TEMPE – Madison Preston wanted to play softball on a big stage, under the brightest lights, when she made the decision to play at Alabama out of Centralia High School in Missouri. Preston, the 2016-17 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year, believed Alabama was the perfect place.
The Crimson Tide play in the Southeastern Conference, arguably the best in Division I softball. And the school already had won a national championship and competed for another in recent years.
It seemed like the ideal fit of school and student athlete, until it wasn’t.
In Preston’s first season in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the left-handed pitcher was a key contributor for the Crimson Tide. That changed in 2019 when Alabama brought in freshman phenom Montana Fouts along with transfers Sarah Cornell and Krystal Goodman.
Preston threw just 12.2 innings and, despite striking out 14 batters in that limited action, she didn’t pitch at all after April 3 as her role diminished.
It was time to turn in her Alabama gear. Preston entered her name in the NCAA Transfer Portal. This time, though, she had different criteria on her checklist when considering a new school.
“I feel like I was more grown up. I had learned a lot more. I learned what I wanted,” Preston said. “I wanted somewhere I would have equal opportunity, and it wasn’t necessarily about being a starter, but it was about, ‘I am going to get better.’ Not only getting better as a player but better as a person and having people around me that supported me 100 percent.”
Preston visited Houston, Illinois, Missouri and Arizona State. She scheduled trips to James Madison and Virginia Tech, but after the visit to Tempe, she didn’t need to look anymore.
ASU coach Trisha Ford, known for her expertise in pitching, knew she and Preston would be a great fit.
“One of the things about me is that I let you be who you are,” Ford said. “Here, I just want a competitor on the field. I want somebody who wants to win. (Preston) is a free spirit, but I enjoy that about her. She has her routine. Like, I don’t fuss with a lot of the things that I think are not important. I fuss a lot about on-the-field stuff in our practice and our preparation and those types of things.
“I thought our personalities really clicked. She’s goofy and fun. I enjoy that. She brings something to the table from a team perspective.”
Ford has a history working well with left-handed pitchers such as Preston. And she noted that Preston’s mechanics are similar to those that Ford teaches. It made the transition easier for Preston.
It didn’t hurt that Preston got a small glimpse of her future when ASU and Alabama squared off twice during the Tuscaloosa Regional in the postseason. She noticed a few things that intrigued her, including Ford.
“They were really tough. I know that our pitchers had a tough time pitching to them,” Preston said. “They were a well-put-together team. They just had a few missing pieces, and I knew that coming in. But mostly, when I was looking for a school, I was more looking for a good relationship with the coach. I feel like I got that and a great team.”
Transfers aren’t a new thing for Arizona State in college softball softball. Preston was one of hundreds of college softball players that entered their name into the Transfer Portal after last season. The NCAA’s rule change in 2018 opened the door for more players in Preston’s shoes to pursue a second chance at a different school.
A former student athlete herself, Ford understands that choosing a school isn’t always easy. She was lucky enough to find her ideal situation at St. Mary’s and is the only female athlete in the school’s history to have her number retired.
As a coach, she’s learned that not everyone’s road is as smooth as the once she took.
Her roster is proof of it. Eight of the 23 Sun Devils on the 2020 team played at another college before coming to ASU. For instance, twins Kindra and Maddi Hackbarth could hardly find playing time at Fresno State before becoming integral parts of the ASU lineup.
“It’s important. It’s a huge factor,” said Ford of student athletes finding the right school. “For us here, it’s been a little bit of a transition for my four years. … I’m not a fit for everybody, I know that, and just like kids aren’t a fit for me. You see kids like the Hackbarths that weren’t playing at their previous school. They come here, and they’re doing great. You gotta mesh with them.”
Preston benefits by being surrounded with teammates who have gone through similar experiences. Her roommates, pitcher Samantha Mejia (Fresno State) and infielders Halle Harger (Boise State) and Mailey McLemore (Foothill College), are transfers. And Preston said fellow pitcher Cielo Meza, who made the move to ASU from Long Beach State last season, has been a tremendous help.
“She had been through something kind of similar to me,” Preston said. “She had overcome it. She wanted to help me do it because she had already been through it. We became great friends through that.”
Helpful teammates and a quality connection with her coach have made Preston feel right at home. In her first two weekends as a Sun Devil, she has already surpassed her inning total from last season and posted a much better earned run average (1.48) compared to 2019 (5.53) at Alabama.
More important, being at ASU has put a smile on her face. And it’s a perfect fit.