The last time Arizona State softball visited UCLA’s Easton Stadium, head coach Trisha Ford opted for Nichole Chilson to pinch hit for Maddi Hackbarth in the eighth inning of the series finale.
It made sense. Hackbarth had been hitless in her last 10 at-bats and the Sun Devil catcher’s season batting average sat below .200 on the closing day of the 2018 regular season.
Fast forward to 2021, the Sun Devils travel back to Los Angeles to face the defending national champion Bruins. This time Hackbarth is far from struggling at the plate.
She heads into the opening weekend of Pac-12 play as the conference leader in home runs (12) and RBI (34), as well as firmly establishing herself in the early Player of the Year discussions alongside the likes of Oklahoma’s Jocelyn Alo, Iowa State’s Sami Williams and Arkansas’ Braxton Burnside.
What has changed for Hackbarth since that Saturday afternoon when she was pulled back into the dugout?
Her willingness to change for the better, a lot of physical hard work, and a revaluation of her priorities following the end of a relationship.
“It took something away from softball for me to be where I am,” Hackbarth said. “I needed to look at myself and say, ‘Okay Maddi, what do you really want in life and in softball?’ I put my nose down to work on things so I can play softball the way I’m supposed to be playing softball. I’m supposed to be doing this right now. I let other things take priority of what I wanted in life, but I feel like I don’t even recognize that person (back in 2018).”
Once the switch was flipped mentally about where Hackbarth wanted to be, it was time to train her body to be the best she could be for her final season.
Hackbarth noticed videos of former Sun Devil teammate Taylor Becerra working out back in June of 2020.
She was intrigued. Hackbarth sent a message to Becerra to find out more. Becerra connected Hackbarth with Jayden Eggimann, who is a personal trainer at Self Made Training Facility Scottsdale and former Division I baseball player.
A week later, Hackbarth had a workout regimen and a nutritionist helping her as well. The results were coming quickly. Hackbarth’s twin sister, Kindra, needed no convincing to start going with Maddi soon after because she saw the alterations in her sister’s body.
Hackbarth worked out five to six days a week and that included double days too. She lost around 10-15 pounds, however, Hackbarth continued to gain muscle as well. She had never felt so strong in her life.
“I figured more stuff out about myself, and I think that’s a big reason why I am who I am right now,” Hackbarth said. “I made an uncomfortable decision instead of working out at home and do the work outs I know, but I didn’t see a difference in myself from those. I’m happy I did because I wouldn’t have the body that I have to play as well as I am right now.”
There isn’t a long list of players in a better form than Hackbarth right now. In the month of March alone, she has hit for a .538 average, three doubles, eight home runs and drove in 14 runs.
The work with Eggimann certainly has helped, but it doesn’t compare to the hours she’s spent with Arizona State hitting coach Jeff Harger.
Ford brought Harger onto the coaching staff before the 2019 season and has raved about his hitting philosophies ever since. For good reason, the proof of his success can be seen in Hackbarth’s development.
When Harger started to work with Hackbarth, he wanted to introduce a leg kick into her swing. Her timing needed to be better and the leg kick added more rhythm. Hackbarth certainly got her timing down, as it led to 19 home runs in the 2019 season.
Early on, Harger could see her will to want to get better and he knew she’d take on his suggestion.
“She was very receptive to change because she wanted to get better,” Harger said. “That’s a tough thing with a lot of kids at this level. They have success and don’t think they need to change, where Maddi was receptive to trying new things to get better.”
However, there were still improvements to be made. Hackbarth’s responsibilities as a full-time catcher tended to wear down her body as the season went on.
When the two had their meetings before this season, he suggested that they minimize the leg kick, and even sometimes go to swings with no stride. The belief behind the no-stride approach is that it’ll help lessen that fatigue.
Hackbarth had hesitation. Her beloved leg kick had helped her so much already. She practiced in the fall using it, and there were failures but she bought into the process already, so she stuck with it.
“I was very skeptical about it because everybody knows I love my leg kick,” Hackbarth said. “When I started noticing I could still hit home runs, I could still square up balls, I started believing in myself. I started to see how good I was because that’s what Harger and Ford kept asking me, is if I realize how good I am? I really don’t...I’ve always hyped Kindra up and not done it for myself.”
That first no-stride home run meant a lot to Harger. It got Hackbarth to trust herself even more, and trust him even more. It meant that every other Sun Devil and future Sun Devil could look at Maddi Hackbarth and see if you put in the work, this is what can happen.
For Ford, that’s simply her wish. To have every player who comes through her program to have the ambition to recreate themselves like Maddi Hackbarth has the past four years in Tempe.
“I recruit kids that love softball and that I believe will put the work in,” Ford said. “You’ve really seen the progression of Maddi. She’s put in a lot of work. This is all her work. Her sitting down with coach Harger...She wants to be great, and I want kids here who desire to be great, they don’t want to be good, they want to be great...and that’s what stands out to me about Maddi.”