Softball Alums Make Their Mark in Ground-Breaking Pro League
CHICAGO, Ill. -- Athletes Unlimited, a ground-breaking women's professional sports league, is now home to two standout Sun Devil softball alum.
Morgan Howe, a 2019 graduate, and Sashel Palacios, a 2017 graduate and former grad assistant, are two out of 56 of the most talented softball players in the country who make up the newest professional softball league.
Athletes Unlimited is an entirely different model of professional sports. Teams change every week with a new draft lead by new team captains. Every player earns an individual score. Teams earn points each inning. Bonuses are based on player rankings. There are no coaches, managers, or owners. Athletes will share league profits. Athletes will be the decision-makers.
"It is a new innovative model that allows the athletes to speak for the athletes and play for the athletes," Howe said.
Over the scoreboard AGAIN ??
You amaze us @morgannnriley ??
— Sun Devil Softball (@ASUSoftball) September 12, 2020
— Sun Devil Softball (@ASUSoftball) September 14, 2020
Each week, the changing teams offer athletes the opportunity to play with old teammates, college rivals, and fellow athletes they have never met before.
"I missed getting to play with Sashel by a year at ASU, but she was my GA the two years, so it is super cool now that I get to play with her and actually experience what it's like to be on the field with her as my teammate," Howe said.
"You're always trying to grow as an athlete, especially at this level," Palacios said. "So, I think being able to play with people I would have never been able to play with if it wasn't for this opportunity is really cool. I get to hear the knowledge of everybody and how they think of the game, and what they value is special to hear."
All 56 athletes are living and competing in Chicago, Illinois. Games are played every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, with all four teams competing against each other. Tuesday night is the draft night, where the top four ranking players draft their teams for that week via a zoom call. Once a player is drafted, they enter a breakout room to start strategizing with their team.
"Draft night is super exciting. I feel like I'm back in elementary school," Palacios said.
After the draft finalizes teams, practices begin on Wednesday.
"There's only a few parts of the day that you're required to be at, whereas in college, I feel like you're required to be everywhere all the time. Here, it's on you if you want to get treatment if you want to do extra hitting if you want to lift, anything like that," Howe said.
While players continue practicing on Thursdays and Friday, they also partake in "Friday Night Lights" every week. An opportunity for the athletes to take a break and come together under the stadium's lights to discuss worldly matters and grow a deeper understanding of the women they play with and against each week.
"To be able to do what we've been doing together on the field but also getting better as humans while we're here, it attests to the type of people in the league and how strong the comradery is and how truly special this is," Palacios said.
AU is following a similar bubble policy of the NBA and the WNBA. Athletes are all quarantined and are tested weekly for coronavirus. There are currently no fans allowed at games, but the league uses fake crowd noises to add to the game atmosphere.
"They are really doing the most to take care of us. It is unbelievable. I've never been able to experience this kind of care in a professional setting. And it's been really cool to be a part of," Palacios said.
Due to the superb treatment of the athletes, Palacios has begun considering to continue her career.
"I really thought that I was going to be done playing after the Olympics, but this experience has completely opened my eyes to the possibility of continuing because of the way they are treating us," Palacios said.
Women's opportunity to play at a professional level is rare in even the most normal of circumstances, add in a global pandemic, and the prospect seems almost naught. Still, for the athletes of AU, the league gives them a chance to truly appreciate the game of softball and what it takes to be one of the best 52 players in the country.
"I'm going to enjoy my time here and soak in everything. I want to take it all in and appreciate every single moment, the good, the bad, the ugly, knowing it is extra special because there are people that can't do anything right now," Howe said.
"I knew that the softball community has always been very tight-knit, but it wasn't until this experience that made me realize how extraordinary the softball community is and the people that are involved," Palacios said. "I think we as women, playing at a competitive level is often short-lived, and you bring all these talented, amazing souls, not just athletes, humans, and women together; it's been so special."
When asked how ASU Softball has prepared her for a professional career, Howe responded with a laugh and "how did it not." Howe described how the competitiveness of the Pac-12 prepared her for the talent she is now facing every week.
"Playing in the Pac-12, you are playing against a top 25 team every weekend. You're constantly competing against the best of the best. The coaching staff instilled in me the standard needed to compete with the elite of the elite, so now I can do it on my own," Howe said.
Howe has taken the standard of ASU softball and brought it to the AU with her. She spends time focusing on the little details of the game, knowing these will add to the significant accomplishments - which Howe is already racking up. Howe is the first athlete in the AU to hit a home run on arguably the best pitcher in the game - Cat Osterman.
— Sun Devil Softball (@ASUSoftball) September 14, 2020
GO CRAZY MO HOWE ??
Morgan is the first player to score on Cat Osterman this season!
— Sun Devil Softball (@ASUSoftball) September 5, 2020
Palacios credited the adversity she faced at ASU with her development as a team-first athlete but praised Head Coach Trisha Ford for her development as a person.
"My favorite memory was the first conversation I had with Coach Ford in her office. She invests her time, energy, and everything into her athletes, and they leave better people. She helped me find the confidence and swag I was missing because of her unconditional love," Palacios said.
Both Palacios and Howe praised ASU fans in their unwavering support throughout their time as Sun Devils and beyond.
"Our softball fans are the best in the country," Palacios said.
Fans can continue supporting their favorite athletes by tuning into the televised game and following along with athletes' stories on AU social media pages.