Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Changes galore for Mountain West softball in 2017


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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The case for Fresno State to host an NCAA regional


The day has finally arrived -- Selection Sunday.

The NCAA softball selection committee is hunkered down, going over facts, figures, numbers, results and deliberating who to select and where to send them for the 2016 NCAA Tournament that begins Thursday.

It's an inexact science to be sure.  And it's often an unfair one as teams like Fresno State learned as recently as last season.  You may remember the Mountain West champion Bulldogs last season were sent to Eugene for a 4-team regional that consisted of Pac-12 champion Oregon, Summit League champion North Dakota State, and West Coast Conference champion BYU.

It was the only regional in the country that matched four conference champions.  It was the only one where all four teams had 40 or more wins.  And it was the only regional to have three of its four teams receiving votes in the national polls.  Oregon was the No. 1 team in the nation in the NFCA poll at the time, North Dakota State was No. 25, and Fresno State was receiving votes.

Unfair?  Yeah, probably.  But as we've learned over the years:  As in life, always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst when it comes to the NCAA softball selection committee.

With that said, let's take a look at the criteria the NCAA says it takes into consideration in determining all aspects of which teams get in, and where they play.  The determining criteria:

  • Strength of Schedule
  • Ratings Percentage Index (RPI)
  • Head-to-head Competition
  • How a Team Finishes the Season
  • Records vs. Common Opponents
  • Location of Games Played

Fresno State can make a strong case in its bid to host a regional based on several of these factors.  The single biggest help to the Bulldogs:  Strength of Schedule.  In the final Strength of Schedule report by the NCAA prior to the start of Mountain West play, Fresno State was 10th in the nation.  In the final SOS report thru games of May 8, the Bulldogs were 14th in SOS, meaning they'd only fallen four spots with their conference games added in.

Non-conference strength of schedule (click to enlarge)
A Top 10 non-conference strength of schedule is a big deal when there are 295 NCAA Division I teams.  Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford scheduled a strong slate specifically to prepare her team for conference play and ensure a strong RPI if the Bulldogs took care of business against an elite group of opponents.  The Bulldogs did that.

Along with the Top 10 non-conference SOS, another criteria the NCAA considers -- Location of Games Played -- weighs heavily in Fresno State's favor.  The Bulldogs did not sit at home and have the top powers come to them.  Fresno State went on the road and proved its worth, competing in some of the nation'e elite tournaments against national powers.  The 'Dogs went to the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic in Palm Springs, the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton, and the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe -- the best of the best tournaments in college softball.

And there they faced the likes of Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Baylor, Northwestern (two games), Utah, Oregon State, California, Long Beach State, Indiana, Wisconsin and many more.  They hosted the likes of Washington and Kansas (two games).  They played true non-conference road games against Big West champion Cal State Fullerton (a team that beat nationally-ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State along the way this season) and Pacific (a team that defeated nationally-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge this season).

Simply put, Fresno State challenged itself like few teams in the country do in non-conference play.  The Bulldogs have marquee wins away from home.  They earned a 7-3 win in Tempe against a Top 10-ranked Tennessee Volunteers team that finished 41-14 overall and 16-7 in the ultra-tough SEC.  They scored a 2-0 neutral-site shutout win over a 32-win Utah team that finished with a winning conference record (13-10) in the powerhouse Pac-12.  In neutral-site games, they picked up a win (over Cal) and a tie (vs. Oregon State) against two teams virtually guaranteed to receive NCAA at-large bids today.

And it doesn't stop there.  Fresno State has two neutral-site wins over a Northwestern team that finished third in the difficult Big Ten.  They defeated Indiana, as well as the champions of the Ivy League (Princeton) and Big Sky Conference (Weber State), both of whom will be appearing in the NCAA Tournament.

Here's what is important:  The NCAA can send a message to the rest of the country by selecting Fresno State as a host site.  If you go out and schedule the very toughest slate of games you can schedule, and you do well against that schedule, you will be rewarded.

Conversely, the NCAA can send a damning message today as well.  It can say this:  Even though you played a Top 10 non-conference slate, Bulldogs, we've decided to stick with the status quo and go with the power conference teams because we've always done it that way.

The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is another key area for the Bulldogs.  Fresno State is 18th this week in the RPI after being 17th last week.  The Bulldogs actually fell in the RPI a spot last week after sweeping a road series in Reno against a Nevada team that finished the season 32-15 overall.  Does that make sense?  No.

The RPI, by its very nature, is a flawed tool that rewards teams from power conferences simply because they face those highly-ranked teams during league play.  Teams like Fresno State do not get to pick their opponents in conference play.  Upstarts like Boise State, which has only sponsored the sport of softball since 2009, are on the Bulldogs' schedule whether they like it or not.  The Bulldogs can only control their non-conference portion of the schedule.  And they controlled the controllable portion of the slate by scheduling tough.

How a team finishes the season is also a big area where Fresno State holds power in this discussion.  Until yesterday, the Bulldogs had the nation's longest winning streak, and they will enter the NCAA Tournament having won 23 of their past 24 games.  They have a 12-game road winning streak.  If the committee is truly looking to reward a team playing strong down the stretch, look no further than the Bulldogs, who have lost just once since the middle of March.

Games vs. common opponents and Head to Head Competition are other factors, and ones where the 'Dogs look strong.  Fresno State beat Pacific, which owns a win over LSU.  Fresno State beat Tennessee, which beat Missouri, Georgia, Auburn and Texas A&M, among others.  Fresno State beat Utah, which beat Arizona, Arizona State, Washington and Cal.  Fresno State swept a 3-game series from San Diego State, which beat Texas A&M, Cal, BYU, and Oklahoma State.  Fresno State swept a 3-game series from New Mexico, which beat Nebraska.  The list goes on.

To summarize, Fresno State meets all the criteria most important in NCAA selection, according to the NCAA's own guidelines.  The record is one of nation's 10 best -- 41-10-1.  The team finished with the most wins and best record in Mountain West history -- 22-1.  It finished strong, winning 23 of its final 24 games.  It has marquee wins over nationally-ranked opponents and numerous teams that will be on both the automatic NCAA bid and at-large board.  And most importantly, the Bulldogs played one of the nation's Top 10 non-conference schedules precisely for moments like this:  So they would be the ones cheering on Selection Sunday when they see FRESNO STATE listed as one of 16 NCAA regional host sites.

Let's hope the committee follows its own established guidelines and looks at all criteria it's supposed to look at, rather than relying merely on the RPI.  We will be watching and hoping.

Oh, and there's a glorious weather forecast for next weekend in Fresno with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid- to upper-70s.  We call that perfect California weather for a nationwide ESPN audience and the thousands of fans that will definitely fill Margie Wright Diamond.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

UNLV snaps Fresno State's 32-game league winning streak on Senior Day


That sound you heard Saturday afternoon?  It was the 17th-ranked Fresno State softball team coming back to Earth.

After a stunning run of 23 straight wins overall -- the longest winning streak in the nation -- and 32 straight in conference play, the Bulldogs fell 10-7 to UNLV on Senior Day at Margie Wright Diamond.  For the second day in a row, Fresno State came out of the gates less than sharp, and for the first time in nearly two months, the Bulldogs paid the price in the loss column.

The loss to a Rebels team that entered on a 7-game losing streak, in eighth place in the Mountain West standings and 154th in the RPI has the potential to be a devastating one for the Bulldogs, who appeared to have momentum on their side in the race to host an NCAA regional.

NCAA Tournament bids will be announced Sunday at 7 pm on ESPNU.  And while Fresno State could still host a regional on the basis of the strongest season ever for a Mountain West softball team, it's far from a sure thing.  Given the history of the NCAA Selection Committee in softball, they often take the easy way out.  Such a scenario again this season could leave the Bulldogs headed to UCLA where they could potentially be stacked against the host Bruins, and, say, Big West champion Cal State Fullerton and WAC champion Cal State Bakersfield.

We'll see soon enough.

It probably wasn't much consolation to the Fresno State team that it finished with the best record and most wins ever by a Mountain West softball team.  The Bulldogs went 22-1 in conference play and are now 41-10-1 entering NCAA Tournament play next week.

After committing four errors last night, the Bulldogs added two more today, and they were costly.  Starting pitcher Jill Compton, who entered the day 15-0 in MW play and leading the league in ERA in conference games, struggled in a contest that began immediately after a prolonged, 20-minute on-field, emotional pregame ceremony where the Bulldogs honored her and the other seven Fresno State seniors.

It's the sixth time in the last eight years the Bulldogs have lost on Senior Day at home.

And Compton got behind 3-0 in the top of the first inning, walking a batter, hitting another, and giving up a key, 2-out, 2-run single to freshman Madison Rogers, who had 10 hits all year entering the final day of the season.

Fresno State would respond with five straight runs to take a 5-3 lead over UNLV.  Senior Whitney Smith hit an RBI single in the second to score Lindsey Willmon, who was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame.  In the third, the Bulldogs scored four runs on three hits.  Kierra Willis walked and Alyssa Villalpando singled before Paige Gumz reached on a Rebels error, which also scored a run.  Willmon plated another run with a sacrifice fly before Morgan Howe hit an RBI single and Vanessa Hernandez added an RBI triple.

So the Bulldogs would carry the 2-run lead to the fourth and things looked rosy, right?  After all, Fresno State was 25-0 this season when leading after three innings.  The Rebels, however, had other ideas.

UNLV answered right back with four runs to regain the lead, aided by two critical Bulldog infield errors and a bit of luck.  A hard-hit bouncer wiggled off Smith at shortstop and a comebacker to Compton bounced off her lower leg and caromed into an area between shortstop and third base for the Rebels' first two hits of the frame.  Following two Fresno State errors that enabled UNLV to tie it, Chrissi Olmaza hit a pinch-hit, 2-out, 2-run single to right and it was 7-5 in favor of the Rebels just like that.

After Rebels starting pitcher Morgan Ettinger got the Bulldogs to go down quietly in the bottom of the fourth, Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford replaced Compton with freshman Kamalani Dung in the circle.  It was a move that raised an eyebrow or two as Compton, in likely her final home game as a Fresno State pitcher, was pulled despite an unbeaten record at Margie Wright Diamond over the past 412 days.

Dung tossed a scoreless fifth before giving up a solo home run to UNLV's Brooke Stover in the sixth.  That would make it an 8-5 Rebels lead.  In the bottom of the sixth, Fresno State rallied as Howe singled and later scored on 2-run blast to left by Smith.  With the score now 8-7, the Bulldogs left the tying run on base in the form of Malia Rivers, who singled but was stranded.

Ford went to Taylor Langdon for the top of the seventh inning, but the Bulldog senior pitcher allowed a pair of costly insurance runs for the Rebels with two outs.  Francesca Foti hit an RBI single through the right side of the infield, and Alyssa Cordova followed with a triple that made it 10-7.

After two quick outs to begin the bottom of the seventh, Willmon doubled off Ettinger to give the Bulldogs some hope.  As Howe stepped to the plate and saw pitches well out of the strike zone,  Ford sent the Bulldogs' home run co-leader -- Dominique Jackson -- to the on-deck circle.  With Jackson standing in the on-deck circle representing the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, Howe pulled a head-scratcher of an at-bat, grounding out to end the game on a 3-0 pitch.

As the Mountain West champion Bulldogs stood there stunned, it was UNLV screaming, jumping for joy, and pouring out of the dugout and across the field for a celebration that mirrored a Women's College World Series win.  The Rebels finished the season next-to-last in the MW standings, a half-game behind seventh-place New Mexico and two games ahead of Boise State.  Fresno State claimed the conference crown by six games in the loss column ahead of second-place San Jose State.  It is the widest margin in the final standings ever for a Mountain West softball champion over the second-place team.

The Bulldogs will learn their NCAA Tournament fate when pairings are released Sunday evening.  Fresno State finished one game short of tying the school mark for most consecutive conference wins -- 33, set when the program was part of the WAC in 1999 and 2000.

Fresno State was presented its Mountain West championship trophy at the conclusion of the game.

Elsewhere ... Nevada, Utah State and San Diego State all finished in a 3-way tie for third place in the Mountain West standings by virtue of Saturday's results.  Nevada defeated the Aggies in Logan 4-3 to capture that series, while San Diego State beat Boise State to win that series two games to one.  San Jose State's 3-game sweep of New Mexico meant the Lobos finished seventh.