Editor’s note: The Star’s Zack Rosenblatt is counting down the 50 best athletes on the UA campus right now, with help from athletes, coaches and those close to the program.
No. 39: Ashleigh Hughes
The details: Hughes is a strong-armed, slap-hitting outfielder for Arizona’s softball team. Next season, the Antelope, California, native will be one of only two seniors on the UA roster, along with reserve walk-on catcher Robyn Porter.
Hughes was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, hitting .533 in a stellar prep career, and joined the Wildcats as part of a small, two-person recruiting class in 2015. The other player in that class — pitcher Trish Parks — left the program after just one season.
Hughes has bounced around the field since joining the Wildcats, starting out in a center field platoon as a freshman, moving to second base as a sophomore before finally settling in as Arizona’s right fielder in 2017 when standout freshman Reyna Carranco took over at second.
“If I can do anything, put me there,” Hughes said earlier this year. “I’m just happy to be playing and doing as well as I am and contributing to this team in any way.”
The numbers: Hughes didn’t contribute much as a hitter her first two seasons with the Wildcats. But in a breakout junior year, she was one of Arizona’s most consistent hitters, settling into a role at the bottom of the batting order. Hughes hit for a combined .277 batting average in her first two years, then raised that to .386 in 2017, the third best mark on one of the nation’s most prolific offensive attacks. She also had a .426 on base percentage, scored 32 runs — down from 34 as a sophomore, though she batted higher in the order that year — and stole five bases.
The value: Before 2017, Arizona had no problem producing runs and hitting for average. It just mostly came from the top and heart of the Wildcats’ batting order. For a few years, UA coach Mike Candrea stressed how the bottom of the lineup needed to improve. That’s exactly what happened when Hughes was moved from the two-slot to the bottom and, along with Carranco, the Wildcats were able to trot out a lineup without any real weak spots.
Why Hughes? Beyond being one of Arizona’s best slap-hitters, Hughes also has the team’s strongest outfield arm as she threw out multiple base-runners in 2017. As a junior, she managed a career-beset .981 fielding percentage with just one error, and led the UA outfield by a wide margin in assists with 10 from right field. With the departure of leadoff hitter Mandie Perez, along with other top-of-the-order hitters like Katiyana Mauga and Mo Mercado, there will likely be some re-shuffling of Arizona’s batting order. If Carranco moves up near, or at the top, then Hughes will have to hold down the fort at the bottom of the lineup.
Proof she’s good: Hughes’ numbers were never flashy, and neither was her performance. But her consistency in hitting and fielding is what has made her stand out. In 24 conference games, Hughes was second on the team with a .387 average and she hit .444 in the postseason. She also recorded 12 multi-hit games to help garner an All-Pac-12 second-team selection.
What Hughes can accomplish: Even with the losses of Perez, Mercado and Mauga, the Wildcats still project to have a potent lineup with first baseman Jessie Harper at the center. Whether Hughes moves up toward the top of the lineup or stays near the bottom, there will be plenty of run-scoring opportunities for the senior. If she can boost her non-batting average numbers, she has a shot at first-team All-Conference honors.
Coachspeak: “The more at-bats that she gets at this level, the better she is going to be at making good decisions about what to do. I think the other thing that’s really helped her is she’s simplified the game, instead of trying to do too much.” — Candrea during the postseason
She said it: “Just as you get older, you start getting a bigger picture for what you need to do and really buy into your role and what your job is. My job is getting on base and putting the bigger hitters in a position just to be able to get hits and score. It’s just, you accept your role.” — Hughes during the postseason