Thursday, February 23, 2017

Bulldogs' streak in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 poll ends

After going 2-3 last weekend at the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, Fresno State fell out of the Top 25 rankings in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll released Tuesday.

The Bulldogs fell nine spots, from No. 21, to the "receiving votes" category.  With seven votes, Fresno State ranks 30th in the country this week.

It snapped a string where the Bulldogs were ranked in 17 consecutive coaches Top 25 polls, dating back to week one of the 2016 season.  This was Fresno State's longest stretch of being nationally ranked since spending 19 consecutive polls in the Top 25 during the 2008-09 seasons.  In 2008, the 'Dogs reached as high as No. 10 in the USA Today/NFCA poll.  This time, Fresno State reached a peak of No. 17.

Coach Linda Garza's squad also fell out of the D1 Softball News Top 25 poll after being ranked 22nd a week ago.  The Bulldogs earned enough votes to rank 29th this week in that poll, which can be viewed here.

No other Mountain West softball team has received a vote in the national polls this season.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Weekend in review: Hits, misses & a whole lot of rain

Well, this past weekend, we learned what happened when two-thirds of the teams in one conference all go to the same rain-soaked tournament:  a whole lot of rainouts.

The Mountain West sent six of its nine teams to the DeMarini Desert Classic in Las Vegas, where rain and wet grounds cause big problems.  The entire Saturday slate was wiped out, resulting in 14 rainouts.  Sunday's schedule was reworked, but even then, wet grounds caused a portion of games to be canceled.

Meanwhile, No. 21/22 Fresno State went on its first international trip in history, participating in the highly-competitive Puerto Vallarta College Challenge, and Nevada and New Mexico appeared in tourneys elsewhere.

Here's how it went:

Fresno State - It was an inconsistent weekend for the Bulldogs, who struggled on defense at times, and had mixed results.  Fresno State is playing the most demanding schedule of all Mountain West teams again, and is paying the price a bit for scheduling so tough with such a young team and new head coach.  There were highs and lows in Puerto Vallarta.  The highs were very high:  Sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung threw her first career no-hitter and third shutout in a 7-day span in a 9-0 rout over a Florida Gulf Coast team predicted to finish second in the Atlantic Sun Conference.  A marquee win followed over Cal State Fullerton, but it was way more difficult than it should have been.  Leading 9-1 in the fifth inning with one out and no one on base, and on the verge of a run-rule win over the Big West favorites, the Bulldogs imploded.  Fresno State allowed an astonishing nine runs -- all with two outs -- to fall behind 10-9.  The game went extra innings and the Bulldogs' offensive firepower was enough for a 12-11 win, but their already-thin pitching staff was taxed in a 3 1/2 hour marathon.  Having to face Texas Tech later that same day, the Bulldogs were leading 4-2 before again having trouble.  The Red Raiders scored seven consecutive runs before a Fresno State rally fell short in a 9-6 loss.  A key error allowed three unearned runs against Tech, and that was the difference.  Defense was a problem in all three losses in Puerto Vallarta as Fresno State gave up a shocking nine unearned runs in its three losses -- including all 4 runs in a 4-3 setback to FGCU.  No stat tells the story more than this one:  In games where the Bulldogs did not commit an error, they went 2-0.  In games where they committed errors, they went 0-3, including a tough opening-game loss to Mississippi State, where a key, 2-out error allowed two unearned runs and snapped a 1-1 tie in an eventual 4-1 loss.

UNLV - The Rebels went 4-0 in their home tournament this weekend and have played all nine of their games at home.  The game versus probably their biggest 'name' opponent of the weekend -- Memphis -- was rained out.  Three of the four wins came by one run against a group of foes who don't exactly look all that great on paper.  UNLV's victories came over teams that are currently 6-23-1 combined.  If yous subtract Northern Iowa's 5-3 record, it looks even worse:  three of the wins came against Idaho State, Weber State and UTEP, two of whom have not won a game this season.  Combined, those three teams are just 1-20-1.  So while the 7-2 record for the Rebels looks nice and the victory over UNI is solid, we will get a better measure of this team once it hits the road.  And it will come soon enough.  This weekend, the Rebels will travel to Hawai'i and meet the Rainbow Wahine twice, and nationally-ranked Oregon once, among others.

San Diego State - The Aztecs went 1-1 in their rain-shortened Campbell-Cartier Classic in San Diego, which had its final three days wiped out by rain pounding the Golden State.  A win over UC Riverside was followed by one of the tougher pills to swallow for San Diego State in recent years.  SDSU had No. 8 ranked Washington on the ropes, leading the Huskies 5-3 in the seventh inning.  But much like Fresno State, defensive miscues ruined the weekend.  The Aztecs, leading by two runs and just two outs away from their first win over a Top 10-ranked team since 2008, committed two errors in the seventh inning and allowed Washington to escape with a 6-5 triumph.  It ended a string of 24 straight games SDSU had won when leading after five innings.  There were bright spots in the loss, as the Aztecs managed eights hits, including two home runs, off UW's ace Taran Alvelo, who'd just won National Player of the Week honors days earlier.  And freshman pitcher Marissa Moreno went the distance against the Huskies, allowing eight hits to a potent office.  But to be so close, this one will sting a bit.

Utah State - The Aggies only got two games in during their stint in Las Vegas, losing in an 8-0 run-rule rout (five innings) to Memphis, and posting a 3-1 win over Southern Utah.  Games against UTEP, Weber State and Texas State (one of the best opponents USU was to face in the non-conference portion of its schedule) were rained out.

Boise State - After just two weekends, it's becoming clear this isn't the Boise State team of the last couple of years.  The Broncos, mired in last place in the Mountain West standings the past two seasons, went 4-0 in Las Vegas.  Let's be clear:  none of the victories would be considered marquee wins, and the competition wasn't great.  But baby steps for a program that has seen some rough times lately.  The biggest improvement has been in pitching.  Opponents are hitting just .277 against Boise State after two weekends, and that's a big change from last season.  The 2-1 win over Memphis, for example, was an eye-opener after Memphis dispatched of Utah State 8-0 in five innings later that same day.

Colorado State - The Rams went 3-1 in Las Vegas, being shut out 3-0 by the best team they played -- Texas State -- but winning three games against Idaho State, Weber State and Northern Iowa just like UNLV.  Not too much was surprising about these results.  Probably the best news for CSU came from across the country this weekend when Maryland upset No. 1-ranked Florida.  Colorado State beat the Terrapins twice on the opening weekend of the season and now knows it was able to beat the team that, in turn, took down the Gators.  After two weeks, CSU's pitching is well ahead of its hitting as the Rams are batting only .251 as a team.  Only three players on the entire team are currently batting over .275.

New Mexico - This wasn't a weekend to write home about as UNM went winless and dropped all five games at the Texas A&M tournament.  Offense and defense have both been problems.  UNM committed a pair of key, seventh inning errors while trying to maintain a lead in its final game of the weekend against Missouri State, and now has 12 errors already in 10 games.  On offense, the firepower is not there yet.  New Mexico is batting just .231 as a team, and it's even worse when you take an in-depth look.  Of those players on the Lobos squad with at least 10 at-bats this season, only two are hitting over .207.  With nearly 20 percent of the season already in the books, Jasmine Casados is the only Lobos player with more than six hits.  Things must improve drastically in that area for UNM to compete in the Mountain West this season.

Nevada - The Wolf Pack faced rainouts in Las Vegas, but managed to get three games in.  Nevada went 2-1 with the wins being of the 'meh' variety -- over Southern Utah and UTEP, who are 1-16 overall combined.  In the one game against a quality opponent, Nevada struggled and was no-hit in an 8-0 (five innings) run-rule loss to BYU.

San Jose State - Like nearly every other Mountain West team that went to Las Vegas this past weekend, there were some ho-hum wins -- again over Southern Utah and UTEP, who are a combined 1-16 overall.  There were also two losses, one of which was shocking.  San Jose State's bats went quiet in a 4-1 loss to previously winless Weber State.  The Wildcats were 0-7-1 entering that contest.  San Jose State was also shut out by Hawai'i 3-0, marking the fifth time already in two weekends that SJSU has scored one or no runs in a game.  For a program that's made its name lately through offense, the lack of hitting is a real surprise.  San Jose State has a team batting average of .254, nearly 100 points lower than a season ago.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Fresno State's Dung throws her first career no-hitter in win over FGCU

Fresno State sophomore right-hander Kamalani Dung tossed the first no-hitter of her collegiate career Friday as the Bulldogs beat Florida Gulf Coast 9-0 (five innings) in a run-rule rout at the Puerto Vallarta Challenge in Mexico.

Dung has flirted with perfection much of this season -- and her career -- but it wasn't until Friday that she added her name to the list of talented Fresno State pitchers to accomplish the feat.  It was the 73rd no-hitter in Bulldog history and the first by a Fresno State pitcher since 2-time Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton got it done nearly two years ago against Iowa.

Dung went 8-0 during the regular season as a freshman a year ago, and improved to 4-1 this year with her third complete-game shutout in eight days.  Along with Friday's no-hitter, she has a pair of 3-hit shutouts this season against Big Ten teams Indiana and Purdue.

Fresno State scored in every inning as freshman Miranda Rohleder went 2-for-2 with two RBI and three runs scored.  Rohleder improved her team-leading batting average to .650 in the victory.  Junior Savannah McHellon, leading the Bulldogs and the Mountain West in RBI, added two more, along with a hit.  Every Fresno State starter reached base safely in the contest.  McHellon, Kindra Hackbarth, and Vanessa Hernandez all hit doubles.

Both the Bulldogs and Eagles are 5-3 on the season.

Errors doom Fresno State, San Diego State in tough losses

San Diego State was about to get its first win over a Top 10-ranked team in nearly a decade before a seventh inning meltdown against No. 8/9 Washington Thursday in San Diego.

Meanwhile, No. 21/22 Fresno State allowed a total of just two earned runs spread over two games Thursday, but committed costly errors that allowed six unearned runs, which were the difference in a 4-1 setback to Mississippi State and a 4-3 decision to Florida Gulf Coast.

SDSU freshman pitcher Marissa Moreno pitched well but suffered the loss.  She and the Aztecs went toe to toe with heavy-hitting Washington and star pitcher Taran Alvelo and appeared to have the game in hand, up by two runs entering the final inning.  In the fateful seventh, with one out and no one on base, Moreno gave up a home run to cut it to 5-4.  Two errors -- both by freshman shortstop Shelby Thompson -- and two unearned runs later, the Aztecs were staring at a 6-5 defeat.

While one streak ended for San Diego State, another continued.  The Aztecs had their string of 24 straight wins when leading after five innings snapped.  But their streak of 36 consecutive losses to Top 10-ranked teams continues.  SDSU has not beaten an opponent ranked in the Top 10 since 2008.

Fresno State's Kamalani Dung (3-1) suffered her first loss of the year, and her own throwing error proved to be the difference.  An errant throw from Dung, with two outs in the second inning, allowed Mississippi State to score a pair of unearned runs.  Instead of heading to the third inning tied 1-1, the error accounted for what would turn out to be the game-winning run.  Both teams had seven hits in the contest, and Dung went the distance allowing just the two earned runs but took the loss.

Things were even worse later in a 4-3 loss to Florida Gulf Coast by the Bulldogs.  All four runs scored by FGCU were unearned against Fresno State's Savannah McHellon, who went the distance and absorbed the loss, despite allowing just three hits.  FGCU scored all four of its runs with two outs in the second.  With the bases loaded, a force at the plate appeared like it would end the inning, but freshman catcher Maddi Hackbarth's miscue started what would become a 4-run rally.

Fresno State attempted its own rally in the seventh, with three runs and five hits, cutting the margin to 4-3.  The Bulldogs had the tying run in scoring position and go-ahead run on base when the game ended.  In a stinging defeat, Fresno State out-hit FGCU 9-3.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fresno State smashes records and blasts Stanford 24-8 in romp

Well, we predicted No. 22/24 Fresno State would have perhaps the most explosive offense in school history this season.  But for it to begin on the opening weekend of the season?  And against a Pac-12 opponent?  What happened Sunday was amazing.

In her first weekend coaching Fresno State, new Bulldog head coach Linda Garza wasted no time setting records.  Fresno State tied the all-time school record for runs and home runs in a game, and set the school mark in RBI for a single game in a stunning 24-8 (5 innings) run-rule rout of the Stanford Cardinal at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe.

The 'Dogs tied the runs record set three seasons ago in a 24-4 win at Boise State, and tied the single-game home runs record of six set 13 years ago in a win at Nevada.  Fresno State's 23 RBI in the contest established a new school record, snapping the old record of 22 set in that win over Boise State in 2014.

Things got off to a strong start as Fresno State surged to an 8-0 lead in the top of the first and never looked back, scoring in every inning.  Senior Lindsey Willmon went deep with a pair of home runs, junior Savannah McHellon went yard for the second day in a row, freshman Miranda Rohleder hit her first career home run on a monster offensive day, Katie Castellon blasted a 3-run first inning shot to get things started, and Chase LeeHong capped it all with a pinch hit, 3-run dinger in the top of the fifth.

Rohleder made her first career start, batting in the leadoff spot for Fresno State, and was part of every rally with a 5-for-5 effort at the plate.  She finished just a double shy of hitting for the cycle, scored five runs, and had three RBI.  Rohleder was one of 13 different Bulldogs to have hits or score at least one run as the team pounded out 20 hits in the contest, one shy of the school record that's stood for nearly two decades.

It was the first time Fresno State had ever scored 20+ runs against a Pac-12 opponent in its long and impressive softball history.  And the Bulldogs did it against a Stanford team that entered Sunday's action 4-0 on the young season and allowing over two runs per game just once.  Cardinal starting pitcher Nikki Bauer was 2-0 entering the contest, but lasted just 1+ inning, giving up 10 earned runs.

Fresno State countered with Kamalani Dung, who finished a perfect 3-0 weekend.  Dung left with an 18-3 lead after seeing her string of scoreless innings to begin the season come to an end at 14.  For the weekend, Dung finished with the aforementioned 3-0 record, a 1.24 ERA and 15 strikeouts.  She held opponents to a .155 batting average and allowed only two extra-base hits during the tournament.

It was a strong overall weekend for Fresno State (4-1), which posted three wins over teams from Power 5 conferences -- two from the Big Ten (Indiana and Purdue), as well as Stanford from the Pac-12.  The Bulldogs also beat San Diego with a 12-run barrage, and their only loss was a narrow 4-1 setback to No. 9 Oregon.

McHellon proved to be a power on offense, finishing the weekend with a .615 batting average, eight hits, two home runs, and eight RBI.  Rohleder hit .727 for the weekend, while freshman Schuylar Broussard (.455) and Vanessa Hernandez (.400) combined for 11 hits and 11 RBI.  As a team, Fresno State finished tournament play in Tempe with a staggering .416 on-base percentage.

Elsewhere Sunday, New Mexico edged UC Riverside 1-0 to complete a 4-1 weekend, the second-best start for the Lobos in head coach Erica Beach's career; Nevada lost 6-5 to Army, ending the weekend 3-2 at the Southeastern Louisiana tournament; Utah State suffered its first loss, a 3-1 decision to Loyola Marymount; San Diego State picked up its second win of the season by beating Weber State; UNLV completed a 3-2 weekend with a home loss to Cal State Bakersfield; Colorado State lost 7-2 at Texas to finish the weekend 2-3; and both San Jose State and Boise State were idle.  The Spartans went 3-3 for the week, while the Broncos were 1-2 after being rained out of their final two games in Honolulu.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Mountain West coaches predict Fresno State to three-peat and win title

Graphic:  Mountain West Conference / Mountain West Network
Mountain West softball coaches predicted Fresno State would three-peat as conference champions in balloting revealed this week.

Coach Linda Garza's Bulldogs received four first-place votes and 59 total points to secure the top spot ahead of San Diego State, which is predicted second (three first-place votes, 57 points).  Selected third was San Jose State (two first-place votes, 55 points).

The three California schools clearly separated themselves from the rest of the conference.  While the gap between the projected top three teams was only four points, the margin between the projected third- and fourth-place finishers was a whopping 22 points.

In a closely-bunched middle of the pack (fourth thru eighth place), Utah State earned 33 points, followed by Nevada (32), Colorado State and UNLV tied (26), and New Mexico (25).  Boise State was predicted last on every ballot from opposing coaches, finishing with the minimum 8 points.

Two-time defending conference champion Fresno State (22-1 in MW play a year ago) returns five starters and 13 letter winners, including 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Kierra Willis, and all-MW selections Lindsey Willmon and Malia Rivers.  Ten newcomers will wear Bulldog red for the first time, including an incoming freshman recruiting class ranked 18th best in the country by Flo Softball, and a pair of junior college Division I All-Americans.

San Diego State (12-12 in MW play last season) returns seven starters, while San Jose State (17-7 in MW action in 2016) returns four.

The Spartans will begin their season Thursday, February 9, in Tempe, while the Bulldogs begin their season -- also in Tempe -- on Friday, February 10.  Also starting the 2017 season on February 10 are the Aztecs, who open the year in Los Angeles.

Bulldogs ranked No. 22 and No. 24 in preseason Top 25 polls

Fresno State will begin the 2017 season with national Top 25 rankings in a pair of polls.

Coach Linda Garza's Bulldogs received 65 votes, and are ranked 24th in the preseason USA Today/NFCA coaches poll.  It is the 16th appearance in the last 23 years for Fresno State in the preseason coaches Top 25, but the Bulldogs' first since the 2010 season.

Fresno State appeared in the preseason coaches Top 25 every season from the poll's inception in 1995 until 2010, with the exception of just one year -- 2008.  And in 2008, the coaches got it wrong, as the Bulldogs ended up finishing that year ranked in the Top 10 and securing a national top 16 seed and hosting an NCAA regional at Margie Wright Diamond.

Garza's Fresno State team also finds itself ranked in the preseason D1 Softball News Top 25 poll, coming in at No. 22.  The Bulldogs are receiving votes in the preseason Softball Top 25 poll, as their 10 votes are 15 shy of the Top 25 itself, good enough for a ranking of 32nd.

No other Mountain West team received Top 25 votes in the preseason polls this year.  A year ago, Fresno State was receiving only a couple of votes in the preseason rankings, heading into the 2016 season 40th in the USA Today/NFCA rankings.  The Bulldogs would go on to rank as high as 17th last season before finishing the year 20th.

In other preseason news involving individual accolades in the Mountain West, Fresno State's Lindsey Willmon was named a preseason All-American by College Sports Madness; San Diego State's Jenavee Peres was named to the Top 50 preseason Player of the Year Watch List by USA Softball; and Colorado State's Haley Hutton and Nevada's Jennifer Purcell were named to the Fastpitch News preseason Top 50 hitters list.

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, 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.