By Tom Blodgett
The emotion of the moment was clear in the glistening eyes of Arizona State senior pitcher Breanna Macha. Tears didn’t roll, but they appeared to be at hand.
“Marisa (Stankiewicz) and I, I took her to second base (at ASU’s Farrington Stadium), and we were just like reflecting,” Macha said while sitting next to the senior second baseman. “I was like, this is the last time we will play on this field. We both grew up watching this program and to finally live our dream out, and we’re going to be living our dream out in a week in OKC, and … I don’t know. I can’t. …”
Clearly, the moment was getting the best of her, but Macha also made the most of that moment, as she pitched Arizona State to a 5-2 victory Saturday and a Super Regional series sweep of South Carolina.
The four-year seniors at ASU – Macha, pitcher Dale Ryndak, outfielders Nichole Chilson and Brynley Steele, and second baseman Stankiewicz, who actually is a fifth-year senior – have been through a lot in their college softball experience. Most of it wasn’t what they expected.
Stankiewicz arrived in the wake of Clint Myers, who coached ASU to two national championships, leaving under less than hospitable circumstances for Auburn. His head-scratching replacement, Craig Nicholson from Ball State, lasted two seasons, a time when the other seniors arrived, before he abruptly resigned, reportedly for health reasons.
ASU opted not to hire a replacement immediately as Nicholson’s resignation came in October, when the field of available candidates was dry. So 2016 was spent with the unusual arrangement of interim co-coaches Robert Wagner and Letty Olivarez.
Finally, the Sun Devils made what now appears to be the keeper hire: Trisha Ford from Fresno State. But there was much to do in healing a program that had been through so much turmoil. And much of it had to do with the senior class of 2018, particularly Macha and Stankiewicz.
“She (Macha) has been through a lot,” Ford said, who more than once has remarked about Macha’s grace in difficult situations. “When I took over this program, our first conversation was, ‘Bre, I promise you, I’m going to love you, and we’re going to do this together. We’re going to get to the World Series.’ And it was a very emotional first meeting.
“But she has kept her word that she has worked her tail off every single day. and she got us here. Her, our team, Giselle (Juarez), the staff. They willed themselves to this point.”
While Macha, who starred down the road at Mesa’s Red Mountain High School, was always a central performer for ASU, Stankiewicz made a more precipitous climb as a local recruit from Gilbert High.
The daughter of former major leaguer (and now Grand Canyon University baseball coach) Andy Stankiewicz, Marisa Stankiewicz was forced to redshirt in 2014, and while she played in 65 games the next two seasons, most of those appearances came as a pinch runner. What opportunities she got were short lived until Ford gave her new life.
“Stank to me is the unsung hero,” Ford said. “That kid is the reason why I coach, kids like her –somebody who didn’t have opportunity, didn’t play, came in and I would say I was a little broken emotionally. Last year, she earned that spot, and I think we went through a lot as a staff and her of reminding her that she deserved to be out there.”
Stankiewicz has started 111 games since Ford’s arrival and has stopped looking in the dugout to see if she would be pulled after an error. And while her batting average is pedestrian, she has a knack for making the big hit and turns some sensational plays at second base. She was national Player of the Week for the week of April 2, when she hit three home runs and had a 2.000 slugging average.
“Getting recruited to come here to Arizona State, you know their tradition of going to the Women’s College World Series, and not being able to go the first four years for me, three years for you (Macha), was tough because we knew we had such great talent,” Stankiewicz said.
“But this means everything. This is something new for this entire team that’s here right now because we haven’t been there yet. It’s exciting, and I’m at a loss for words. It means a lot. It really means a lot – to finally do it our senior year.”
Neither was at their absolute best Saturday, but both came through. Stankiewicz was 0 for 4 but made a sensational snag of a line drive to steal an out. And Macha hit four batters but scattered the six hits South Carolina had and walked no one, so she kept the Gamecocks to one earned run while striking out six.
Ford said the 180 degree turnaround from Stankiewicz and Macha’s strong senior season exemplify what ASU has tried to do in its program.
“What I mean by that is loving our kids, giving them opportunities, but also (being) hard on them, and I think they’ll all tell you that as much as I love them, I have a standard and I will get into their kitchen when they don’t perform to that standard,” she said. “And I think they, they like it and players like (Stankiewicz) and Macha really excel in those types of environments.”
Indeed, in 2018, they have – all the way to Oklahoma City.