly. We're all very close with our short time together."
Despite adding five freshmen and six transfers, the team has already built a family-like atmosphere.
"These kids love each other," head coach Megan Bartlett said. "There is an easiness between them, which is how it would be. They should be playing next to their bridesmaids."
The community between the players was a big factor in landing six transfers, including graduate student Kelsey Hall, the 60th-ranked player in D1 softball’s preseason top 100 rankings.
"I got to hang out with the players after dinner," Hall said. "We just sat there, talked and meshed with them. I met Marissa (Schuld), Jordyn and Kylee (Magee), and it seemed like we all had very similar values (and) everyone’s been very welcoming.”
Even with the addition of nine new players, the team is learning to play without some of the strong teammates they had the year before. Significant losses include most of last year's outfield, half of the starting infield, and All-American Yannira Acuña.
Yannira Acuña's leaves an important spot in the lineup the team needs to fill, as VanHook was the only player besides Acuña with an OPS over 1.000 and more than 25 runs scored.
Thankfully for the Sun Devils, Hall, a Boise State transfer, has shown that she can help fill that void. During the 2023 season, Hall slashed .385/.504/.854 with 37 hits, 39 runs, and 11 home runs.
Even though Yannira Acuña finished her eligibility years, she stayed with the team as a graduate assistant.
"Yanni is certainly a part of the lifeblood of the program," Bartlett said. "Yannira had such an interesting career because she went from not playing at all to (being) an All-American, so she can speak to both sides of the coin."
Acuña's career has led her to help younger "developmental players." She helps by reinforcing what the coaches teach and assisting the veterans. Her fiery personality and her way of leading by example has helped remind players of the legacy the team is trying to build and correct.
While the team is relieved to have Acuña on the staff still, many returners will make a big difference this year. Senior Kayla Lissy and sophomore Yannixa Acuña have made changes from last season to help improve their game.
Lissy, the primary shortstop, will impact the team in two major ways: speed and defensive skill at third base.
"She is going to be an ESPN highlight reel over at third," Bartlett said. "She's super twitchy. A natural forward mover."
The team believes having a great defender at the corner will help anchor the infield defensively.
Yannixa Acuña has made some big improvements over the off-season thanks to her hard work over the summer. Bartlett said Yannixa Acuña has put on noticeable muscle along with picking up new skills.
"Yannixa not only hit her tail off, swinging, working on that skill all summer," Bartlett said. "She works and trains, and she’s going to continue working on that swing. She’s got great hand-eye and is turned into a tidy little defender."
Yannixa Acuña’s swing is another massive change in her game. Throughout her high school career and last season, Yannixa Acuña was a "slap hitter," but not this year. She showed flashes of power during high school with five home runs, but her new swing has already shown a major improvement.
Last year, Yannixa Acuña had only nine plate appearances with five singles. This past fall, she had nine plate appearances, tallying five hits with two singles, a double, a triple and a home run.
"Some people look at me and think, 'Oh, she’s little' and they would come in on me," Yannixa Acuña said. "That’s when I can hit the ball hard or towards the gap and prove them wrong."
Even though ASU added new players and had many returners make big improvements, the team will start the season beaten up due to injuries. The injured players include sophomore Tanya Windle, junior Kenzie Brown, and VanHook.
Windle's injury will not keep her from playing. She will start the year as a designated hitter, as her aggressive defensive play may aggravate her injury.
VanHook will miss the start of the season with a sprained ankle, so players such as sophomore Ayden Allen and graduate student Makenzie Macfarlane will need to step up. Brown will not suit up this season, as she announced on Feb. 3 that she will be redshirting this year.
The Sun Devils' first game this season is on Feb. 8 against Wisconsin, and they have many big games before the Pac-12 season starts.
This stretch includes a game against No. 25 Northwestern, future Big 12 opponent BYU, Boise State and Ohio State.
These big games will be beneficial for the team to prepare for the last season of Pac-12 play.
"We’re hungry," Yannixa Acuña said. "We’re here to prove to them that we're back and better as a team overall. We're here to put up a fight and have redemption from last year."
Edited by Alfred Smith III, Walker Smith, Alysa Horton and Shane Brennan