Makayla Martin's leadership crucial for Auburn in 2017

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Makayla Martin has it hard.

As the designated ace for the second-ranked Auburn Tigers, Martin is tasked with pitching in practice to stud hitters such as Haley Fagan, Kendall Veach, Victoria Draper and Madi Gipson.

“Being able to pitch against multiple lineups has been great,” Martin said. “I mean, they’re all obviously hitting amazing off of us. But I’m confident with whoever is put out there in the lineup.”

There’s also Kasey Cooper.

“No, it’s not fair,” Martin said when asked about Cooper’s home run off her pitch following a scrimmage. “That’s the second time she’s hit one over the fence like that in two days. So, it’s not fair.”

Surrounded by great athletes and great expectations, Makayla Martin is no exception to either category. The San Diego, California native has been asked to take her talents above and beyond average freshman potential since her arrival on the Plains. Those opportunities were numerous in the 2016 season, in which Martin flourished as a true freshman. The right-hander finished the year with a 15-4 record as a starter and pitched four complete games. She was also named to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association’s Freshman Player of the Year Top 25 list.

In was in Oklahoma City, however, where Martin really grew up before Auburn fans’ eyes.

Following a dominating performance against the Arizona Wildcats in the Super Regionals to send Auburn to OKC, Martin was called upon again in the Tigers’ matchup with Florida State in the semifinals. The freshman produced, filling in late for Kaylee Carlson and punching Auburn’s ticket to the national championship series.

In a surprise move before game one of the final series against Oklahoma, Tiger senior Lexi Davis was named the starter. A late Auburn rally fell short as the Sooners took the opener.

After the incredible game two comeback victory, Martin started in the circle in the final outing of the season. She pitched six innings with a single strikeout, allowing no runs. Despite Martin’s efforts, Oklahoma was able to outlast the Tigers, 2-1, to win the national championship.

Then came revenge.

“We play the game, not the team,” Martin said of the rematch with the Sooners on opening day. “That’s what coach always says. Whoever we’re put in front of, we’re going to do the same thing we would in any other game, just do what we do best.”

Martin stayed true to her word, as the Tigers avenged their national championship loss to Oklahoma by besting the Sooners on opening day in Mexico. Martin kept OU scoreless through the first six innings en route to a 3-2 victory for the sophomore. Kaylee Carlson replaced a winded Martin in the sixth inning as Oklahoma began to rally, landing a pair of clutch strikeouts. Auburn departed Mexico with a 3-1 start to the season in their back pockets, claiming victories over BYU and Nebraska and dropping the opening day nightcap to Washington.

Auburn needs success from the entire pitching committee if another title run is to be in the cards for 2017. Junior Kaylee Carlson shared the circle with Martin in Puerto Vallarta and freshmen Ashlee Swindle and Alexa Nemeth are expected to provide instant impact with the Tigers in the thick of the conference schedule. Senior Jenna Abbott looks to contribute from the bullpen as well. Auburn’s alignment of different-aged pitchers bodes well for mentoring purposes.

“I can see that Kaylee has improved so much from last year,” Martin said. “Just from the experience and the competition that’s been put in front of her, for both of us. That’s what is going to let us have success this year, because we’ve been there last year.”

The pitchers’ improvement has also garnered the attention of fourth-year head coach Clint Meyers.

“Kaylee came back with a rise,” Meyers said. “If she can throw some of the speeds we’ve had here, (in practice) she can hit 70 miles per hour. She’s strong, healthy and wants to pitch.

“Mak’s changeup has gotten so much better. I’m not too worried about Mak and Kaylee. They’re seasoned veterans and they know what to do: take the ball and win.”

Martin, who is referred to as “Mak” by her teammates and coaches, has embraced her own personal developments on the mound.

“I like my changeup a lot,” Martin said. “Mostly because I don’t have to just rely on my drop now. I can throw my changeup and it can be effective, more consistently than it was last year.”

With Martin in the circle and 2016 ESPNW Player of the Year Kasey Cooper at the plate, the sky is the limit for 2017 Auburn softball. The Tigers have already proven to themselves that they can more than hang with the best, evident in their avenging victory over Oklahoma.

The SEC schedule knows no freebees, however. The Tigers should start to find comfort in ranked matchups, as Auburn’s conference slate includes dates with No. 9 LSU, No. 13 Georgia, No. 14 Missouri, No. 25 South Carolina, No. 7 Alabama and the No. 1 Florida Gators, per the new Top 25 released on Monday.

The home opener for Auburn (3-1) is this Thursday at Jane B. Moore field against the SIUE Cougars (5-0). Fans can catch the action on the SEC Network Plus, starting at 6 p.m. CST. 

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