The Arizona State softball team lost just three major pieces from its 2013 squad as it looks to return to the Women's College World Series for the seventh time in the past eight years.
Sam Parlich and Kayla Ketchum graduated while Lucy Aubrecht decided to focus on academics and is no longer on the team. Parlich played the biggest role of the three batting .348 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI.
Last year's team finished with a record of (50-12,16-8) which was good for a second place finish in the Pac-12 behind Oregon and enough to help the Sun Devils host a super regional. The Sun Devils advanced past San Jose State, Georgia and Kentucky to move on to the WCWS before losing two straight games to Michigan in the first round of the tournament.
"The way we finished last year, we never want to feel that way again so we’re just really motivated," junior catcher Amber Freeman said.
The returning players for the Sun Devils include superstar senior pitcher Dallas Escobedo who led Arizona State to the 2011 WCWS championship as a freshman. Escobedo earned second team All-American honors and went 30-6 with a 2.32 ERA striking out 325 batters in 250.2 innings pitched last season.
"With my senior year it’s just going to be the last of everything," Escobedo said. "We all said this is the year we could do so many big things."
Power hitting shortstop Cheyenne Coyle is coming back as well. Coyle transferred in from Florida before last season and made an immediate impact. She played in every game for the Sun Devils hitting a team-leading 20 home runs while hitting .358 with 66 RBI. She also led Arizona State with 49 walks.
"Obviously our goal is to get to Oklahoma city and come home with a national championship," new head coach Craig Nicholson said. "The focus is really the process and putting ourselves in position so at the end of the year, you’re as prepared as you can possibly be to go do what you want to do."
Escobedo's battery mate Amber Freeman will resume her ASU career and head into her junior campaign this season. Freeman was named Pac-12 softball player of the year and first team All-American, an impressive list of accolades in just her sophomore season. The Lakewood, Calif. native hit .361 last season with 18 home runs and 61 RBI.
"I just want to be the best teammate I can be," Freeman said. "I would trade all the accolades for a national championship so this year I’m all about being selfless and just being a leader."
The speedy tandem of seniors Bailey Wigness and Alix Johnson will once again roam the outfield alongside Elizabeth Caporuscio. Wigness and Johnson bring a lot of speed to the base paths stealing a total of 30 combined bases only to be caught stealing three times. Nicholson said that aggressiveness on the base paths was something he was looking to emphasize this season.
"We want to be aggressive on the bases and put pressure on people," Nicholson said. "If you make a mistake we're going to take advantage. We're going to hit and run a little bit, we're going to get people in motion and make things happen and take extra bases."
Escobedo will share time in the circle with senior Mackenzie Popescue who posted a 1.94 ERA with a record of 19-6 last season.
"I just really want to go out there and throw the way I know how," Popescue said. "I just want to focus on that pitch, that inning and that game."
The maroon and gold is ranked No. 7 in the country in both the preseason USA Today Coaches poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll.
"We saw that we were seventh and we don't believe we're the seventh ranked team so we're just going to use that to fuel the fire," Freeman said.
The Sun Devils start their season on Thurs. Feb 6 and will play six games in their first four days of competition at home against Creighton, New Mexico, Fresno, Penn State, North Carolina State and UC Riverside in the Kajikawa Classic. The nonconference schedule doesn't get any easier for the Sun Devils with the defending national champion and the No. 2 team in the country Oklahoma traveling to Tempe on Feb. 14.
"Look these guys are excited to be playing somebody with a different color uniform on than what we wear at practice everyday," Nicholson said.
Arizona State faces another tough stretch of games at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, Calif. where they will face off against No. 4 Michigan, No. 10 Texas and No. 9 Nebraska over a two-day span in early March.
The Sun Devils will have their work cut out for them in conference play too. The Pac-12 is historically known as the best softball conference in the country. Since the creation of the WCWS in 1982, Pac-12 teams have won the national championship 25 times.
Arizona State starts off its season Thursday night at Farrington Stadium with a double-header against Creighton and New Mexico. The Creighton game will begin at 5 p.m. MT with the New Mexico game to follow immediately after with an estimated start time of 7p.m. MT