Even the best of teams can be challenged and frustrated in a conference as elite as the Pac-12 is for softball.
For Arizona State, that portion of their regular season schedule occurred over the last month.
Nine straight games against top-five opponents and nine straight losses.
“Nobody wants to lose nine games in a row, especially to top-10 teams,” said senior center fielder Morgan Howe. “Those are the games you come here to play for and play in.”
ASU lost nine straight over the course of a three-week stretch from March 29-April 14. The losses occurred to No. 5 Arizona, No. 2 UCLA, and No. 4 Washington. The Sun Devils had to face All-American pitchers each week and it was no easy task.
With such a rough slate of games, it would seem easy to look down in the face of adversity. For the first time in head coach Trisha Ford’s tenure, her team was dealing with a prolonged losing streak.
“We have a standard here and the last couple weeks, we haven’t played to our standard,” said Ford last week before ASU went on the road to Stanford. “It’s not about the losses, it’s about us coming out and playing our ballgames.”
Over a demanding Division I college softball slate in one of the toughest conferences in the country, it would seem that frustration can come into play during a nine-game losing streak.
Leaders are often called upon in those situations, and that is where players like Howe and senior left fielder Skylar McCarty come into play.
They are players who have gone through the ups and downs of a full season. That was something both players touched upon last week. With a young team for the Sun Devils, they recalled some of their early struggles as college players.
For McCarty, she reflected on her freshman campaign when Ford wasn’t in Tempe and the Sun Devils fell upon a 12-game stretch without a win in Pac-12 play during the 2016 season.
“I have been in a nine-game losing streak, it was here (at ASU),” said McCarty recalling the experience. “It sucks to lose but you are going to take the experience from the 19 girls around you and take it with you...That’s what we tell them (the team). We have been there, we have done it. Ask questions and we have felt how you are feeling.”
That is one thing that both the veteran outfielders have tried to emphasize to younger players on the roster.
Although there is a learning curve that comes with a freshman season, the most important aspect for McCarty and Howe was trying to make younger players realize their full potential.
“We have two freshmen in the circle. The pitching staffs in the Pac-12 right now are sophomores, juniors, and seniors. There’s not many freshmen in the circle,” McCarty said. “We are behind them 100 percent and we tell them that daily. Coach Ford wouldn’t bring eight freshmen here if they weren’t good enough. That’s what we tell them every single day.”
Howe added to that point.
“This is their first year so everything that is thrown at them in any way is all new,” Howe said. “It’s just one of those things where you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. It’s one of those things and we tell them every single day we believe in them. That’s all you can do...We are all in the same boat.”
This week is senior week for McCarty, Howe, and third baseman Taylor Becerra. They will be in their final three regular season home games at Farrington Stadium this weekend.
After discussing some of the challenges during the nine-game skid, Howe and McCarty responded with big weekends last week against Stanford. ASU snapped the streak with a series sweep of the Cardinal to keep their chances of hosting a regional alive.
Last Saturday, Howe and McCarty accounted for six of ASU’s 13 hits in a 7-4 win. On Monday morning, Howe was named Pac-12 Player of the Week after batting .700 with seven hits, three doubles, two home runs, and nine RBI’s over the weekend.
The veterans led by example, backing up their sentiments that they have been there before. With a current .403 average while leading the team in RBI’s, it would seem far-fetched that Howe would have any struggles in her college career. However, she back-tracked to her freshman year at Fresno State.
Howe described herself as a completely different person during that time. She recalled early struggles and wanting to call home for her dad to pick her up. She also recollected the humbling experience of a freshman season after having so much success growing up.
Her first year at Fresno, Howe primarily appeared as a pinch-hitter and it was a challenge, but it’s what made her the player she is today.
“I didn’t have the mental strength or the mental toughness that I do now,” Howe said. “I was that freshman that was super overwhelmed...I didn’t really know what it was like to fail and that is something that you have to learn and to be okay with at this level.”
Howe spent countless hours in the cage with assistant coach Jeff Harger trying to improve over a freshman season. For McCarty, she recalled getting yelled at or chewed out by coaches during her first season at ASU.
It was through the trying times that the two players grew the most. It gave them the poise that they have acquired now as seniors. And it’s what made them not hit the panic button during a daunting part of the schedule this season.
Rather, with nine games to play, they are enjoying the little things - The moments with teammates, traveling on road trips, and playing each game while having fun.
Through a nine-game losing streak, the Sun Devils look to build off adversity and make a run down the stretch of the season with six games to play.
“That’s what I am taking from the game,” said McCarty of her dwindling regular season. “They are 18 of my best friends and I am never going to get these moments back. That’s my mentality.”