ASU softball begins 2018 season with a brutal schedule featuring a large number of ranked opponents and teams who qualified for NCAA Tournament last year.
Today is the day.
ASU is leading off against Tennessee Thursday. While it is an exciting time, the real party won’t begin until the Sun Devils begin conference play in what it is arguably the best conference in all of college softball.
The Pac-12 is truly a tough and competitive conference that ASU needs to be ready to take on after a disappointing 9-15 record last season in the Conference of Champions.
Arizona State will kick off conference play against Washington on March 17 in Tempe. Washington is one of four Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 10 of the USA Today/NFCA Preseason Coaches Poll.
The Huskies are coming off an amazing 2017 season, losing to Florida in the final game of the Women’s College World Series. Don’t be surprised if UW is back in OKC this year.
They’re returning their best hitter in Taylor Van Zee and ace pitcher Taran Alvelo. This is a team that likes to score and score in a big way, scoring the second most runs in the Pac-12 and hitting over 65 home runs.
The other Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 10 are Oregon (3), UCLA (5), and Arizona (7).
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Oregon is just flat out scary on the mound. It’s not just that Oregon led the Pac-12 in ERA (1.41) and strikeouts (411) last season, it’s also fact that their big 3 rotation of Maggie Balint, Megan Kleist, and Miranda Elish are all returning, giving them a good shot to return to the College World Series.
Balint and Kleist were First-Team All Pac-12 members while Elish made the All-Freshman team. It’s arguably one of the best rotations in all of college softball, and ASU surely digs struggle against it last year.
They scored only four runs in only three games with two of those games being shutouts. An ASU offense that struggled last year hitting the ball may see a similar situation this season when the Sun Devils host the Ducks from April 13-15.
UCLA quietly snuck into the College World Series last year thanks to its dominant hitters.
Infielder Kylee Perez is returning for her senior after leading the Bruins and finishing fourth in the conference with a .408 batting average.
Their ace Rachel Garcia is also looking to continue from her NFCA National Freshman of the Year performance after recording 23 wins and finishing sixth in the Pac-12 with 1.87 ERA.
The Bruins were ASU’s last game of the season in 2017 when the Sun Devils were swept. UCLA was able to just hit the ball anywhere they wanted, outscoring the Sun Devils 29-9. If ASU wants to keep up with UCLA this year, they need to maintain their hot bats find ways to win.
Finally, we have the University of Arizona.
If there anything that should be feared about the Wildcats, it’s their bats. They led the Pac-12 in batting average (.341), home runs (94), and RBIs (399).
Their offense should cool a little bit with three of their top 4 leaders in batting average and Pac-12 home run leader Katiyana Mauga graduating.
Two key offenses to watch for this year are sophomore infielder Jessie Harper and second baseman Ashleigh Hughes. Hughes made Second-Team All Pac-12 and finished eighth in the conference with a .386 average.
Harper shined as a freshman finishing second in the Pac-12 with 23 dingers. Despite losing a ton of bats, it will surely be tough for them to recover from the graduation of Danielle O’Toole, who was U of A’s first first-team All-American pitcher since Kenzie Fowler in 2010.
Last year’s Territorial Cup was given to the Wildcats, winning two of the three games including an 8-0 shutout to close the series. Losing so many key players may set Arizona back a few steps.
If Arizona State wants to make noise in the conference of champions, these are the four main Pac-12 teams that they need to compete with, otherwise, we may see a disappointing season.