Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Predicting the 2017 MW race: Fresno State looks like the favorite again

With the 2017 season starting next month, it's time again to forecast the Mountain West softball race.

This year seems a bit more unpredictable than usual, with so many changes to Mountain West teams -- both by addition and subtraction.  Two new head coaches take over this year, most notably at Fresno State, which has just its fourth head coach in the nearly 40-year history of the program.

Fresh off back-to-back Mountain West championships and a record-setting 22-1 conference record and No. 17 national ranking a year ago, the Bulldogs will look for a three-peat behind Fresno native Linda Garza, who takes the helm after the most successful seasons ever for UC Riverside softball.  The Bulldogs have big shoes to fill all around, but bring in a host of talent.

Garza inherits a squad that returns five starters, including 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Kierra Willis, and a very strong set of newcomers.  Flo Softball ranked Fresno State's incoming recruiting class the 18th-best in the nation, with three national Top 100 recruits set to wear Bulldog red in 2017.

The biggest difference this time around?  The 'Dogs may find themselves in a lot of slugfests, with the departure of three pitchers, including 2-time Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, Jill Compton, who won 88 games in four seasons.  After a summer spent with the Dallas Charge of the NPF, Compton will serve as a student assistant coach at Fresno State in 2017 and could provide some valuable insight to a talented group of new pitchers, including two first-team JC All-Americans.

But where the Bulldogs' true power lies this season is at the plate, where they appear to have what could be the most explosive offense in school history and one that could re-write the record books.

San Diego State, which failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years a season ago, should challenge Fresno State for the conference title and returns a strong nucleus.  San Jose State's squad will be talented, especially in the circle, but the lack of a home field could play a role in the Spartans' season.  Colorado State, Utah State and Boise State look to be perhaps the most improved teams this year, and could surprise.

Here's how we see the Mountain West softball race in 2017.

1.  Fresno State
2.  San Diego State
3.  San Jose State
4.  Colorado State
5.  Utah State
6.  UNLV
7.  Nevada
8.  New Mexico
9.  Boise State

The team-by-team breakdown:

Fresno State - The Bulldogs hit a school record 61 home runs last year, with four players in double-figures in that category.  Three of the four return, including 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year and NFCA first team All-Region pick Kierra Willis (11 HR, .345 BA, 57 hits, 54 runs, 45 RBI, 40 walks, 10 doubles).  First team All-MW and NFCA All-Region pick Lindsey Willmon (12 HR, 61 hits, 48 RBI, .690 slugging percentage) is back for her senior season, along with sophomores Morgan Howe (.371 BA), and Dominique Jackson (11 HR, including one against eventual NCAA champion Oklahoma in a game Fresno State narrowly lost 3-2).  All-MW and All-Region infielder Malia Rivers returns after hitting .306 with 56 hits last year, and outfielder Vanessa Hernandez is back after a freshman campaign in which she caught fire and improved as the season went along.  Big things are expected this season out of Hernandez, who hit .750 with four home runs and 15 RBI in 12 at-bats in four games this Fall.  Highly-touted newcomers, including twin sisters Maddi and Kindra Hackbarth, and first team junior college All-American Savannah McHellon, should make an immediate impact.

 The Hackbarth sisters, both high school All-Americans and Top 100 national recruits (as rated by Flo Softball), arrive after being recruited by the likes of Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan, Cal, Northwestern and more.  Maddi Hackbarth, likely to inherit the starting catcher's job left open by the departure of MW Defensive Player of the Year Paige Gumz, hit a staggering .875 in Fall ball with three home runs, and averaged 1.5 RBI per at-bat.  McHellon should see time at both pitcher (she went 20-2 last season with 17 complete games, 181 strikeouts and a 1.50 ERA) and at the plate, where she hit 23 home runs and had 58 RBI in 47 games.  One of the most heralded high school recruits in the country two years ago, McHellon began her career at SEC powerhouse Georgia, where she went unbeaten with a 1.40 ERA as a pitcher in limited action, and hit three home runs in just 40 at-bats.  She could be the Mountain West's top newcomer this year.  Sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung returns after going 8-1 as a freshman, holding opponents to a ,262 batting average.  If that number sounds good, it's because it's identical to the .262 put up by her former teammate and 2-time MW Pitcher of the Year Compton last season.  Dung made her way into the lineup as a regular in 2016 when senior Hannah Harris went down with a career-ending ACL injury in early March, and proved up to the task.  A valuable part of Fresno State's run to the MW title, yet somehow overlooked when the conference awards came around, Dung went a perfect 5-0 in MW play.  She earned non-conference wins over the likes of NCAA Tournament qualifier Long Beach State, and her 13 strikeout performance in a win over Utah State represented the most Ks by a Mountain West pitcher in a game last season.  Dung had a better than 6-to-1 strikeouts to walks ratio this Fall and seems poised to become another in the long line of Fresno State pitching greats.  Along with McHellon, new pitching additions include freshman Samantha Mejia, an All-CIF selection from Bakersfield, and JC first team All-American Sarah Santana.  A former conference Player of the Year out of Fresno's Clovis West High, Santana set the California state JC record for pitching wins (38) last season at Fresno City College and also swung a mean bat, ranking in the top three in the state in several categories -- hits (78, first), batting average (.506, second), home runs (16, third) and RBI (68, third).  Garza will have the most versatile lineup in the Mountain West, and a Bulldog team that -- despite losing some very talented players -- could be even deeper than last year's championship squad.

San Diego State - The Aztecs look to return to the NCAA tournament after missing out on postseason play last year for the first time since 2007.  A 12-12 Mountain West record and inconsistency prevented an NCAA at-large bid, despite a 30-22 overall mark.  San Diego State, for the first time in years, did not sweep a single MW team in conference action, and lost at least once to every team that finished in the bottom half of the final MW standings.  The good news:  six starters return, along with all four pitchers from a season ago.  The key will be keeping junior catcher Jenavee Peres healthy.  Peres started fewer than half of the Aztecs' games in 2016, and with her robust .451 batting average sidelined, a key part of SDSU's offense was gone.  Overall, the dropoff in offensive production as a team was tremendous for Kathy Van Wyk's team compared to the previous year.  In 2015, SDSU hit 63 home runs.  That number dropped to just 25 last season.  Zaria Meshack (.368 BA, 49 hits) and Sydnee Cable (.303 BA, 40 hits) join Peres as the Aztec returnees who hit above .300 last season.  Pitchers Erica Romero (15-9, 3.70 ERA) and Alex Formby (11-10, 3.66 ERA) were a steady 1-2 combo last season and both return to lead what should be a quality pitching staff.  Romero, after throwing 28 complete games in 2015, saw that number drop dramatically last year, going the distance just four times.  Formby led SDSU by holding opponents to a .282 batting average and should be improved with a year in San Diego under her belt after transferring from Virginia.  An intriguing freshman pitcher arrives in Marissa Moreno, who chose SDSU over Utah State, among other potential schools.  Moreno is a 2-time CIF first team selection and struck out 526 batters while at Torrance High School.  The Aztecs should be improved in 2017, and their return to prominence could again mean the Mountain West gets multiple bids to the NCAA tournament.

San Jose State - The Spartans finished second in the Mountain West a year ago, six games in the loss column behind Fresno State, which ran away with the conference title.  If not for some missteps in non-conference play, SJSU would have joined the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament.  In the end, a middling RPI in the 60s left San Jose State on the outside looking in.  And this year will be a strange one for the Spartans, who no longer have a home field on campus and will be forced to play "home" games in nearby Santa Clara and not-so-close Stockton.  A whopping seven SJSU players hit over .300 a year ago and started more than 40 games.  Four of the seven are no longer on the team, though, which presents a problem.  Gone is a lot of offensive firepower, including the big bats of All-MW selections Jessie Hufstetler, Jessica Madrid, and Taylor Purdy.  Those three alone combined for 20 home runs, 41 doubles, 176 hits, 117 RBI and 126 runs scored.  Top returnees include first team All-MW and second team All-Region pick Brittany Abacherli (.351 BA, 60 hits, team-high 12 HR, 49 RBI), along with sophomore Madison Aurin, who came on strong towards the end of her freshman season to earn second team All-MW honors.  A third team All-Region selection as well, Aurin had 10 home runs and 41 RBI to go along with 43 hits and a .344 batting average in 33 starts.  Despite losing two pitchers who decided to leave the program, SJSU returns its top three pitchers from a season ago.  Just one, however, had an ERA under 5.00 last year, and that is Emily Rogers (3-3, 3.58 ERA).  Katelyn Linford, who led the Spartans in innings pitched, wins, starts (22) and complete games (6), returns after going 10-10 with a 5.08 ERA.  Senior Colette Riggs (9-4, 5.25 ERA) is also back for a San Jose State team that will look quite a bit different, with 11 freshmen on a 26-member squad.  Finding replacements for all of the missing ingredients on offense will be key to SJSU's success, along with the ability to win without ever playing a true home game.

Colorado State - Coach Jen Fisher, after a nightmarish 2016 season where Mother Nature dealt the Rams some severe blows, faces a rather nice prospect -- 26 home games.  That's rare these days, and especially for a team that plays in a cold climate like Colorado State.  CSU has stacked up a strong schedule for what should be an improved team, and hopefully the weather will cooperate this time around.  Last year, nearly every conference series for the Rams was delayed, postponed or rescheduled by rain or snow.  Colorado State returns six starters and a pair of pitchers, plus adds a key transfer in pitcher Kaylynn Pierce, who played for current Fresno State coach Linda Garza last season when Garza was the head coach at UC Riverside.  Pierce went 9-4 for the Highlanders, with an ERA of 4.20, holding opponents to just a.247 clip.  She had eight complete games and tossed a pair of complete-game shutouts, and is one of the newcomers to watch in the MW this year.  The Hutton sisters -- Haley and Bridgette -- should be forces.  Senior Haley Hutton has earned All-MW honors in each of her first three seasons and hit .411 last year, reaching base safely in 40 of 46 games.  She had a .519 on-base percentage and led the team with 62 hits a season ago.  Sister Bridgette Hutton went 4-11 in the circle as a freshman, appearing in 23 games, and pitching much better than her record might indicate.  She and Pierce will be needed to offset the loss of all-conference pitcher Holly Reinke, who won 51 games as a Ram, including a no-hitter against UNLV in her final appearance in a CSU uniform.  Returning starters include Amber Nelson (.343), Savannah Clark (.308, 45 hits, 7 HR, 29 RBI), Taryn Arcarese (.275, 10 doubles, 31 RBI), Madison Kilcrease (.262, 32 hits, team-high 32 walks), and junior Hannah McCorkhill (.218).  Colorado State gets the opportunity to host both San Diego State and Fresno State in Fort Collins this season.  On paper, this is a well-rounded team that could break back into the upper echelon of the conference standings.

Utah State2017 could be a bit of a rebuilding year in Logan.  Four of the seven Aggies players who started 40+ games a season ago have departed, and there are some big losses to overcome.  Most notably, gone is Noelle Johnson, one of the top players in program history.  Johnson pitched in 150 games over four seasons for Utah State, striking out more than 500 batters and re-writing the record books for Aggies pitchers, while simultaneously being a standout at the plate.  A 2-time first team All-MW pick, Johnson hit .333 or better in three of her four seasons, including .348 as a senior.  She and Alleyah Armendariz combined for 44 pitching appearances last season and both are gone.  Three of last season's top batting averages are gone, including All-MW selection Sarah Chow (team leader in batting average at .376, hits with 59, and runs with 36).  Chow had more than half of the team's triples (8 of 14) last season.  Despite the losses of quality players, there is a lot in which to build upon.  Utah State had its most successful season in 20 years, finishing 12-12 in conference play and 26-25 overall, and returns Victoria Saucedo, its team leader in home runs (12) and RBI (44).  Jazmin Clarke (.351 in a strong freshman campaign) returns, along with Paxton Provost (.333, 21 hits) and Sarina Jaramillo (.317, 51 hits, 22 RBI).  April Brown (7-5, 3.79 ERA) appears to be the team's top pitcher and could be in for a breakout season.  Katie Schroeder (7-1, 5.00 ERA) returns as well, and Utah State adds a freshman in Kellie White.  Eleven of the 20 players on Utah State's roster this season are upperclassmen.

UNLV - The Rebels saved their best for last in 2016, ending the season with their top performance of the year.  UNLV upset Mountain West champion Fresno State on its home field on Senior Day last May, snapping the Bulldogs' 32-game conference win streak and preventing them from finishing with a perfect 23-0 league record.  Senior pitcher Morgan Ettinger, who earned the complete-game win over the Bulldogs last year, is back this season, along with all three other UNLV pitchers from 2016.  Ettinger (8-6, 4.52 ERA) will be joined by returnees Kwyn Cooper (7-9, 3.28 ERA), Alyssa Batastini (5-6, 4.96 ERA), and Janine Petmecky (4-10, 5.25 ERA).  On offense, five starters return, and there are four key losses, including Garie Blando, the Mountain West Player of the Year in 2014.  Last season's top hitter -- All-MW pick Alyssa Cordova (.347) is also gone, and there's a question of how much power the Rebels will have on offense.  Despite playing a high number of home games in one of the conference's most hitter-friendly parks, UNLV hit just 29 home runs last year.  Making matters worse: the returning players this season accounted for just 13 of those.  The key for coach Lisa Dodd is getting those power numbers up.  Jadelyn Yadao-Valdez (.338 BA, 16 RBI), Cooper (.330 BA, 14 RBI) and Petmecky (.316, 28 RBI) return, along with catcher Emily Haslinger (.259 BA, 23 RBI) and should lead the way on offense.  UNLV will have as many as seven pitchers on its staff in 2017 after picking up a pair of JC transfers, both from Salt Lake Community College.

Nevada - New head coach Josh Taylor takes over in Reno after Nevada enjoyed one of its better seasons of late, going 32-15 overall and 10-10 in conference play.  A weak non-conference schedule and poor RPI meant the Pack didn't get a look at a possible NCAA tournament bid, but Nevada's upgraded the quality of its schedule this season.  The biggest loss of all came when pitcher Brooke Bolinger chose to depart after a freshman season where she won first team All-MW honors a year ago, going 16-6 with a 2.81 ERA.  She threw five shutouts, 18 complete games, and started 27 of the Wolf Pack's 47 contests, and appeared to be the face of Nevada softball for the next three seasons.  With Bolinger's departure, senior McKenna Isenberg (11-7, 3.87 ERA) and junior Chase Redington (2 starts, 19 appearances a year ago) are the lone returnees who saw any time in the circle in 2016.  Freshman Courtney Riley, a 2-time Sacramento Bee second team All-Metro pick the last two seasons at Elk Grove HS, arrives this year, but pitching depth may be a concern.  Megan Sweet, a first team All-MW pick and Nevada's leader in hits, home runs and RBI a season ago, is gone but won't be far away; she will serve as a student assistant this year.  Jennifer Purcell (.412 BA, 40 RBI, 12 HR), Aaliyah Gibson (.404, 59 hits) and Kwynn Warner (.345, 15 RBI) are the only returning starters who hit over .290 last year, and there is a decided lack of overall team experience.  Just eight returning players had an official at-bat last season for Nevada.  Purcell and Gibson both earned second team All-MW honors a year ago and were All-Region picks as well, with Purcell garnering first team honors.

New Mexico - The Lobos took an unexpected dip in the Mountain West standings last season and have been on a bit of a rollercoaster the last couple of years.  Picked to finish last in the league by conference coaches in 2015, New Mexico finished a strong and surprising fourth.  When picked to finish fourth and maintain that momentum in 2016, the Lobos dropped to seventh.  This team has been very unpredictable, as evidenced by last year.  UNM defeated its first Top 25-ranked team in three years when it beat Nebraska at a tournament in Fullerton in March.  But by May, the Lobos were in the midst of a 9-game losing streak, and struggling mightily as the season came to a close.  Colette Robert, who led UNM in pitching wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games, and starts, decided to transfer after her 2016 freshman season and is now at the College of Idaho.  Lauren Soles, who led the Lobos in ERA (3.98) and was the only pitcher to hold opponents under a .300 batting average, is gone as well.  Pitching returnees Krissy Fortner (3-4, 5.47 ERA) and Tess McPherson (4-3, 6.65 ERA) will be asked to do a lot, but they're joined by freshman newcomers Jensen Main and Angelica Lujan.  Main was her HS league's Pitcher of the Year in California last season and should see significant time.  Despite losing a key standout in Mariah Rimmer, the Lobos look solid on offense.  Talented senior infielder Jasmine Casados (.348 BA, 42 RBI) returns, along with All-MW junior catcher Chelsea Johnson (.391 BA, 11 HR), and seniors Shelbie Franc (.252 BA) and Michala Erickson (.314, 8 HR. 53 hits, 28 RBI).  The big question mark will be pitching.

Boise State - There were some glimmers of hope last season for the Broncos, despite the poor overall record and last-place finish.  The positives:  Boise State picked up a stunning, 3-2 win at San Diego State on the final weekend of the regular season, and that victory may have been the deciding factor in keeping the Aztecs from receiving an NCAA at-large bid; and the Broncos won consecutive Mountain West series at one point, taking two of three from both Colorado State and UNLV.  But there were also negatives.  For example, Broncos pitchers were shelled in series against Fresno State and San Jose State, giving up 44 runs to the Spartans and a MW-record 49 runs to the Bulldogs.  Boise State finished with a team ERA of 6.96, and its top two pitchers in terms of ERA are gone.  Hope for an improved season lies in newcomers to the Broncos' pitching staff.  Christina Washington, who went 31-12 in three seasons at Cal State Fullerton, transferred to Boise State for her senior season and could be the answer coach Cindy Ball has been looking for.  Washington had an ERA under 4.00 in all three years for the Titans, but now faces the prospect of playing in a home stadium where a ball that would be a shallow pop-up in Fullerton will soar out of Dona Larsen Park.  Pitching in Boise is always an adventure, but Washington has the ability to be a difference-maker.  Also new to the team: Oregon State transfer pitcher Rainey Dyreson, who won five games as a freshman with the Beavers.  Sophomore shortstop Rebekah Cervantes (.342 BA, 13 HR) is Boise State's lone All-MW honoree returning, following a standout season where she won Freshman of the Year honors.  Senior outfielder Izzy Serrano (.325 BA, 16 RBI) and sophomore catcher Morgan Lamb (.323 BA, 6 HR, 17 RBI) are also back for a team that has a strong chance to move up in the standings if the pitching comes through, especially from Washington.  The temptation was to flip New Mexico and Boise State in our preseason predictions, and it could very well end up that way.

Note:  This preview does not take into consideration any possible injuries that are currently unknown, nor any possible late transfers or roster changes.

Friday, December 30, 2016

2017 schedules are here for all Mountain West softball teams

Every Mountain West softball team has released its 2017 schedule, and there isn't a whole lot of surprise as perennial powers Fresno State and San Diego State have embraced high quality slates full of marquee non-conference opponents.

Here's a quick look at each MW team's slate in 2017 by clicking on each link:  Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State, Colorado State, UNLV, Boise State, New Mexico, Utah State, and Nevada.

Two-time defending Mountain West champion Fresno State gets the season started with a bang, meeting reigning Pac-12 champ Oregon on the opening day of the campaign.  The Bulldogs will face two Pac-12 and two Big Ten teams on the first weekend of the 2017 season, and coach Linda Garza's squad will face 15 games against power conference teams, meeting at least one from all five power conferences.

Notable opponents for the Bulldogs include Oregon State (twice), Washington, California (twice), Mississippi State, Texas Tech, BYU (twice), Minnesota, Northwestern, Stanford, Purdue, Indiana (twice), Iowa, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, among others.

San Diego State, much like the Bulldogs, starts the season against a strong slate, and will meet longtime power UCLA on the opening day of the 2017 campaign.  SDSU faces a demanding schedule that includes Washington, Notre Dame, Florida State, BYU, Utah, Oklahoma State, Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and more.

Fresno State and San Diego State will also battle it out in what could be the season's most pivotal Mountain West series on the opening weekend of conference play, March 17-19.  The Bulldogs, who swept the Aztecs a year ago on their way to a record-setting 22-1 league record, travel to San Diego to begin Mountain West play.

San Jose State, which struggled by going 11-17 in non-conference action a season ago, has eased up a bit on its 2017 schedule.  Games against Oregon, Utah and BYU are still on the docket, but overall this is a far more manageable slate this time around.

The Spartans, no longer playing their home games on campus, will have 11 "home" games at nearby Santa Clara University.  A 3-game "home" series with Nevada will be played on the campus of the University of the Pacific Tigers in Stockton.

Colorado State will play a high number of home games for a team in a cold climate, as 26 games are set to be played in Fort Collins.  CSU has compiled one of its stronger overall slates in recent memory, facing -- among others -- Texas Tech (twice), Texas (twice), Minnesota, Wisconsin (twice), Maryland (twice) and Penn State (twice).  The Rams will host both Fresno State and San Diego State this season.

Las Vegas will be the site of a lot of home games this season as UNLV hosts 28 contests.  The Rebels host three tourneys and get to face the likes of Virginia Tech, Louisville and DePaul all at home.  UNLV will meet Oregon State twice in Corvallis, and participate in a tournament in Honolulu where it will face Hawai'i twice and Oregon once.

Boise State will begin the 2017 season a day before most other teams around the nation, opening up on Thursday, February 9, at the Hawai'i Paradise Classic against the host Rainbow Wahine.  The Broncos will face always-tough UAB and Memphis this season, along with a pair of games each against up-and-coming Weber State and Idaho State.

The Lobos of New Mexico have released a 2017 schedule that -- on the surface at least -- appears to be less daunting than in the past.  Texas A&M is the biggest name on a non-conference slate that includes two games vs. New Mexico State in the Rio Grande Rivalry series, as well as matchups against Texas State, Missouri State and UC Riverside.  Texas A&M is the only team from a power conference the Lobos will face this season.

New Mexico will be the only MW team not to open conference play on March 17, as the Lobos will have a bye that weekend before opening league action March 24 at UNLV.

Two games against in-state rival BYU (one home, one away) highlight the 2017 schedule of Utah State.  Among the bigger names on the Aggies' slate this season:  Cal State Fullerton, Summit League power North Dakota State, Texas State and Memphis.

Nevada will count among its 2017 schedule highlights a rare 3-game, non-conference road series at Kansas.  That series takes place in late April in Lawrence during the middle of Mountain West play.  The Wolf Pack will also meet the likes of Hawai'i, Utah, BYU, Memphis, Iowa State and more during a schedule that is a step up in competition from its 2016 non-conference slate.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

UPDATE: Changes galore for Mountain West softball in 2017

This post has been updated with additions in red.

To say the Mountain West will have a different look in 2017 is an understatement.

Widespread changes have taken place all over the conference, with two new head coaches, several notable pitchers and players gone, and one team even having a new home field.

Two-time reigning MW Coach of the Year Trisha Ford left Fresno State this summer to take over the reins at Arizona State.  Ford departs as the winningest coach -- by percentage -- in Mountain West softball history and led Fresno State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances the last two seasons, along with a national Top 25 finish in 2016.  The 2-time reigning conference champion Bulldogs will be led in 2017 by new head coach Linda Garza, who moves over from UC Riverside of the Big West.

Garza led the Highlanders to their only two winning seasons as a Division I team, posting back-to-back winning years in her final two seasons at UC Riverside.  The Highlanders, who had never had a 30-win season in school history before Garza's arrival, picked up 39 wins in 2015 and 32 in 2016 with her at the helm.  A Fresno native who prepped at Hoover High School, less than a mile from the Fresno State campus, Garza should pick up right where Ford left off last season.

The other MW school with a new head coach for 2017 is Nevada, where Matt Meuchel left after eight seasons with the Wolf Pack to become an assistant coach at Arkansas.  Meuchel guided the Pack to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season at the helm in 2009, but was never able to recapture the magic of that season where his team went 40-19 overall and 15-5 in the Western Athletic Conference.

Nevada has not finished with a winning conference record since that 2009 season.  Its 10-10 league record a season ago marked Nevada's most conference wins in seven years, and its 32-15 overall record was also its best since 2009.  Former Nevada assistant Josh Taylor, also a former Pack baseball player, will take over in 2017.

Taylor will inherit a Nevada squad that lost its ace pitcher, Brooke Bolinger, who transferred to Texas.  Bolinger, a first-team All-MW selection as a freshman a year ago, went 16-6 with a 2.81 ERA and started well over half of the Pack's games in 2016 (27 of 47).

Fresno State lost perhaps its top recruit before she ever threw a pitch for the Bulldogs.  Left-hander Giselle Juarez was the lone incoming MW freshman recruit to be ranked among the Top 50 high school pitchers in the country by FloSoftball.com, and she signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Bulldogs last Fall.  However, Juarez instead chose to go with Ford and is now listed on the Arizona State roster.  A one-time Arizona Wildcats verbal commit, Juarez signed with Fresno State before ultimately going to ASU.

Garza remedied the situation -- and avoided a potential disaster -- by signing a pair of JC recruits who can both hit and pitch in juniors Savannah McHellon and Sarah Santana.

McHellon, a player with Southeastern Conference experience, arrives after spending a year at Northeast Florida State College.  McHellon was one of the country's most heavily-recruited high school players in 2014, and was ranked as the No. 18 overall prospect in the nation by Student Sports before signing with Georgia of the SEC.  At NE Florida last year, she earned NJCAA Division I first-team All-American status, going 19-0 during the regular season as a pitcher with an ERA under 1.50.  She tossed nine shutouts, including a no-hitter.  As strong as her pitching is, McHellon may be an even more feared hitter.  She slugged 23 home runs in 2016, had 58 RBI, 42 walks, a .571 on-base percentage, and season-long 1.057 slugging percentage.

Santana arrives from nearby Fresno City College, where she posted a California state JC pitching record 38 wins a season ago to earn first-team JC All-America honors and conference Player of the Year.  When not pitching, she was devastating at the plate.  Santana led the state of California in hits (78), ranked second in batting average (.508), third in home runs (16), and third in RBI (68).

Colorado State will have a new pitcher as well, and it's a name and face that will be familiar to Fresno State's new head coach.  Kaylynn Pierce arrives after playing under then-UC Riverside head coach Garza as a Highlander.  Pierce went 9-4 with a 4.20 ERA as a freshman at UCR, adding three saves as well.  She pitched a pair of complete-game shutouts and held opponents to a .247 batting average, best on UCR's team.  Pierce is a key pick-up for Rams coach Jen Fisher.

Utah State has released its 2017 roster, which is notable due to the absence of pitcher and utility player Alleyah Armendariz.  A second-team All-Mountain West selection each of the last two seasons, Armendariz led the Aggies in doubles (14) and was second on the team in home runs (7) and runs scored (33), while batting .325 as a junior.  She started 46 games last season and made 14 appearances in the circle, where she had the team's second-lowest ERA at 4.67.  As a sophomore, Armendariz hit a team-high 12 home runs and started 52 games, including 19 at pitcher.

Update:  New Mexico suffered a big blow, with the departure from the program of pitcher Colette Robert.  During a strong freshman season in 2016, the left-hander led the Lobos in innings pitched (120), wins (8), starts (17) and complete games (9), and was tied for the team lead in appearances with 24.  No other New Mexico pitcher had more than three complete games a season ago.  Robert has transferred to the College of Idaho.

Boise State saw one of its pitchers depart, as Shawna Burke is now at Oregon State.  As a Bronco, Burke went 2-3 and made 30 appearances, mostly in relief.  Those 30 appearances ranked second on the team, as did her 64 2/3 innings pitched as a freshman.

San Jose State lost pitcher Chantelle Ladner, who has transferred to the JC ranks and is now at Salt Lake CC in Utah.  Ladner arrived with great fanfare in 2016, having played for the Australian U-19 National Team, where she was named top pitcher.  Ladner went 4-6 a season ago with a 5.80 ERA in 54 1/3 innings.  Her strikeouts-to-walks ratio ranked second-best on the Spartans team.  Update:  The Spartans lost a second pitcher, as Ashley Penney left the program following her freshman season in 2016.  Last year, Penney earned starts versus the likes of Stanford and Portland State, and picked up a pair of wins, including one over Virginia among her 11 appearances.

SJSU also lost its home field.  With its home stadium no longer intact, the Spartans were rumored to be looking at playing their 2017 "home" games at nearby Santa Clara University.  No final word has been released as of yet, but SJSU will have a new assistant coach to take with them wherever they play.  Letty Olivarez, after spending a season as a co-head coach at Arizona State, has joined the Spartans as an assistant.  Update:  SJSU will play its home schedule at Santa Clara, with the exception of three "home" games versus Nevada, with those three being played in Stockton.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

UC Riverside's Garza will be Fresno State's next head coach

It began with a scoop by Justin McLeod of the Justin's World blog Monday evening, and ended with a confirmation from Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko to The Fresno Bee Tuesday afternoon -- Linda Garza will be the fourth softball coach in Bulldog program history.

Speculation continued throughout the early part of Tuesday, and around 3 p.m., it was confirmed:  Trisha Ford's successor had been hired.  And the Bulldogs didn't even have to look too far, since their new coach is a name familiar to those who follow softball in the San Joaquin Valley.

Garza was a standout player at Fresno's Hoover High, right down the street from Fresno State on Barstow Avenue.  After a college career where she earned All-Mountain West honors playing for UNLV, Garza spent time as a volunteer assistant coach for the Rebels, and then in assistant or associate coaching positions with Arkansas (2002-04), Tulsa (2004-05), Purdue (2005-09) and Cal Poly (2010-12).

In the year prior to joining Cal Poly, Garza spent a season as the head coach at Wright State, where she took the Raiders to the Horizon League tournament championship and berth in the NCAA Tournament. The last four years have seen Garza flourish as head coach at UC Riverside of the Big West Conference, leading the Highlanders to their most successful seasons since the school joined the NCAA Division I softball ranks.

UCR made the move to Division I softball in 2002 and had never finished with a winning overall record in the sport before Garza took the reins of the program.  She began the rebuilding job in 2013, and by her third season, UCR had won a program-record 39 games, finishing that season 39-17 overall.   She followed it up with a second consecutive 30-win season in 2016, as UCR finished 32-22-1.

In addition, the Highlanders completed their first winning season ever in Big West Conference play, going 11-10 in league play in 2015.  That season, Garza's team finished with one of the top 15 team ERAs in the country (2.13) and featured -- for the first time in school history -- a Big West Pitcher of the Year honoree in Chelsea Ponce.  That same season, Ponce tossed the school's first-ever no-hitter.

To say that Garza had to rebuild at UC Riverside is a bit of an understatement.  This was a struggling UCR program that found little to no success on the softball diamond in its first 10 years of existence.  Not only were there no winning seasons in program history before her arrival, the Highlanders annually languished at the bottom of the Big West standings. From 2004 to 2008, UCR won just 14 of 102 conference games.  As recently as 2007, the Highlanders were winless (0-18) in league play.

In 2015, Garza's Highlanders also set a school record for most home wins in a season (22).  Over the past two seasons, her teams set program records in team batting average, hits, runs, RBI and fielding percentage.  UC Riverside had marquee non-conference wins the past two seasons over the likes of Kansas of the Big 12, and Michigan State of the Big Ten.

Garza's UCR squad saved some of its best games for Mountain West opponents.  The Highlanders have gone 5-0 in five games versus Utah State the past three seasons, and picked up victories over San Jose State and Colorado State in 2015, and UNLV this past season.  In Garza's first year at the helm of the Highlanders (2013), despite just beginning the arduous process of rebuilding the UCR program, her team defeated a San Diego State squad that would go on to win the Mountain West title and automatic NCAA bid that season.

The one team from the Mountain West that gave Garza's Highlanders the most trouble:  Fresno State.  The Bulldogs went 4-1 against UCR during her time there.  The win, though, -- a 4-2 victory in Fresno in the 2015 season -- was Riverside's first over the Bulldogs since UCR was elevated to Division I in 2002.  And just like the Highlanders' 2013 win over San Diego State, it came over the eventual Mountain West champion that season.

It seems like Fresno State hit a home run with the hiring of Garza, though the pressure to win in the Bulldogs program is a giant leap from what was expected at UC Riverside.  Many who've been around the sport think Garza's hiring is a great one.  Former New Mexico assistant coach Jennifer McKibben -- now at Pensacola State -- called Garza, "a fantastic hire," and "a tireless worker."  "She has done a tremendous job at every program she's been at," McKibben said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ford takes job with Sun Devils as Fresno State looks for new coach

Trisha Ford, after four years as the head coach at Fresno State, has left the school to become head coach at Arizona State of the Pac-12, it was announced Wednesday.

The announcement came via Twitter as Arizona State confirmed her hiring early Wednesday morning, and Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko sent out a pair of tweets of his own.  One thanked Ford for her service to the university, and the other signaled that Fresno State had immediately begun its national search for a new head coach.

In a rather telling move, Fresno State removed Ford and her assistant coaches' names from the official university athletic department web site's softball roster almost immediately Wednesday morning.

Ford went 143-71-1 as the Bulldogs' head coach, leading Fresno State to back-to-back Mountain West championships the past two seasons, a second-place finish in her second season, and a tie for second place in her first year (2013).  She was named conference coach of the year each of the past two seasons when Fresno State advanced to the NCAA Tournament.  The Bulldogs finished the year ranked No. 22 in both major polls.

In two NCAA Tournament appearances under Ford, Fresno State went a combined 1-4.  The one NCAA Tournament win is the fewest number of postseason victories during a 4-year stretch in program history.  That lone postseason win came this season in an 8-5 victory over surprising WAC tournament champion Cal State Bakersfield, which finished the year just 16-34 overall.

During Ford's tenure at Fresno State, she went 4-11-1 in 16 games versus the Pac-12.  One of those four wins came this season via forfeit when the NCAA awarded the Bulldogs a win in a controversial game against Cal at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton.

Ford's game results as Fresno State head coach vs. the Pac-12:

  • March 1, 2013 - LOST vs. UCLA 7-1
  • March 9, 2013 - LOST vs. California 1-0
  • February 7, 2014 - LOST vs. Oregon 10-9
  • February 9, 2014 - LOST vs. Arizona State 7-0
  • February 21, 2014 - LOST vs. Arizona 8-0 (5 innings)
  • March 9, 2014 - WON vs. Washington 1-0
  • February 15, 2015 - LOST vs. California 14-9
  • February 21, 2015 - WON vs. Stanford 13-8
  • February 28, 2015 - LOST vs. Oregon State 16-12
  • March 7, 2015 - LOST vs. Oregon 3-0
  • March 8, 2015 - LOST vs. Arizona 7-1
  • February 14, 2016 - WON vs. Utah 2-0
  • February 27, 2016 - LOST vs. Oregon 9-0 (5 innings)
  • March 6, 2016 - TIED vs. Oregon State 6-6
  • March 6, 2016 - WON vs. California by forfeit 7-0
  • March 12, 2016 - LOST vs. Washington 12-3
For such a storied program, there were a few glitches along the way during Ford's tenure.  A 5-game losing streak in her first season is tied for the most consecutive losses in school softball history.  The 61 wins in her first two seasons, a decent amount at most programs, are the fewest during any 2-year stretch since the Bulldogs began playing NCAA Division I softball in 1982,  The team's final RPI of 116 following the 2013 season is the first and only time the program has been outside the RPI top 100 since the RPI became an evaluation tool for NCAA Tournament seeding purposes.

Ford became the only Fresno State softball coach to miss the NCAA Tournament in back to back seasons since the school joined the NCAA D-I softball ranks, failing to take the Bulldogs to the postseason in both of her first two years at the helm.  Probably most concerning to Fresno State fans was the team's 1-4 record in NCAA Tournament play in Ford's four seasons. The third-winningest program in NCAA softball history, Fresno State won 76 NCAA Tournament games, including 26 at the Women's College World Series, during legendary head coach Margie Wright's 27-year tenure that ended in 2012.

No one said following a legend would be easy.

This past season, Fresno State set several school records, including a 23-game winning streak that included a perfect April when the Bulldogs went 15-0.  The team set single-season records in home runs (61) and walks.  Conversely, Fresno State's pitching staff  -- despite a successful campaign where it went 42-12-1 overall -- finished with the highest team ERA in school history at 3.49, albeit against a difficult schedule.  The Bulldogs went 82-26-1 in Ford's final two seasons, including 42-5 in Mountain West play.

Given Fresno State's rich tradition that includes a national record 32 NCAA Tournament appearances, 12 trips to the Women's College World Series and the 1998 NCAA championship, the current job opening is expected to receive significant interest.  A big advantage for the Bulldogs in their nationwide search for a new head coach:  the school has one of the country's premier softball facilities in Margie Wright Diamond, and one of the nation's largest softball fan bases to fill it.

The new head coach will inherit a Bulldog team coming off back-to-back Mountain West titles, a strong cast of returning players, and one of the strongest classes of incoming talent in program history.  Fresno State's 2016-17 recruiting class is ranked 18th in the nation by Flo Softball, and the Bulldogs were the only non-power conference school ranked in Flo Softball's list of the top 25 recruiting classes.  Five Bulldogs are listed as national Top 100 recruits.

Among the incoming talent slated at Fresno State for next year:  left-handed ace pitcher Giselle Juarez, a Gatorade Arizona State Player of the Year finalist and West Valley Preps Girls Athlete of the Year honoree who led her high school team to back-to-back appearances in the Arizona Division I state championship final; Kindra and Maddi Hackbarth, twin sisters who captured section MVP (Kindra, a .667 hitter) and Defensive Player of the Year (Maddi, a section-leading 11 home runs this season) honors at Oakdale High; Haley Fuller, a teammate of the Hackbarth sisters who tied Maddi for the section lead with 11 home runs at Oakdale; 3-time first team all-state infielder Miranda Rohleder from Wichita, Kansas; Samantha Mejia, a 3-time conference Pitcher of the Year at Ridgeview (Bakersfield, CA); and Lizzy Torosian, a 2-time MVP at catcher for Mount Whitney High in Visalia.

Premier Girls Fastpitch just honored four of those incoming players -- Juarez, the Hackbarth twins, and Rohleder -- as All-Americans.

Returning to the Bulldogs squad next year are six players who started Fresno State's final game of the 2016 season in the NCAA Tournament:  Mountain West Player of the Year and first team NFCA All-Pacific Region pick Kierra Willis, who led the league in walks, runs and on-base percentage; first team All-Mountain West and All-Pacific Region selection Lindsey Willmon, who hit .363 and led the 2016 Bulldogs in hits (61), home runs (12), doubles (13) and triples (3); second team All-Mountain West pick Malia Rivers, who hit .306 with 56 hits and a team-high 14 stolen bases in 2016; Morgan Howe, who hit a team-high .371 as a freshman; Vanessa Hernandez, who started 48 games as a freshman center fielder and committed just one error; and pitcher Kamalani Dung, who had a stellar freshman campaign but was somehow overlooked in Mountain West postseason honors.  Dung went 8-1 in the circle as a freshman, including a complete-game win over NCAA Tournament qualifier Long Beach State.  She went 5-0 in conference play, surging into the starting lineup when 2-time all-conference pitcher Hannah Harris went down with a season-ending knee injury in late March.  Also returning: Dominique Jackson, who hit 11 home runs as a freshman last season, including one against eventual NCAA champion Oklahoma.  Jackson finished with a .568 slugging percentage and was one of the Bulldogs' most feared hitters at the plate.

Whoever comes in to coach the Bulldogs will have a host of talent ready to go.  In fact, on paper at least, Fresno State appears to be the preseason Mountain West favorite once again, and will likely begin the 2017 season where it ended this one:  firmly planted in the Top 25.

The first coaching names to surface in social media chatter:  Oregon State head coach Laura Berg, the  USA Olympian who was part of the 1998 NCAA champion Fresno State softball team, and one of just two former Bulldog softball players to have their jersey number retired at the school; UCLA assistant coach and USA Olympian Lisa Fernandez, who led the Bruins to a pair of NCAA titles as a pitcher; and Sara Pickering, an assistant under Ford the past four seasons.  Pickering was an All-American second baseman during her playing days at Washington, and often mentioned by Bulldog players as being instrumental in their on-field success the past four years.

Monday, May 23, 2016

EXCLUSIVE: Our interview with 2-time MW Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton

Fresno State pitcher Jill Compton and head coach Trisha Ford

Just hours after one of the greatest careers in Fresno State and Mountain West softball history came to an end, we got an exclusive interview with the reigning 2-time conference Pitcher of the Year, Jill Compton.

The season ended for Compton and her 18th-ranked Fresno State teammates Saturday evening, as the Bulldogs finished one game shy of reaching the NCAA Los Angeles Regional championship game.  Over a sterling 4-year career, Compton was the winning pitcher in 88 of Fresno State's 143 victories during that time span.  She's the third Mountain West player to win conference Pitcher of the Year honors twice, but the first to ever do it in back-to-back seasons.

She ended her career with the most wins in conference play ever for a Mountain West pitcher, and ranked in the top 5 of numerous categories in Fresno State history.  For such a decorated program with a history of wins, that says a lot.  Earlier this month, Compton was named Fresno State's Bulldog of the Year, signifying the school's top female student-athlete, regardless of sport.

A 4-time first team All-Mountain West selection and 2-time first team NFCA All-Pacific Region pick, Compton is a big reason Fresno State was able to go 42-5 in conference play the last two seasons.  It's the best 2-year record ever for a Mountain West softball team.

As talented as she is on the playing field, those who know her best always say the same thing:  She's one of the most humble, hardest-working, and nicest people away from the field too.

Please enjoy our exclusive interview with the reigning 2-time Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, Fresno State's Jill Compton. 

MW Softball Blog:  The season, and your college career, literally just ended this weekend.  What was it like waking up Sunday morning after Saturday's season-ending loss to Cal State Fullerton? 
Jill Compton:  Waking up Sunday morning was definitely very difficult, and a feeling I’ve never felt before. The feeling was perfectly described by my teammate, Hannah Harris, when she texted me Sunday morning and asked how I was feeling. She said she felt “empty” and that’s exactly how I felt. I felt like I was a freshman just yesterday and my college career flew by. It’s weird not knowing what the future holds, and not having another season to look forward to, or something bigger to work toward. Every summer I’ve worked harder to be better than I was the previous year, and this time I don’t get that opportunity. The most challenging thing is knowing that I will never be in a Bulldog uniform again, and won’t be able to play on one of the best fields in the country with girls that have become my best friends.

Your team had an outstanding season this year and set numerous records.  Was there one moment this year where you realized, "Hey, we are really a great team!"
The moment I knew this team was special would have to be our opening game versus Utah State [where Fresno State rallied from a 10-2 deficit to win]. Up to that point, we were able to fight back and win games even when we were behind, but this game was one of my best memories. Although I gave up 9 runs through 3 innings, and was pulled, Kama [Fresno State freshman pitcher Kamalani Dung] came in and shut them down; it was so fun to watch!  She had 13 strikeouts! On the offensive side, our team never gave up and fought hard until we walked off with a win in the ninth. That 12-11 victory would unquestionably be the moment I realized we had a great team.

Did you think any one Mountain West team in particular played the Bulldogs the toughest this season?  Or was every series tough?
I thought that every series was tough. From Boise State to San Jose State, every conference opponent played us strong. Throughout the season we had targets on our backs, and we were the team everyone wanted to beat.

 You won 88 games as a pitcher in your Fresno State career and will rank as one of the all-time greats to wear a Bulldog uniform.  What does that mean to you?
I don’t see the 88 career wins as an individual accomplishment, but rather a team accomplishment. Certainly it’s an honor to see my name surrounding some of the best Bulldog pitchers, but it takes a team to win, my name is just attached to it.

In all of your wins, your fellow senior Paige Gumz was there at catcher for every
single one of them.  Describe that pitcher/catcher relationship and her role in your success. 
Paige is one of my best friends and just an amazing teammate and person. Over the summers, we would spend a lot of time together working out and getting better for the season coming up. She’s the best catcher that has ever caught me, she pumps me up with one fist pump, and I trusted her with everything.

You were originally recruited by legendary head coach Margie Wright.  What sold you on Coach Wright, and what made you choose to be a Bulldog in the first place?
Obviously Coach Wright was someone who did wonders for our sport and fought for many of the things I have received at Fresno State. Coach Wright made me feel at home the moment I stepped on campus, and I instantly knew Fresno would be the right fit. Coach Wright made it possible for me to play at an amazing facility with the most loyal fans there are.

After you signed your National Letter of Intent to attend Fresno State, Coach Wright announced her retirement.  Did that cause any anxiety or make you regret your decision in any way?
I was very surprised when Coach Wright announced her retirement, but it didn’t make me want to change my mind to go to school at Fresno State. I was disappointed, because I would have loved to be coached by one of the winningest coaches in college softball, but I don’t regret my decision.

You had a good freshman season, a very good sophomore year, and then just kept getting better throughout your career.  How do you explain that?  Is it a case of just gaining more experience, or is it something more?
I think it’s a little bit of both. As a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect, especially with an entirely new coaching staff and no returners being instructed by Coach Ford to lead the way. Kiley Shae [Aldridge], Hannah [Harris], Taylor [Langdon] and I had to figure it out on our own, but our different strengths helped us as a group. Throughout my career, I learned new things about my game and became more mature as a pitcher. Coach Ford has taught me so much mechanically, and I’ve progressed substantially from year to year because of it. But I think what has helped the most is my dedication toward my mental game. The mental aspect of pitching is something that is very hard to learn and it takes a lot of time to master. I’ve learned so much from our assistant coach, Coach Wynn, and the exercises I did at practice, and the articles I read are all a huge reason I have progressed as well as I did in the circle.

Did your senior season turn out to be like you thought it would? 
My senior season wasn’t my best season if you look at my statistics, but I can honestly say that this group of girls was the best team I’ve been on throughout my career. Winning the Mountain West, the 23-game win streak, and beating Tennessee were all memories that made my senior year unforgettable.

You went through a difficult time in March of this year when you were hit by a comebacker in a game against Cal.  It caused you to miss some playing time.  How severe was that injury and do you think it changed you in any way?
Trying to protect my face, I put my hands in front of my face and the comebacker hit my pitching hand. The pain was through my pinky and knuckle, and the training staff thought it was fractured. The next day I went and got an x-ray and the results showed that it wasn’t fractured, but it sure felt like it was. The doctor told me that I had a deep bone bruise and that I would be able to pitch in a week if I wasn’t in too much pain. I got treatment on it three times a day, and it helped significantly, but I never really felt the same. The pain was partially gone by the time conference play started, but I couldn’t seem to find my groove. I think I created some bad habits pitching not completely healthy, and it was difficult getting that confidence back that I had before I got hit.

Fresno State traditionally plays one of the nation's toughest non-conference schedules.  What was your feeling each year when you'd take a look and notice that you were about to play teams like Oklahoma, Washington, Florida, Arizona and others?
Our non-conference schedule is traditionally very strong, and as a freshman it could be somewhat overwhelming, but it’s so much fun. It’s fun to compete with the top teams in the country and show yourselves, fans, and critics what you’re made of. Seeing those teams on our schedule made me excited and gave us an opportunity to put Fresno State on the map. Also, it prepares us for the Mountain West Conference, and this year was a great example of how our strength of schedule was important in our success.

Your team had the best conference record in Mountain West history.  How much did you think about the winning streak this year?
Honestly, we never spoke about our winning streak, nor thought about it. We only thought about the game we were about to play, and going 1-0 that day.

How disappointed were you when Fresno State was overlooked and not named an
NCAA regional host this season? 
I was disappointed because we have an amazing facility and I think we deserved it. However, I think it was more disappointing for our fans because we would have hosted a great regional, and the softball community would have loved to see some of the top teams in the country at Margie Wright Diamond.

From a fan's viewpoint, it seems like college softball is becoming more and more about offense every year.  From a pitcher's perspective, do you see it that way too?
I definitely think it has. The first indicator that really changed the game was the rubber getting moved back to 43 feet.  Bat technology is improving every year, teams have the newest bats out there, and fields can be at 190 feet… It’s not very helpful for a rise ball pitcher [laughs].

Did we hear correctly ... you may be returning next season to Fresno State, assisting Coach Ford in some aspect?
Yes you did!  I have another semester of classes to complete my degree in Accounting, so I’ve decided to help Coach Ford and the rest of the coaching staff; I’m definitely not ready to walk away from Fresno State softball just yet!

Do you have any interest in becoming a coach at the collegiate level?
To coach at the collegiate level would definitely interest me.  I have so much love for this game, and it would be enjoyable to give back and teach girls that have the same passion.

If you could have a do-over and get one game back to play completely over, which one would it be, if any?
If I had to do a game over, it would have to be the Nevada series my sophomore year. We had to win the series to win the Mountain West and our destiny was in our own hands. If we won the MWC, we would have gotten an automatic bid to postseason, giving us even more experience with what post season felt like. With that said, we may have performed better in the Oregon regional we went to last year and the UCLA regional this year.

What would you say to a 14- or 15-year-old softball player who might be following in your footsteps and thinking about heading to Fresno State in the future?
I would say that Fresno State takes care of their athletes on and off the field. We are spoiled with the best coaches, staff, facilities and gear. We’re a Top 25 program because of our committed coaching staff, hard-working athletes, and amazing fan base. Fresno State has excellent professors, and you will get a quality education, and even if you have trouble, we have some great tutors and support staff that will get you the help that you need. But overall, the best feeling is stepping on Margie Wright Diamond and inspiring so many young ones that want to fill your shoes one day.

What are your interests outside softball, and where do you see yourself a decade from now?
Outside of softball, I love spending time with my family, and the outdoors. Hiking and yoga are things I’ve really enjoyed when I don’t play softball, but I think a decade from now I will still be around the game in some aspect. Since I’m getting my degree in accounting, I’ve thought about going for my CPA and possibly working for a firm in Northern California, but right now I don’t really know what’s in store. In 10 years, I could be working behind a desk crunching numbers, or being on a field sharing my passion with others.

Top:  While seniors in high school, the six future Bulldog freshmen (Bria Kennedy, Taylor Langdon, Whitney Smith, Jill Compton, Hannah Harris and Paige Gumz attended a Fresno State football game.  Bottom:  Here are those six again, as college seniors, alongside seniors Alyssa Villalpando (left) and Victoria Trevino (right).

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Bulldogs beat Bakersfield before errors prove costly again vs. Titans

Fresno State's strong 2016 season came to an end Saturday evening in Los Angeles as the Bulldogs fell one game shy of reaching the NCAA Los Angeles Regional championship game.

Needing to win to stay alive in the afternoon session, Fresno State came up with an 8-5 win over Cal State Bakersfield, putting an end to the Roadrunners' season.  Then later, errors reared their ugly head for the second day in a row in a 7-1 loss to Cal State Fullerton, ending the Bulldogs' season.

In the opener, Alyssa Villalpando hit a home run and double, Bria Kennedy had a double among her three hits, and freshman Morgan Howe had a pair of hits, including a double of her own as the 'Dogs stormed to an 8-2 lead over Bakersfield.  After the Roadrunners crept closer and cut the lead to 8-5 in the fifth, freshman pitcher Kamalani Dung entered in relief of starting and winning pitcher Jill Compton, and was untouchable.

Dung retired all eight batters she faced against Bakersfield, striking out five, to earn the save in her first NCAA Tournament appearance.  Compton scattered seven hits to earn her first NCAA Tournament victory and 88th all-time in a Bulldog uniform.  It would be the last game Compton would pitch as a collegian.

Compton finished her career in sixth place in wins among Fresno State pitchers, one behind Morgan Melloh's 89 victories.  In an ironic twist, both Compton and Melloh ended their careers on the same field -- UCLA's Easton Stadium -- in the NCAA Tournament.

In the nightcap, Fresno State took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second inning when Lindsey Willmon homered off Cal State Fullerton's Sydney Golden, the Big West Freshman of the Year.  The Bulldogs, who had two hits in the first inning against the Titans but left both runners stranded, would not have a hit the rest of the game after Willmon's blast.  That home run was the 61st of the season for Fresno State, shattering the school record for homers in a season.  Prior to this year, the Bulldogs had never hit more than 51 round-trippers in a single season.

Dung started the late game Saturday against Fullerton and pitched well, but was betrayed by the Bulldogs' defense.  Fresno State committed three errors in the game, leading to the first four runs of the game for Fullerton.  The Titans grabbed a 2-1 lead on a 2-out home run following a Bulldog error in the second.  Two back-to-back errors in the fourth opened the floodgates and paved the way for two more runs.

Fullerton coach Kelly Ford, after Willmon's home run, replaced Golden in the circle with Big West Pitcher of the Year Desiree Ybarra, and the game was basically over.  Ybarra was on fire, and mowing down 'Dogs batters.  After Fresno State's defensive implosion, the offense fizzled too, with help from Ybarra, who did not allow a hit over the final five innings.

In a season where Fresno State reeled off a school-record 23 straight wins, no one was able to do to them what the Titans did.  Cal State Fullerton handed the Bulldogs 25% (3 of 12) of their entire losses for the season.  Fresno State finished 42-12-1 overall, and committed five errors in the three games versus the Titans, including four in NCAA Tournament play.

Dung took the loss, her first as collegian, ending a promising freshman campaign with an 8-1 record.  Fullerton (45-15) advances to face UCLA Sunday at noon for the regional title.  The Titans must beat the Bruins twice to advance to Super Regionals.

For Fresno State, the Bulldogs head home disappointed, but with a lot to be proud of this season.  In addition to 42 wins and a second-straight Mountain West title, Fresno State will almost certainly head into 2017 as the preseason conference favorite again and likely ranked in the Top 25.  Next season, the Bulldogs return 14 letterwinners, including Mountain West Player of the Year and first team All-Region pick Kierra Willis, All-MW and All-Region selection Willmon, and all-conference second baseman Malia Rivers, in addition to Dung and several other key contributors and starters.

Head coach Trisha Ford also welcomes the most decorated recruiting class of her career.  Fresno State in 2017 will feature the nation's 18th-best incoming recruiting class, as rated by Flo Softball.  That group includes state high school Gatorade Player of the Year finalists, and five players listed among Flo Softball's National Top 100 recruits.

Friday, May 20, 2016

7th inning error dooms Bulldogs in disappointing NCAA tournament loss

Call it deja vu.

And a very bad case of deja vu, at that.

Fresno State returned to the site of a heartbreaking 2010 loss in NCAA Tournament play Friday, opening the 2016 tourney at UCLA's Easton Stadium.  Back in 2010, the Bulldogs were tied 2-2 with UCLA with two outs in the sixth inning, until a costly error enabled the Bruins to go on for a regional title-clinching win.

Today, it was an opening-round NCAA game in the same Easton Stadium, but this time against Cal State Fullerton, and again another Fresno State error late in the game proved costly.  Kierra Willis, the Mountain West Player of the Year, made a wild throw from left field with one out in the seventh inning, allowing the Titans to break a tie and score the eventual game-winning run in a 6-4 win over the Bulldogs.

The game was tied 4-4 in the seventh when Fresno State starting pitcher Jill Compton, who labored most of the afternoon, allowed the first two Fullerton batters of the inning (Samantha Vandiver and Missy Taukeiaho) to reach on singles.  Following a pop up that failed to advance the runners, Melissa Sechrest lined a single to Willis in left that looked like it was going to load the bases.

As the Titans' base runners advanced to second and third base -- and decided to stay there -- on Sechrest's single to load them up, Willis made an unnecessary and ill-advised attempt to throw home from shallow left field.  It was a wild throw that went all the way to the screen, overthrowing everyone, and allowing the Fullerton base runner to waltz home from third for a 5-4 lead.  A groundout followed, scoring another run, and it was 6-4 in favor of the Titans just like that.

It was all Fullerton would need, and that would be the ball game.

In the bottom of the seventh, Fresno State attempted to rally.  Bria Kennedy walked to lead off the frame, giving the Bulldogs some hope, with their two through four hitters coming to bat.  Malia Rivers struck out before Willis just missed tying the game on a deep fly ball to the wall in center field.  Two pitches later, Alyssa Villalpando grounded out to end it, sending the Titans to the winner's bracket.

For Fresno State, it was another in a series of humbling postseason losses.  For the first time in program history, the Bulldogs have lost five consecutive NCAA Tournament games, and have not won an NCAA postseason softball game in exactly five years.  For a program with such storied tradition and over 90 postseason softball wins to its credit, it's a big blow.  The Bulldogs' last win in NCAA Tournament play came  May 20, 2011, in a 1-0 victory over Nebraska during Margie Wright's next-to-last season at the helm of the Bulldogs.  They've committed seven errors in their last four combined NCAA Tournament losses.

Before their current string of five years without an NCAA Tournament victory, the Bulldogs had never gone more than a single season without an NCAA win from 1982 to 2011.  Prior to last year, 1986 was the lone season -- in 31 different trips to the NCAA tourney -- where Fresno State did not win a game.

Fresno State (41-11-1), which went 0-2 in an NCAA regional just one time in 27 tournament appearances under Wright, now must win an elimination game vs. Cal State Bakersfield Saturday at 3 p.m. to avoid going 0-2 in NCAA tourney play for the second straight year under head coach Trisha Ford.  Fullerton (44-14) advances to a noon winner's bracket semifinal vs. host UCLA.

UCLA blanked Cal State Bakersfield 7-0 in the other regional game played Friday in Los Angeles.  In that one, Bruins pitcher Johanna Grauer tossed a no-hitter over the Roadrunners and narrowly missed a perfect game.  After retiring the first 20 Bakersfield batters of the game, Grauer issued a walk with two outs in the seventh inning.  CSUB will enter Saturday's elimination game with Fresno State with a 16-33 overall record.  Against common opponents this season, the Bulldogs are 11-2, while the Roadrunners are 4-11.

Willis' seventh inning error may have been the key in this one, but she was the main reason Fresno State was even in this game to begin with.  With Compton struggling with her command, and allowing the Titans to put runners in scoring position in every inning but two, it was Willis' 2-run home run in the third inning that gave the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead.  Willis accounted for Fresno State's only earned runs of the game, and it was one of just two extra-base hits for her team on the afternoon.

The home run by Willis was also the Bulldogs' only hit with a runner on base Friday.  It would turn out to be one of the more lackluster offensive games of the season for a team that hit a Mountain West-best .371 in conference play.  Fresno State was a paltry 1-for-17 with runners on base in this one.

Cal State Fullerton, with some shoddy defense (three errors) and poor base running decisions, tried to keep Fresno State in the game.  And the Titans did, for the most part.

Compton allowed two hits, and also walked two, in the top of the first inning as Fullerton threatened from the start.  The Titans were unable to score in the first though, when catcher Paige Gumz made a nice throw to get a Fullerton base runner out on an attempted steal for the game's first out.  Compton was able to escape a bases-loaded jam in the opening frame with one of her two strikeouts on a 3-2 pitch.

The Bulldogs took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the second.  Gumz doubled, and advanced to third on a Fullerton error as the ball was bobbled in the outfield.  Gumz would then score on a wild pitch from Titans starter Desiree Ybarra, the Big West Pitcher of the Year.

In the top of the third, Fullerton answered right back for a 2-1 lead as Compton issued a leadoff walk before giving up a 2-run homer to Taukeiaho.

Compton (now winless in three career NCAA Tournament starts) allowed the leadoff batter to reach base in five of seven innings -- four times with walks.  She walked the leadoff batter in the first, third, fourth and fifth innings, and the last three times, each of those runners ended up scoring.  In the fifth, after falling behind by a run, Fresno State tied it with some Titan errors.  Bria Kennedy's single was the lone hit for the Bulldogs in the frame; Fullerton, though, committed two costly errors -- one on a bobbled grounder by Sydney Colenzo, and one on an errant throw by shortstop Shianne Brannan that allowed Fresno State to tie it.

In all, only two of the Bulldogs' runs in the game were earned.  No Fresno State player finished with more than one hit, as six players (Willis, Kennedy, Rivers, Villalpando, Gumz and freshman Morgan Howe all had one).  Lindsey Willmon, Fresno State's leading hitter at .371 entering the game, went 0-for-3, with all three at-bats coming with Bulldog runners on base.

It was Fresno State's second loss in row after having its nation-leading 23-game winning streak snapped.  Compton allowed eight hits, struck out two, and issued five walks.  Taukeiaho, Sechrest, and Courtney Rodriguez all had two hits for the Titans.  Fullerton freshman pitcher Sydney Golden allowed just two hits in 4 2/3 innings of relief to earn the victory in her first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Bulldogs nearly sweep All-Mountain West honors

The All-Mountain West teams and postseason honors were announced this week and it was almost a clean sweep for Fresno State.

There were three repeat winners as senior pitcher Jill Compton was named Mountain West Pitcher of the Year for a second straight season, senior catcher Paige Gumz was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row, and Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford earned Mountain West Coach of the Year honors a second straight campaign.

For the first time since joining the Mountain West, the Bulldogs also took home the conference Player of the Year award, as junior outfielder Kierra Willis capped an outstanding year with that accolade.

Winning Freshman of the Year honors was Boise State's Rebekah Cervantes.

Compton is the third pitcher to win the league's Pitcher of the Year award twice, but she is the first to ever do it in back-to-back seasons.  She went 15-1 in conference play and 25-5 overall during the regular season.  Willis led the Mountain West in on-base percentage, runs scored and walks, and batted .451 in conference play.  She tallied hits in every conference game but three, and reached base safely in every game.  Gumz committed just one error this season, and has played every inning of her four-year career at catcher for the Bulldogs.  Cervantes was the league's top home run hitter among freshmen, and Ford now owns the career-best winning percentage in MW games all-time.

To see the full list of All-MW honorees (first and second team), click here.  Mountain West champion Fresno State led the way with seven all-conference selections.  In addition to Compton and Willis, infielders Alyssa Villalpando and Lindsey Willmon earned first-team honors.  In addition to Gumz, Bulldog outfielder Bria Kennedy and infielder Malia Rivers earned second-team honors.

Road to OKC begins in Los Angeles for MW champion Bulldogs

Well, the NCAA pairings were released Sunday night and Fresno State was screwed passed over for a regional hosting spot again.

Despite having the best season ever for a Mountain West team, finishing with a 22-1 conference record, winning 23 of their final 24 games, having a Top 10 non-conference strength of schedule, and being ranked in the nation's Top 25 every week of the regular season, the Bulldogs were not named regional hosts or given a national seed when the pairings were announced lived on ESPNU.
Our tweet on Saturday, May 14 -- a day before the pairings were announced
Instead, the Bulldogs head to familiar territory -- at the Los Angeles Regional, where they will face Big West champion Cal State Fullerton, WAC tournament champion Cal State Bakersfield, and No. 12 national seed UCLA.

If it sounds familiar, it should.  It's the exact same regional we predicted in a tweet Saturday, the day before the pairings were announced.  The NCAA took the laziest, easiest route to determining this regional.

Hours before the formal announcement and pairings were revealed Sunday, we tweeted the exact seedings that the NCAA came up with.  It's not rocket science, but it comes from years of following the NCAA selection committee's general attitude when it comes to softball pairings:  It goes almost entirely on geography when it comes to California teams.  Put 'em all in one regional and give the host spot to the Pac-12 team.  And don't rely on how the teams actually fared during the season.  Quite frankly, this was a regional that we could have predicted back in February.
Our tweet at 3:47 pm Pacific on Sunday, May 15 -- 3+ hours before the NCAA Selection Show
And while Fresno State finished ahead of Georgia in the final RPI and Nitty Gritty report in front of the NCAA selection committee, the committee instead chose the red-clad Bulldogs from Athens to host a regional instead of the Bulldogs from the San Joaquin Valley.  And in a baffling regional, Georgia -- the No. 16 national seed -- will host what appears to be, by far, the weakest set of opponents.  Georgia will host Northwestern (26-26 overall), a team Fresno State defeated twice, along with Oklahoma State (a team San Diego State defeated this season), and Maine.

Sigh.  We should be used to this by now.  Sadly, we are.

The Bulldogs will open with the Titans at 3 p.m. Friday at UCLA's Easton Stadium.  Despite nearly every regional in the country having its games showcased on national TV, there will be no TV for the games at UCLA.  We should be used to this by now too.  Sadly, we are.

In game two at 6 p.m. Friday, the Bruins meet the Roadrunners.

After initially telling fans there would be absolutely no online coverage other than live stats of the games in Los Angeles (and audio for UCLA games only), it appears now as though the regional will at least receive an online webcast through the Bruins' official site.  The link can be accessed here (fingers crossed):  http://pac-12.com/live/ucla?DB_OEM_ID=30500 or through the regional's Tournament Central page here.

The Los Angeles Regional and the Gainesville Regional are considered by most to be the two toughest of the 16 regionals.  In Los Angeles, three of the four teams are among the top 27 teams receiving votes in the national polls.  UCLA is ranked as high as 12th, while Fresno State is No. 18 (ESPN.com/USA Softball) and No. 20 (USA Today/NFCA) in this week's rankings.  Cal State Fullerton is receiving votes in both polls this week, coming in at No. 27 in the NFCA rankings.

Fresno State, UCLA and Cal State Fullerton have combined for 90 all-time NCAA tournament appearances, 46 Women's College World Series appearances, 28 appearances in the NCAA championship game, and 14 NCAA titles.  While UCLA is a 12-time national champion, Fresno State has been to 32 NCAA tournaments all-time, 12 WCWS appearances, and five trips to the national championship game, including the year it won it all in 1998.

The last two times the Bulldogs played in the Los Angeles Regional, Fresno State and UCLA met in the regional final.  In 2009, the Bruins won 9-5 to advance to Super Regional action.  In 2010, the Bruins won 7-2 in a heartbreaker for the Bulldogs.  The score was tied 2-2 with two outs in the sixth inning when an infield error changed the trajectory of the game and both teams' seasons.  Instead of heading to the 7th inning tied in the regional final, UCLA would go on to score five unanswered runs for the win.

And how big was that game in 2010 when Fresno State was tied with UCLA in the sixth inning of the regional final?  Well, it could've been for the national championship too.  Because the Bruins would go on that season to win the NCAA title, and UCLA finished unbeaten in the Women's College World Series that season.  But for all that greatness, the Bruins barely escaped their own regional ... thanks to a determined group of Bulldogs.

Reason for UCLA and the other teams in Los Angeles to worry:  This year's Fresno State team is better than that 2010 Bulldog squad.