ASU Softball: Despite losses, Sun Devils enter 2019 with high expectations

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 08: Arizona State Sun Devils mascot 'Sparky the Sun Devil ' performs before the college football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Sun Devil Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 08: Arizona State Sun Devils mascot 'Sparky the Sun Devil ' performs before the college football game against the Michigan State Spartans at Sun Devil Stadium on September 8, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

After a turbulent offseason, ASU softball opens the 2019 season Friday looking to go further this season after reaching the Women’s College World Series.

The team might look different, but the goals remain the same.

The Arizona State softball team starts up a highly-anticipated 2019 season Friday in the Kajikawa Classic where the Sun Devils look to build off a 48-13 season and a trip to the Women’s College World Series.

Arizona State will open the season ranked 12th in the nation with this season’s team relying on their deep batting lineup.

Last season, Arizona State had one of the best 1-2 punches in the country in pitchers G Juarez and Breanna Macha.

Juarez was a USA Softball Player of the Year finalist after posting a 26-6 record, 1.22 ERA and 305 strikeouts. Macha went 16-6 with a 2.17 ERA and 121 strikeouts. Both led the team to a team ERA of 1.56 and its most wins since 2013 when the Sun Devils won 50 games.

Macha has since graduated and Juarez completed an unexpected transfer to Oklahoma to join the team that ended the Sun Devils’ season last year in Oklahoma City.

Leading the staff this season will be Long Beach State transfer Cielo Meza.

The redshirt junior is coming off a strong season finishing with a 22-4 record, a 1.48 ERA and 217 strikeouts in route to winning Big West Pitcher of the Year.

She will be the unquestionable ace for the Sun Devils but who will fill in behind her is the biggest question as the season gets underway.

Arizona State will have Fresno State transfer Samantha Mejia, who was a reliever with the Bulldogs, freshman Mikayla Santa Cruz and two-way player Abbey Andersen behind Meza on the pitching staff.

We’ll have a better idea who will be slotted behind Meza in the rotation as the season progresses.

This season, with the questions behind Meza on the pitching staff, the hitting will be what carries the Sun Devils in 2019.

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Arizona State returns seven of their nine positional starters with the only departures being first baseman Danielle Gibson, who transferred to Arkansas after finishing on the All-Pac-12 First Team, and second baseman Marisa Stankiewicz, who graduated and is now a volunteer assistant coach for the Sun Devils.

The two boppers who will lead ASU is outfielders Kindra Hackbarth and Morgan Howe.

Hackbarth led the team in hitting with a .368 batting average recording 74 hits, five home runs, 29 RBIs and an OPS of .954.

Right alongside Hackbarth in center field, Howe had a memorable hit in the Women’s College World Series crushing a 3-run homer against No. 1 Oregon to cut the deficit to make it a one-run game in the fifth inning of an 11-6 loss.

Over the course of the season, Howe recorded eight home runs, 42 RBIs and .361 batting average as she returns as the leading run producer.

The hitter poised for the biggest breakout is DeNae Chatman. Chatman started the second half of the season as the designated player and became a reliable power source finishing with nine home runs and 26 RBIs in 89 plate appearances.

She only started 26 games last season, but was a vital contributor in the NCAA Tournament driving in eight runs in seven postseason games.

Also returning is left fielder Skylar McCarty, shortstop Jade Gortarez, third baseman Taylor Becerra and catcher Maddi Hackbarth.

Despite the losses of Juarez and Gibson, this is an experienced team that has the makings of another deep run in the summer.

Arizona State was picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 preseason poll behind No. 1 UCLA, No. 2 Washington and No. 6 Arizona.

Last year’s Pac-12 champion, Oregon, had nine players transfer out of the program after head coach Mike White left for the same position at Texas and is picked to finish last.

It’s going to be another brutal schedule for the Sun Devils as they’ll face 10 preseason ranked teams plus five teams who received votes.

Some of the games include No. 5 Florida, No. 14 Michigan and two games against No. 16 Texas.

Arizona State will play 27 of their first 33 games at Farrington Stadium in Tempe before beginning their nine-game gauntlet against the Wildcats, Bruins and Huskies. This season, only UCLA will come to Tempe.

Next. ASU Softball: Previewing the Sun Devils batting lineup. dark

The Sun Devils should be an automatic NCAA Tournament team but their potential will be determined by the performance of the pitching staff and the improvement of the returning hitters.