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Abbie Hughes had little trouble pioneering into Malone University.
"The experience was absolutely amazing," the 2015 Sandy Valley High School graduate said. "Being on campus, you really get the chance to know people and to build long lasting relationships. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I made a lot of friends. Class sizes are small so you build relationships with classmates and professors."
Earlier this summer, Hughes finished her freshman year taking classes and playing in the band at Malone. She also played her first season of college softball.
Hughes noted the Pioneers were in new territory this season under new head coach Kathryn Bzdafka. Chemistry, however, wasn't lacking.
"There were really no issues on field with this group," Hughes said. "We all did really well in our classes and we were all really keen on making sure we were staying up to date and we had our work turned in. Our coach was really good about that and it was nice to have somebody who cared about our classes and cared about us as people."
It was an adjustment for Hughes to acclimate to new teammates. She said it was important to learn how her teammates played their position so that she could adapt to hers.
"I think it took longer than expected just because I was a freshman and getting to know upperclassmen wasn't complicated, but we were under a new coach," Hughes said. "They weren't sure how a new coach was going to be. It didn't seem to take long once we got to know each other."
Hughes didn't see a lot of playing time at the beginning of this season. She waited it out and made the most of her opportunity to prove herself.
"I was lucky enough to get a chance with my coach," she said. "I remember her pulling me aside and put me in the lineup because they needed my bat."
In 29 games in her freshman year, Hughes batted .365 with one home run, 14 runs batted in, four doubles and two triples.
The approach for Hughes was simple. She said she was looking for the first good pitch she saw. With runners on base, she was looking for a pitch outside. With two strikes, she choked up and looked to poke it up the middle or put the ball in play.
"That was kind of the key to my success," Hughes said. "I didn't do a lot of that in high school because you have a bit more of a choice range in pitches. In college, most of the time the first pitch you see is the best one you are going to get unless the pitcher makes a mistake. They are very good about hitting their spots and throwing the pitches they need to throw to get the out."
In 19 of the 25 games Hughes appeared in, she was the starting designated hitter. She noted Bzdafka and the Malone coaching staff never told her that would be her role.
"Wherever she put me I was happy," Hughes said. "I just love to play the game, so there was never really a need for her to tell me you are playing here because of this reason."
Hughes saw some time on the mound this past season, a place she starred at in high school. Hughes holds school records at Sandy Valley for strikeouts in a game, strikeouts in a season and most wins in a season.
She also helped lead the Cardinals to a district final appearance in her senior year.
This season, Hughes took the mound in 14 games. She did not record a win and struck out 15 in 56 2//3 innings pitched.
"Being a freshman it took me a little bit to find my groove," Hughes said. "I don't think I got the chance to showcase my true abilities. I was so nervous when I pitched just because I wanted to do well for my team and I don't think I really hit my stride. But I'm very excited for this year because I have the experience now so Im able to go in with a clear head."
Malone faced a number of tests in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The top two teams, Wayne State (Michigan) and Grand Valley State finished with respective records of 50-10 and 43-13.
"It was definitely a challenge because we were still trying to find our groove," Hughes said. "Some days were better than others, but overall we really took a step in the right direction working on fundamentals and working on where we need to be as players."
Hughes added she was able to keep up with her former team this season at Sandy Valley. With her cousin playing as a freshman, she returned to her alma matter to see some games in person. The Cardinals advanced to a district final for a second straight year.
"I was really proud of the way the 2016 seniors stepped up and accomplish feats nobody thought they could," she said.