Thursday, April 27, 2017

With softball's version of an NIT in place, 112 teams to make postseason


With the sport of college softball bringing back an NIT of sorts -- in this case, the National Invitational Softball Championship -- 112 teams will make the postseason in NCAA Division I softball this season.

The new NISC, a 48-team event in partnership with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association and Triple Crown Sports, will have its field unveiled Sunday, May 14, just hours after the 64-team NCAA Tournament field is announced.

The Mountain West, which has had a record seven of its nine teams ranked in the RPI Top 100 this season, appears well-positioned for multiple bids in the NISC.  San Diego State, Fresno State, Utah State and San Jose State all rank among the nation's top 65 teams in the latest RPI, while Colorado State comes in at No. 78.  Ironically, Fort Collins is the home of NISC co-founder Triple Crown Sports.

Both Fresno State and San Diego State, if they fall short of NCAA bids, should receive consideration as host sites for the NISC, which will have eight 6-team regionals.  Fresno State, in particular, seems like a natural choice for a host and can create the championship atmosphere the NISC says it wants to create.  The Bulldogs drew more than 4,100 fans last weekend to a home 3-game series against San Jose State, and have a history of putting on quality postseason softball tournaments.

For more on the NISC, go here.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Remaining series for MW title contenders

Depending on their schedules, Mountain West teams have either two or three conference series remaining.  Here are the remaining series for the top four MW title contenders:

Utah State - home vs. San Diego St. (April 28-30), at San Jose St. (May 5-7)

San Diego St. - at Utah St. (April 28-30), home vs. UNLV (May 5-7), at Nevada (May 11-13)

San Jose St. - at New Mexico (April 28-30), home vs. Utah St. (May 5-7), at UNLV (May 11-13)

Nevada - home vs. Colorado St. (April 28-30), at Boise St. (May 5-7), home vs. San Diego St. (May 11-13)

Bulldogs implode again with 6 more errors, fall to 6-8 in league play

Fresno State's self-destructive season continued Sunday, as the Bulldogs committed six errors, leading to five unearned runs that played a decisive role in a 9-3 loss at home to San Jose State.

The Spartans ended up winning the series two games to one, maintaining a second-place tie in conference play, while the Bulldogs dropped to sixth in the Mountain West standings.  No Fresno State team has ever finished lower than third in conference play since the school began sponsoring the sport of softball in 1978.

Fresno State's woes in the final games of MW series continued.  The Bulldogs are now 0-6 in their last six Mountain West series finales, and have not won on Sunday in conference play in nearly a full year.  Their last MW win on a Sunday came May 8, 2016.

At just 26-20 overall, coach Linda Garza's team -- once ranked as high as 21st in the nation in the USA Today/NFCA poll earlier this season, has lost six of its last seven conference games, and won just two of its past 11 overall.  Fresno State must go 8-1 in its final nine games this season to avoid owning the worst conference record for a Bulldog softball team in school history.  Also in jeopardy: the Bulldogs' streak of 35 consecutive seasons with 30 or more wins.

Garza chose to start ace pitcher Kamalani Dung in only one of the three games in the series.  And that was on Friday, in an 8-2 Bulldog rout.  Garza started freshman Samantha Mejia Saturday, in Mejia's first start in seven weeks.  Savannah McHellon started today's game and took the loss. Fresno State is winless in April in games where a pitcher other than Dung has gotten the start in the circle, and the last win by a Bulldog pitcher other than Dung was March 29 in a non-conference game against Pacific.

San Jose State coach Peter Turner had his ace Katelyn Linford in the circle a third day in a row, as Linford became the pitcher of record in all three games in the series.  She lost Friday's game against Dung, but was the winning pitcher both Saturday and today.  Linford leads the Mountain West with 19 wins.

SJSU's series win over Fresno State may represent a changing of the guard in what has been a series long dominated by the Bulldogs through the Margie Wright era.  The Spartans were 0-26 in the first 26 series between the two schools, but have won two of the past three -- both in Fresno.  San Jose State has never won a series between the schools in San Jose, and has won just 15 of 103 games between the schools all-time, even after this weekend.

Elsewhere Sunday, Utah State edged New Mexico 5-2 in Logan to win that series two games to one.  The Aggies, at 12-5 in conference play, remained two games ahead of both San Jose State and San Diego State, but just one game ahead in the all-important loss column.  With the Mountain West title now guaranteed to be decided with teams playing an uneven number of games in conference play, the loss column becomes of utmost importance.  USU hosts San Diego State next weekend before closing MW play at San Jose State the following week.

Colorado State won 5-0 and salvaged game three in its series at home versus UNLV Sunday, and SDSU beat last-place Boise State for the second day in a row to claim that road series.  The Aztecs prevailed 10-6.  Nevada lost its second straight road game at Kansas Sunday, falling in a 13-5 (six innings) run-rule affair.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Everyone keeps asking: "What's wrong with Fresno State this season?"

Emails, private messages and direct messages have been coming to us for weeks now, all asking the same question:  "What's wrong with Fresno State this season?"

The Bulldogs, who were ranked as high as 17th in the nation last season and in the conversation to become an NCAA regional host and No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, have struggled mightily in 2017.

Despite being selected the preseason favorite by conference coaches to win the Mountain West championship in 2017, Fresno State currently finds itself in sixth place in the league standings midway through MW play.  The Bulldogs are under .500 in conference play this late in a season for the first time in program history, regardless of the conference in which Fresno State has competed.

First-year head coach Linda Garza's team has lost four straight Mountain West games -- again, a program first in conference play -- and has just one win in its last seven games overall.  At a school like Fresno State, whose longest losing streak ever in the sport of softball is five in a row, these are trying times.

How bad is it?  The Bulldogs must go at least 9-3 in their final 12 conference games in order to avoid the distinction of having the worst league record ever for a program that began playing softball in 1978.  Nearly a quarter century ago, the 1993 Fresno State softball team finished 14-10 (.583) in WAC play, for both the worst conference record and worst finish (3rd place) in school history.

No Bulldog softball team has ever finished with a losing record in conference play, nor lower than third place in the final conference standings of any league in which Fresno State competed.  Both of those streaks are in jeopardy this year, unless things turn around quickly.

The Bulldogs were a nationally-ranked Top 25 team less than two months ago, holding down the No. 21 spot in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll for the week ending February 20, 2017.  Fresno State was still receiving votes in the national polls less than a month ago, but is now 3-7 in its last 10 games.

So what happened?  First, things would have looked a lot different for the Bulldogs if pitcher Giselle Juarez, a top 50 national recruit by Flo Softball and two-time Arizona high school player of the year finalist, had been at the school instead of going to Arizona State along with former head coach Trisha Ford.  Juarez signed a National Letter of Intent with Fresno State in November 2015, but opted to go with Ford to ASU and has made 11 starts as a true freshman this season  and leads the nationally-ranked Sun Devils pitching staff in strikeouts.

Savannah McHellon
It was a crushing blow to the Bulldogs' program.

Garza went out and got heralded JC transfer Savannah McHellon, a pitcher who can hit, to provide some much needed back-up in the circle.  One wonders how bad things might have been at Fresno State this season, if not for the late addition of McHellon, who's been not only a reliable No. 2 starter (15 starts, including wins over the likes of BYU and Oregon State), but also the team leader in both home runs (8) and RBI (35).

The oddity in the Bulldogs' struggles is this:  Heading into the 2017 season, pitching was thought to be Fresno State's main weakness after losing 2-time MW Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton.  But, in fact, pitching has turned out to be the Bulldogs' strong suit, largely due to right-hander Kamalani Dung.  The sophomore from the state of Hawai'i has been sensational in 2017, with six shutouts and an ERA shockingly nearly a full point better than Compton's last season, and nearly 1 1/2 points better in conference play than the eventual MW Pitcher of the Year.

Dung's 16-10 overall record looks pedestrian compared to Compton's 25-6 mark a season ago, but Dung's ERA in MW play is 2.07 this year.  In winning the league's top pitching honor a season ago, Compton's ERA in conference play was 3.51.

In fact, as a pitching staff, Fresno State has lowered its team ERA in both conference play and overall
Kamalani Dung
this season. So again, what happened?

Offense and defense happened.  Or, lack of it.  With the exception of the opening weekend of the 2017 season, when the Bulldogs committed just one error in five games at the Kajikawa Classic in February, defense has been an issue.  Already in 2017, Fresno State has allowed nine more unearned runs than it did all of last season, which included four NCAA postseason games as well.

In Mountain West games this year, defense has been the difference between most of the Bulldogs' wins and losses.  Fresno State has given up 17 unearned runs thus far in conference play.  The Bulldogs' opponents have allowed 1 unearned run.  A 17-to-1 differential in unearned runs speaks volumes.  Easy fly balls to the outfield have been dropped, and routine infield grounders booted game after game.

Defensive issues play a big part in trying to explain this stunning stat:  Fresno State has a losing conference record, even though its team ERA is 2.86, compared to its opponents' 5.56 ERA.  There's no way that should happen.

But along with shaky defense, maybe even more surprising is the Bulldogs' lack of offense.  Heading into 2017, Fresno State looked -- on paper, at least -- like an offensive juggernaut.  Most of its big bats from a spectacular 2016 season were back, including three of the team's top four home run hitters, a 2017 preseason All-American (Lindsey Willmon) by College Sports Madness, and 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Kierra Willis.

But the Bulldogs' run production has taken a massive nosedive.  After scoring 347 runs last year, that number is 230 this season.  In Mountain West play, that dropoff has been even more shocking.  Fresno State scored 200 runs in MW play last season, but only 59 this year.  After hitting 44 doubles and 31 home runs in MW play last year, the 'Dogs are down to only 12 doubles and 12 home runs this season.  The team batting average in league play has dropped 74 points, while its slugging percentage has fallen from .592 to .483.

After having 254 hits in Mountain West play last season as a team, the Bulldogs have just 89 midway through conference play in 2017.  Willmon, who batted .459 in MW play as a junior, has seen her batting average drop more than 200 points this year, to.242.  Dominique Jackson, who started 44 games and hit 11 home runs as a true freshman under Ford last year, has not started a game this season and has just nine total at-bats in 2017.

NCAA Strength of Schedule
Still, Garza should be commended for not trying to take the easy way out like some of her coaching colleagues who pad their non-conference schedules with easy wins.  Fresno State, once again, played the toughest schedule in the Mountain West.  In the NCAA's "toughest schedule" release of games played thru March 19, the Bulldogs had played the nation's 28th strongest slate.  No other MW team ranked in the top 50 at that time.  Three teams in the conference ranked outside the top 250, signifying very weak non-league schedules.

And that's not to say Fresno State won't pick up the pieces and go on a long winning streak and ultimately reach the NCAA Tournament this season.  The Bulldogs are more than capable, but things will have to turn around quickly.  And despite all the problems that many consider a "free-fall," the 'Dogs sit just two games back of first-place Utah State in the loss column in MW play.  It all starts with a home series against rival San Jose State beginning Friday at Margie Wright Diamond, and it's a series Fresno State must win to have a realistic shot at claiming a third straight Mountain West championship.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rams edge Aggies, while Bulldogs lose heartbreaker at No. 23 Cal

Colorado State shut out first-place Utah State to salvage game three of that series Saturday, while Fresno State lost a heartbreaker in Berkeley in a game where the Bulldogs were two outs from a key road win over the nation's 23rd-ranked Cal Bears.

The Rams, behind pitcher Larisa Petakoff's third shutout of the season, beat Utah State and freshman pitcher Kellie White 3-0, but it was the Aggies winning two of three games in the series.  USU's lead in Mountain West play dwindled to just a game in the loss column over both San Jose State and San Diego State, which both completed 3-game home sweeps.  The Spartans knocked off Boise State for a third day in a row, while the Aztecs overpowered New Mexico a third straight day.  SDSU outscored the Lobos 22-3 in the series.

Nevada, after losing a 7-0 lead in a 12-7 loss at home to UNLV on Friday, bounced back for a win in the series finale over the Rebels.

In Berkeley, Fresno State held a 1-0 lead nearly the entire game against a Cal team that hadn't lost a home non-conference game to an unranked opponent in more than a decade.  The Bulldogs were two outs from a shutout, which would have been sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung's MW-leading seventh of the year.

In the fateful bottom of the seventh inning, Dung was hamstrung by a strike zone that kept getting smaller and smaller as Cal neared a rare non-conference home loss.  Dung had allowed just two hits until the bottom of the seventh, but after three walks and a pair of singles, it was the Bears who came out on top.

Fresno State out-hit Cal seven to four, despite the loss.  The Bulldogs have lost an uncharacteristic six of their past seven games, tying a school record for most losses in a 7-game span in program history.  Dung finished with a 4-hitter against the nation's 23rd-ranked team.

In 14 innings of work this week, Dung allowed a total of just five hits and had an ERA of 1.00.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Utah State-Fresno State snowed out, potentially tossing MW race into chaos


The final game of an important 3-game Mountain West series between the current first-place team (Utah State) and the preseason predicted first-place team (Fresno State) was snowed out in Logan on Sunday, potentially throwing the MW softball race into chaos down the road.

Canceled games in Mountain West softball are not made up, and this one could be a very important factor in determining the conference champion.  With the conference choosing not to hold a postseason tournament to determine its automatic entrant into the NCAA Tournament, the Mountain West awards its bid to the regular-season title winner.  We are already assured now that teams will play an uneven number of games to determine the champion.

With a conference race this tight (just two games in the loss column separates first- and eighth-place at the moment), the league was dealt a potentially lethal blow with today's game between the Aggies and Bulldogs being canceled.

There's a decent chance the Mountain West's automatic NCAA bid could be determined by percentage points in the event a half-game separates first- and second-place in May.

In games that were played on Sunday, Colorado State split a doubleheader at San Jose State, winning 5-0 in game one and falling 3-2 in the nightcap.  CSU won that important series and now has series wins over both the Spartans and San Diego State.  Madison Kilcrease hit a rare, inside-the-park grand slam to highlight a 5-run first inning in the opener for the Rams.  Bridgette Hutton tossed a complete-game 3-hitter as CSU roughed up SJSU starter Katelyn Linford for five earned runs before the Spartans could record the second out of the game.

Boise State won its series at UNLV with a victory today in a game where the Rebels committed seven errors.  Also today, New Mexico avoided a sweep with a 9-6 win over Nevada in Albuquerque.

Friday, April 7, 2017

First-place Aggies sweep struggling Bulldogs, who tumble to 6th place


No one expected Fresno State to fall this far.  And certainly not this fast.

In a season in which the Bulldogs began the year ranked in the Top 25 and predicted to win the Mountain West softball championship, Fresno State continued to fall deeper towards the conference cellar, losing a doubleheader at Utah State Friday by 1-0 and 7-4 scores.

It's the Aggies who now hold sole possession of first place in the Mountain West standings, and have taken a 2-game lead over the rest of the conference.  For first-year head coach Linda Garza and Fresno State, it's an entirely different story.

The Bulldogs have now lost four consecutive conference games for the first time in school history.  It had never happened in Mountain West play, nor any conference in which the Bulldogs ever were affiliated in the sport of softball.  Fresno State must defeat Utah State in game three of the series (either Saturday or Sunday, weather permitting) to avoid tying the all-time school record for consecutive losses in the sport of softball -- five.

For a program that has never finished below third place in the conference standings in its storied softball history, the Bulldogs currently find themselves alone in sixth place in the Mountain West standings.  This marks the first time a Fresno State softball team has been below .500 in conference play 10 or more games into league play.  At 5-6 overall (.455 winning percentage), the 'Dogs are well below their worst conference mark in school  history (14-10, .583).

Friday, Utah State freshman sensation Kellie White was the difference, winning both games.  White threw a 2-hit shutout in the opener and then picked up the win in relief in the nightcap as the Aggies rallied from a 4-0 deficit to win 7-4.

In game one, White and Fresno State's Kamalani Dung were both outstanding, and Dung again had the misfortune of pitching well, but being the tough-luck loser.  The Bulldogs blew their best scoring opportunity in the top of the first inning in game one, loading the bases with one out, before White induced the leading Bulldog hitter -- sophomore Morgan Howe -- to hit into an inning-ending double play.

Both Dung and White would take 2-hit shutouts into the seventh.  While Fresno State left a base runner stranded in the top of the seventh, USU scored the game's lone run on a walk-off solo homer by Sarina Jaramillo.  It was the first hit allowed by Dung since the game's second inning.

In game two, the Bulldogs appeared to have the game in hand after Howe hit a 2-run home run and Kierra Willis launched a solo shot against Aggies starter April Brown.  That was enough for USU coach Steve Johnson to pull Brown and replace her with White in the circle. After Vanessa Hernandez stole home, Fresno State was in front 4-0 and Bulldog starting pitcher Savannah McHellon was cruising with a no-hitter intact in the fourth inning.

Paxton Provost would break up McHellon's no-hit bid with a one-out double in the bottom of the fourth, and Jaramillo followed with a 2-run home run to cut the Bulldog lead to 4-2.  It would remain that way until the bottom of the sixth when Provost hit an RBI single to make it a 1-run game.  A walk to Jaramillo came just before freshman Riley Plogger hit a 3-run homer to left on a cool, windy day in Logan.  That would make it 6-4 USU, and McHellon was pulled.  Fresno State freshman reliever Samantha Mejia then gave up a solo homer to designated player Bailee Trapp almost immediately upon entering, setting up the game's final margin.

It guaranteed Utah State's first series win against Fresno State in a quarter century.  The last time the Aggies beat the 'Dogs in a series was 1992.  In fact, the Bulldogs have long dominated the series with USU, winning 27 of the last 28 meetings entering play Friday.

As Friday came to a close, Fresno State is wondering how things could fall apart so quickly.  The Bulldogs held sole possession of first place in the MW two weeks ago, but have gone a very uncharacteristic 1-5 in conference play since then.

Both teams finished the afternoon with nine hits apiece, but for the Bulldogs it was more of the same.  For the past few weeks, Fresno State has been inconsistent at the plate, with an inability to bring runners home.  The Bulldogs were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in game one, and 2-for-14 with runners on base in the nightcap.

Elsewhere Friday, Colorado State defeated San Jose State 5-4, Boise State beat UNLV 5-1, and Nevada run-ruled New Mexico 10-2 in six innings.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Top 4 teams in the MW standings all lose on Sunday

It was a wild day in Mountain West softball as the four teams at the top of the conference standings heading into Sunday all suffered losses.

Faltering Fresno State concluded a disappointing homestand by losing to Nevada for the second day in a row, Utah State took it on the chin against Boise State, San Jose State suffered a series loss at the hands of San Diego State, and Colorado State lost both halves of a doubleheader to New Mexico.

For the Bulldogs, it was more of the same.  Another day of defensive blunders took place Sunday for Fresno State, with three more errors and a passed ball leading to a pair of early unearned runs as Nevada went in front 3-0.  Over the last two games, Fresno State committed five errors leading to eight unearned runs. The Bulldogs, however, would cut the Nevada lead to 3-2 before a Wolf Pack uprising in the top of the seventh -- largely on a 3-run homer by Kenzi Goins -- gave Nevada a 5-run cushion. Fresno State would creep closer in the bottom of the seventh with a pair of 2-out runs, but fall short in a 7-4 loss.

The Bulldogs stranded 21 base runners in back-to-back home losses to Nevada, and 28 in the 3-game series.  The series loss snapped a string of 16 straight MW series wins for the 'Dogs, spanning three seasons.  Struggling Fresno State is now just 3-4 in its last seven conference games at home following a 32-game Mountain West winning streak.  And much of the blame lies with the Bulldog defense, which has now committed 16 errors in nine conference games this season, leading to a MW-worst 17 unearned runs allowed.

Only Boise State, which was predicted to finish last in the league race by conference coaches in the preseason poll, has committed more errors this season in Mountain West play than the Bulldogs.  Linda Garza's team has gone error-free in just one of its past nine contests.  And while Fresno State's defense has been lacking, its pitching has been the opposite.  Through Sunday's action, the Bulldogs lead the Mountain West in team ERA in conference games at 2.52.

But, as we've found out, even quality pitching can only take a team so far.

Utah State maintained its hold on first place in the Mountain West standings despite losing 4-2 at Boise State.  The Broncos, after committing nine errors in a loss to USU on Saturday, played error-free ball Sunday, and scored two in the bottom of the sixth for the win.  Kelsey Broadus improved to 5-0 with a complete-game 3-hitter.  Rebekah Cervantes had two hits, including a home run -- her seventh of the season.

New Mexico, which has played only two league series, moved into a statistical tie for first place, with a doubleheader sweep of Colorado State in Albuquerque.  UNM won 7-3 and 8-6, and has now won both of its league series by 2-1 margins.

San Diego State won its first conference series of the season in three tries, beating San Jose State 7-6 in nine innings.  Down to its last out and strike in the bottom of the ninth, the Aztecs tied it on a full-count, bases-loaded walk by Shelby Thompson against SJSU reliever Colette Riggs.  Jaylene Ignacio then singled up the middle to score the game-winner as SDSU won its second in a row against the Spartans.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

Errors play a huge role as Utah State moves alone into first

Fresno State and Boise State both committed costly errors and handed their respective opponents -- Nevada and Utah State -- wins on Saturday that changed the complexion of the Mountain West race.

Both the Bulldogs and Broncos had defensive meltdowns in the top of the first inning at home, all but gift-wrapping wins for their opponents as the two combined to allow 12 unearned runs -- 6 each.  For Fresno State, it was a pair of 2-out errors in the top of the first inning that proved costly.  Instead of starting pitcher Savannah McHellon getting out of the inning with a 0-0 tie, it quickly turned into a 6-0 deficit from which the Bulldogs couldn't escape.  The six unearned runs would be the difference in the Pack's 8-4 win.

For Boise State, it was equally bad, if not worse.  The Broncos committed five errors in the top of the first inning alone, on their way to a Mountain West season-high nine errors on the day in a 7-3 loss to Utah State.  Only one of the Aggies' seven runs were earned, but it was enough to push USU alone into first place in the MW standings at 6-2, a game ahead of the Bulldogs.

Fresno State has struggled on defense all season long, and things actually seem to be getting worse.  After committing just one error in five games on the opening weekend of the season in February, the Bulldogs have committed 37 errors in the past seven weeks.  In each of their three MW losses, errors have been the difference, as the Bulldogs have allowed 10 unearned runs on six errors in those three defeats.

McHellon hit a home run for the third consecutive game, giving her a Fresno State-high eight home runs this season, but it wasn't enough as the Bulldogs continued a pattern seen in most of their losses lately -- stranded base runners.  Fresno State left 13 base runners aboard, making it 24 stranded runners in the Bulldogs' last two conference losses.

Boise State, meanwhile, was shaky from the start as three of the first four Utah State batters reached on errors.  Third baseman Tatiana Sorokina committed three errors, while Morgan Lamb had a pair of errors.  The Broncos entered the game as one of the MW's best defensive teams, having just 22 on the season.

April Brown improved to 9-2 on the year with her win for Utah State.

Elsewhere, San Diego State used a 4-run sixth inning to dispose of San Jose State 5-3 and even that series at a game apiece.  Colorado State and New Mexico were postponed by weather and will play two Sunday.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Fresno State run-rules Nevada 9-1 in 6 innings

Fresno State continued its Friday night magic, scoring nine or more runs for the third straight Friday to begin Mountain West play and run-ruling Nevada.

The Bulldogs routed the Wolf Pack 9-1 in six innings, with both Savannah McHellon and Lindsey Willmon hitting home runs and finishing with three RBI each.  Sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung was nearly unhittable with a complete-game 2-hitter.

Fresno State has now scored 28 runs in its three Friday series-opening wins the past three weeks to start conference play.   The Bulldogs have had a 10-7 win at San Diego State, followed by a 9-0 (five innings) win over Boise State last week, and tonight's 9-1 (six innings) victory over the Wolf Pack.

In other games, Utah State defeated Boise State 4-1 on the road behind freshman pitcher Kellie White, San Jose State edged struggling San Diego State 5-3 in San Diego as Katelyn Linford struck out 12, and Colorado State got a quality outing from pitcher Kaylynn Pierce in a 12-2 (six innings) run-rule win at New Mexico.