By Tom Blodgett
When Arizona State entered the 2018 season, not much was thought of the Sun Devils.
Sure, they had some transfers coming in, and it looked like second-year coach Trish Ford was bringing the program along after it fell off its two national-championships pedestal under Clint Myers. But the Sun Devils looked like a second-division Pac-12 team, one that would bump along the bottom of the Top 25, claim a good win or two, make a regional, then go home and call it a nice season.
Ford and the Sun Devils were having none of that.
Now, it’s May, NCAA softball is well into its postseason and the Sun Devils are one win away from the Women’s College World Series after a 5-2 win Friday against South Carolina in Game 1 of the Tempe Super Regional at ASU’s Farrington Stadium.
And one of the main reasons is those new players – transfers and freshmen – didn’t just bolster ASU softball; they remade it.
And that’s perfect for Ford, who said after the season opener against Tennessee that she wasn’t looking to rebuild what the program had under Myers. She wanted her players to make this their own journey.
Whatever happens the rest of the weekend, but especially if ASU returns to Oklahoma City for the first time since 2013, that goal has been accomplished. They’re not the transfers anymore. They’re the Sun Devils.
The newbie ASU look includes junior center fielder Morgan Howe and sophomore twins Kindra(right fielder) and Maddi (catcher) Hackbarth, who followed Ford from Fresno State; sophomore shortstop Jade Gortarez from Texas; and freshmen first baseman Danielle Gibson and designated player DeNae Chatman.
While Chatman didn’t claim her role till late, the others have been season-long contributors. Throw in sophomore ace pitcher G Juarez, whose lingering health issues as a freshman didn’t let people see what see would become this season, and ASU is nothing like its 2017 self.
It’s a whole lot better.
Start with Howe. She followed Ford not just for the coach but the opportunity to play in those epic Pac-12 games and get into the postseason.
“You go into every game with butterflies, and it’s a weird feeling, but you never get that feeling again,” Howe said about living out that postseason dream. “It’s only something that you’re going to experience one time and only going to experience here. It’s awesome, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”
Howe has given ASU an electric presence in the No. 3 hole and anchoring the outfield. She tracks balls well out there, can hit with power and has the speed to make things happen ranging in the outfield or running the bases.
“Mo obviously played for me before I got here, so we knew what we were getting in Mo,” Ford said. “We knew how special she was. We knew what a competitor, what a pure hitter she is.
Then there’s Gortarez, a member of the U.S. national women’s baseball team who shows off a big range and bigger arm at shortstop.
“I hope you all see how special Jade is,” Ford said to the assembled media. “She makes big-time plays in big-time situations. I want her in the box in every pressure situation. That kid lives for that. She’s got confidence. She’s got swag, but she also puts in the work.”
Though she was at Texas, Gortarez said she wanted to come in because of how Ford runs her program.
“The reason I came here is Coach Ford does everything right,” she said. “Everything is so structured here, and we’re very disciplined, like even in our warmups. … It’s the discipline and the family atmosphere that brought me here.”
The Hackbarths have been starters all year, with Kindra working her way from the bottom of the order to the top and becoming the needed table-setter. Maddi has struggled at the plate but is too valuable behind it for it to matter much, though she has had some key hits along the way.
And then there’s Gibson, the top freshman. She came into the Super Regional as ASU’s leader in batting average, doubles, home runs and RBI.
“When you get Gibby, she’s just a freshman, you know, she doesn’t know any better. She’s just following this lead,” Ford said, thumbing toward Howe, Juarez and Gortarez. “The reason why Gibby has done so well is, A, because of her talent and work ethic, but also because these ones are bringing her out, hitting extra. These ones are telling her, ‘Hey, this is how you handle these situations. This is how you act. This is the standard.’ ”
Ford has molded this bunch from all over into an aggressive, fun-to-watch team that can win games any which way.
“Right now, they’re feeding off each other,” Ford said. “Like Mo (Howe) can’t wait to make a big play for G, and G can’t wait to make a big play for Mo. Jade’s the same, everybody. When they start to figure that piece out, that’s when something special starts to happen. “
Take Friday’s win against South Carolina. The Sun Devils used speed to jump on starter Dixie Raley in the first inning with a one-out single from Taylor Becerra and a double in the left-center gap by Howe, which scored the speedy Becerra from first with Howe advancing to third on the throw. Howe finished 3 for 3 with two RBI.
Gibson slashed a single to open the second, and Gortarez showed the power with a two-run homer to right after that.
Kindra Hackbarth flashed the leather with a diving catch in right field in the top of the fourth inning to take away a hit.
Small ball reigned in the bottom of the fourth. Maddi Hackbarth reached on an error on a well-executed sacrifice bunt in the bottom of the fourth inning, which put Gortarez at second after a leadoff single. Gortarez scored from second on Skylar McCarty’s beauty of a drag bunt that pushed past the charging infield into no-man’s land.
Finally, Juarez took a no-hitter into the seventh inning before giving up a leadoff single and next-pitch homer to give South Carolina a bit of life. But then Juarez just as quickly snuffed it out, striking out the next three.
Speed, power, defense, small ball, pitching. The final was 5-2, but ASU had won in every phase of the game.
“This team is special and they have the ability to beat teams in a multitude of ways,” Ford said. “They showed it again tonight.”
And for Ford, this is where the fun is.
“At the beginning of the year, we weren’t all right there, and now they’re playing for each other,” she said. “As a coach, that’s what you want. They’re setting the standard for what Sun Devil softball will be today, tomorrow and moving forward.”