Arizona softball’s three seniors have only spent one season on the same team, but they have ties stretching their entire careers. They want those ties to continue on for a few more weeks.
Izzy Pacho and Ali Ashner started their careers together at Arizona. Pacho was a local girl playing for the hometown Wildcats. Ashner was a walk-on from Phoenix who had come south to play for one of the most storied programs in the country. Neither got what she expected.
Ashner struggled with the Division I game and was advised by former Arizona coach Mike Candrea to go somewhere she could start. Pacho didn’t leave, but she spent her first three seasons as a backup catcher and pinch hitter, never getting to show everything she could do on the field.
The both found success eventually. For Pacho, it was right where she started. She has never shied away from talking about how difficult those first three years were for her. That made it all the sweeter when she had a career season that ended at the Women’s College World Series last year.
“It feels like would have been really easy for me to leave after my first couple years,” Pacho said. “But I pushed through that adversity and had an amazing year last year and just kind of fulfilled all the dreams that I ever had. And I will never forget all the hours and effort that I put in in that cage, on this field, outside of practice. And I feel like I have finally found myself and learn so much about myself as a person, as a player, as a friend, as a daughter. And if it weren’t for these five years, I don’t think I would have ever gotten to this point as quickly as I did.”
Ashner took a detour. After suffering a knee injury and medically redshirting during the 2018-19 season, she decided she would follow Candrea’s advice. She would go the junior college route and find a place she could start. That’s when her journey crossed with that of Breezy Hardy, the third senior on this year’s Arizona team.
The two won back-to-back national titles together at Phoenix College. They were both honored as NJCAA Division II Player of the Year and Hardy also won NJCAA Division II Pitcher of the Year twice. It wasn’t the beginning of their relationship, though.
“Growing up, I played against Breezy, and she would always strike me out,” Ashner said. “So, when I got to play with her at PC, I took full advantage of it. I loved being her teammate. She’s just an amazing competitor, and I’m really glad that we got to spend another year together.”
Their final season in college hasn’t gone the way any of them would have expected. It probably hasn’t gone the way they would have hoped, either. The team has struggled through injuries and absences, now standing on the verge of possibly missing the NCAA postseason for the first time in 35 years. Their personal experiences have been with challenges, as well.
Hardy has pitched primarily in short relief after being the ace of a staff for three years at Phoenix College. She has pitched just 12 innings going into the final regular season series of the year. She has a 4.08 ERA, giving up five earned runs in her dozen innings in the circle. She has walked five and struck out 11 so far this season.
Ashner started six games and got 25 at-bats over the first 49 games of the season. She has seven hits and three walks in 28 plate appearances, earning a batting average of .280. Arizona head coach Caitlin Lowe said that Ashner was always in her ear, telling her that she could hit off these pitchers. When Ashner got her chances, she proved that she could.
Pacho’s final year was “bittersweet,” in her words. After her breakout year playing third base last season, it has been up and down this year.
Pacho began her final season as the starting catcher for the first time in her career. It’s a position that she loves and wanted to play. The stress of it became too much for her, though, and she took two weeks away from the team in late March and early April. Since her return, she has started five games, served as a defensive replacement for freshman catcher Olivia DiNardo, and been a pinch hitter.
“It was everything I needed,” Pacho said about stepping away. “I reached a point past my breaking point. I was just overwhelmed with everything, everything softball related. And I think if I would have pushed through and kept going, I would have ended early. I don’t think I would have been able to push through all the way through the season, especially struggling as a team and fighting through all of that adversity.”
Despite the adversity, Pacho has had a solid season. With one series to go, she has a .279 batting average. She has 24 hits in 86 at-bats, including two home runs and three doubles. She also drew 14 walks and was hit by seven pitches.
“Five years is a long, long time, especially doing the same thing for five years,” Pacho said. “But I have learned so much through Coach [Candrea], through Cait, through my teammates, just playing the game in general. It’s just been a fulfilling experience. And I feel like I’m at a point where it’s bittersweet now. I’m ready to be done, but that doesn’t mean that it’s still not sad and that I’m still not ready to compete on the field. But my time here is coming up, and I think the one thing I can walk away with is that I’ve made a mark on this program and that was my goal. From the first time I stepped on campus, I wanted to make a name for myself and leave this place better than I found it, and I feel like I did.”
She hopes she’s not done making a difference in Hillenbrand even after the season is over. While she’s ready to go teach if that’s her path, she would also like to finish her master’s degree and find a way to stay around Arizona softball.
“[I] want to be a part of this program for as long as I can be,” Pacho said. “So, if something comes up and I’m able to be a part of it, then I will.”