Thursday, January 31, 2013

Examining the non-conference schedules

When taking a look at the non-conference schedules Mountain West softball teams will play in 2013, one thing is clear:  The Ratings Percentage Index numbers for the league as a whole should be impressive.

The seven Mountain West teams this season will play a total of 74 games against teams that finished ranked in the RPI Top 50 a year ago.  And while you can't base everything on last season's RPI, it does provide a strong indication that most everyone is scheduling up.

Every team in the MW will play at least one Top 10 team this season.  And the majority of teams in the conference will play multiple games against Top 10-ranked teams.  No Mountain West team plays a more impressive schedule than San Diego State in 2013.

Coach Kathy Van Wyk's Aztecs will play a total of 18 non-conference games against teams that ranked in the RPI Top 100 a season ago.  San Diego State faces a juggernaut of a slate, meeting the likes of No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 3 California, No. 5 Oregon, No. 8 Missouri and No. 13 Arizona, among others.

One of the more impressive aspects of San Diego State's schedule is who the Aztecs don't play.  They don't play many weak teams at all.  SDSU will face just two opponents who finished outside the RPI Top 200 last year, fewer than any other team in the conference.  In terms of RPI potential, it's important.  The Aztecs' probability of an RPI-crushing, bad loss are almost non-existent.

Alongside San Diego State, perennial power and Mountain West newcomer Fresno State plays a rigorous schedule itself, and one very similar to the Aztecs.  The Bulldogs and SDSU play 14 of the same non-conference opponents, and Fresno State will play a total of 22 games against those 14 schools.

Coach Trisha Ford's Bulldogs will play 3rd-ranked Cal, 5th-ranked Oregon, No. 8 Missouri (twice), and 19th-ranked UCLA, among others.  One of the more intriguing matchups of 2013 will come at the Fresno State Classic in March when the Bulldogs host 2012 NCAA Tournament qualifier Oregon State, which received enough votes to rank 30th in this year's preseason USA Today/NFCA poll.

Former Fresno State All-American and Olympian Laura Berg, widely regarded as one of the best softball players in the world, is in her first year as head coach of Oregon State.  She'll bring her Beavers squad to compete at Bulldog Diamond, where she starred and later served as an assistant coach for her alma mater, March 7-10.

Colorado State plays one of its strongest schedules in recent memory, which seems appropriate for a veteran team with a wealth of returning talent.  The Rams will face No. 9 Georgia, 16th-ranked Washington, and a 3-game series in College Station against No. 17 Texas A&M, which will be no easy task.  Coach Jen Fisher's squad will play 10 games against teams that finished ranked in the RPI Top 50 last season.

This year, Boise State faces the fewest number of non-conference opponents (21) in the Mountain West.  But the Broncos, under Coach Erin Thorpe, will play nine of those teams more than once.  Boise State's slate is highlighted by a 3-game series in Tucson against 13th-ranked Arizona in early March.  Also on the docket for BSU are single games on the season's opening weekend in Tempe versus Pac-12 powers Oregon and Arizona State.

In addition to facing Arizona three times in 2013, Boise State will play Portland State, Idaho State and the University of San Diego all three times.  Two-game series for the Broncos will be played against Texas Tech and Tulsa (both of whom received votes in preseason Top 25 polls), as well as future Mountain West member Utah State.

Coach Lisa Dodd's UNLV Rebels are another MW team that will take on 5th-ranked Oregon.  One of the more exciting games of 2013 could be when the former UCLA great takes on her former team.  Dodd's Rebels will tangle with the Bruins March 10 at a tournament in Long Beach.  UNLV, just like Boise State, will play twice each against both Texas Tech and Tulsa.

Also on tap for the Rebels are games against 10th-ranked and Southeastern Conference power LSU, No. 18 Louisville (which went 55-5 a year ago), DePaul, and Virginia Tech.

New Mexico and Coach Erica Beach will see where it stands early in the season.  By the opening Saturday of the year, UNM will have already faced two of the nation's top four ranked teams.  On opening day, the Lobos take on 2011 NCAA champion Arizona State, and two days later it's 2nd-ranked Oklahoma, the NCAA runners-up a year ago.

UCLA and Washington are also on tap later this season for the Lobos, who will play doubleheaders in the Pacific Northwest in March against both Oregon and Oregon State.

Matt Meuchel's Nevada squad faces a schedule that could see the Wolf Pack come away with a winning overall record for the first time in four seasons.  California is the lone preseason Top 10 team Nevada will see this year, but key games against UCLA, Oregon State and Hawai'i loom.

The Wolf Pack will face Rutgers and Utah twice each in 2013.

Overall, opportunities abound for RPI-boosting victories for Mountain West softball teams this season.  If the conference's men's basketball non-conference season proved anything this year, it's that non-league victories count in a major way.  In fact, it will be the difference between the MW sending two, three or possibly even more teams to the NCAA Tournament, or settling for only the conference champion earning a bid like last season.

Non-conference wins could pay off big time for Mountain West softball teams on Selection Sunday in May.  The time to begin winning is next week.

Monday, January 21, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: San Diego State Aztecs

Defending Mountain West softball champion San Diego State takes the field in 2013 knowing that it will have to improve in order to have a chance at a second straight title.

While the Aztecs won the MW regular-season title last season and earned the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they did so by just a game in the final standings over both Colorado State and Boise State.  SDSU may go into this year as the league favorite, though not an overwhelming one.

This year, San Diego State will find a Mountain West that's deeper and more competitive than ever before.  The additions of former WAC members Fresno State and Nevada make the Aztecs' run to a repeat championship more difficult.  Both the Bulldogs and the Wolf Pack defeated San Diego State in San Diego last season, and Fresno State has been a thorn in the side of the Aztecs for years, defeating SDSU 54 times in 63 all-time meetings.

Coach Kathy Van Wyk's team (32-24 a year ago against a difficult schedule) will look for a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance this year and there is a lot of talent returning, both on offense and in the circle.

All-Mountain West pitcher Rebecca Arbino (13-11, 2.02 ERA in 2012) returns for her senior season.  The former Texas A&M Aggie led the MW in overall ERA in 2012 and struck out 107 with 38 walks.  It's interesting to note that she was hit fairly hard by both Nevada and Fresno State a season ago in what was then non-conference play.

Arbino lost that game at home against the Wolf Pack last year, and allowed three hits, including a pair of doubles, and an earned run in just two-thirds of an inning against the Bulldogs.  Fresno State and Nevada combined to out-hit the Aztecs 17 to 5 in their victories in San Diego last year.

Three All-MW players return for an offense that showed great power sometimes, but was missing in action at others.  In 16 different games last season, San Diego State scored one or zero runs.  Too often when facing strong pitching, the Aztecs couldn't get their offense going and that will have to change this season if the record is going to improve.

San Diego State was one-hit in its home loss to Fresno State last season.  Despite reaching the NCAA Tournament, the Aztecs failed to score more than one run in any of their four postseason games.  Still, they led the Mountain West in all three major categories in conference play.  As a team, they hit .344, had a team ERA of 3.12, and committed a league-low 10 errors.

Junior shortstop Hayley Miles, the MW Co-Player of the Year in 2012, should be a force again and leads the offense.  Miles hit .429 overall and a staggering .487 in conference action last year with 75 hits, 20 home runs, a .519 on-base percentage and 49 RBI.  She broke 11 school single-season marks as a sophomore and earned second team All-Region and third team All-American honors.  Miles was limited to one single in four combined NCAA Tournament games last year, however.

Left fielder Kayla Jordan hit .324 last season to win conference Freshman of the Year honors, and returns.  She had 47 hits and 12 stolen bases during her collegiate debut season.  Jordan is the only returning Aztec player to get a hit last season in the NCAA Los Angeles Regional championship game against Hofstra.

Junior outfielder Patrice Jackson returns after earning All-MW honors last year as well. Jackson hit .311 with 11 home runs, 11 doubles and 39 RBI.  Also back is Lorena (Klopp) Bauer, who could see time in the pitching circle. Bauer hit .301 as a sophomore and 13 of her 37 hits were home runs.

Catcher Kristin May (.280 BA, 33 hits) and pitcher Kamerin May (2-5 with a 3.63 ERA in 7 starts in 2012) also return for their senior seasons.  Junior Katie Mathis (.200 BA) and senior second baseman Tiffany Corder (.190 BA, 33 starts) could see additional playing time this year.

Freshman buzz centers around Leia Ruiz (Chino, Calif.), who tripled and scored in an exhibition game the Aztecs played against the National Pro Fastpitch All-Stars in late October.  Ruiz is one of six freshmen among seven newcomers. The lone freshman pitcher is Danielle O'Toole (Upland St. Lucy's HS, Calif.), who went 19-4 with a 1.56 ERA last season as a high school senior.

In all, four of the five players who hit over .300 for the season a year ago are back on a well-rounded roster that features 10 freshman and sophomores, along with a total of 10 juniors and seniors.  That's not to say there aren't key losses, because there are.

Pitcher Bailey Micetich, a former MW Pitcher of the Year and All-American, is gone and is a huge loss.  Micetich was the team leader in wins, shutouts, strikeouts, innings pitched and several other categories a year ago.  She went 17-8 with a 2.43 ERA, six shutouts, 198 Ks and 13 complete games.  In three of the season's final five weeks, Micetich was the MW Pitcher of the Week.  Perhaps most importantly, she was the starting and winning pitcher in both of San Diego State's NCAA Tournament wins last year, twice throwing complete-game shutouts.

Micetich finished her career with 58 wins (4th in school history), 136 pitching appearances, 27 shutouts, 611 strikeouts, and 91 starts among her many accomplishments. She was the winning pitcher in San Diego State's last three NCAA Tournament victories spanning two seasons.

Also gone:  Justeen Maeva, who hit .327 with seven home runs and 42 RBI last season.  Maeva was second on the team in both hits and RBI as a senior and made 54 starts.  Center fielder Felicia Reifschneider (.274, 34 hits and 10 stolen bases in 54 starts), third baseman Ashley Rose (.248 with 11 doubles and a .248 average) and right fielder Fiana Finau (.230, 3 home runs) are all gone after combining for 122 starts last season.

As always, Van Wyk's team will face a rigorous schedule with 18 games vs. 2012 NCAA Tournament teams.  If they hope to garner another NCAA bid of their own at the end of the 2013 season, the Aztecs will need Arbino, Miles, Jordan and Jackson to lead the way.

Seventh in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: Colorado State Rams

Lately it's been dangerous to play the expectations game with Colorado State softball.

Coming off a 2010 season where they went 29-20 overall, expectations were high in Coach Jen Fisher's first season at the helm of the Rams.  CSU was picked fourth in 2011 preseason balloting by conference coaches, but those predictions turned out to be much too generous.

Colorado State finished the 2011 season just 8-43 overall and won just once in 15 Mountain West games to finish last in the conference.

Contrast that with last season.  In 2012, expectations were low.  Very low.  In the preseason conference coaches poll, CSU was predicted to finish last, as most envisioned a repeat of the 2011 campaign.  And what happened?   Fisher's squad again defied the odds and finished tied for second in the final Mountain West standings.

The Rams went 29-22 overall last season, a stunning 21-game improvement from the previous year.  Their 8-4 conference mark was the first time in eight years the team finished with a winning MW record.  The tie for second place was also Colorado State's best conference finish since 2004.

Looking a bit deeper, CSU was literally just one win over San Diego State away from reaching the NCAA Tournament.  The Aztecs swept a 3-game conference series from the Rams, yet finished only one game ahead of them in the final MW standings.  Two of the three contests in San Diego were 1-run games.

Cue the expectations game for the 2013 season.

This time around, Colorado State appears on the verge of one of its best seasons in school history.  The Rams enter on a 7-game win streak after finishing last year strong.  CSU won 10 of its final 11 games a season ago and was playing its best as the month of May approached.

Four of five players who earned all-conference honors return to a loaded roster that lost just two players.  The biggest key could be 2012 Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kacie McCarthy, a second-team All-Pacific Region selection, who went 17-8 overall with a 2.86 ERA as a junior.  McCarthy tossed three shutouts among her 16 complete games, ranking second in the MW in wins, third in innings pitched (151.2) and fourth in strikeouts (105).

A trio of juniors who earned All-MW honors last season return as well on a veteran team.

Third baseman Chelsea Biglow, who hit .256 overall, stepped it up in conference play with a .389 average.  Her 45 RBI overall led the squad and her nine home runs tied her for the team lead.  Shorstop Ashlie Ortega, a transfer from Missouri, hit .a team-best 357 overall and a whopping .422 in conference play.  And junior catcher Emily Pohl also tied for the team lead with nine homers and added 36 RBI.  Pohl's four home runs and 14 RBI in MW games were best on the squad.

And the list doesn't come close to stopping there.  In all, 10 of the 11 players who hit .200 or better last season return this year.  Players who accounted for 365 of the team's 411 hits in 2012 are back.  Among them:  Outfielder Shae Rodriguez, who had 53 hits, including 15 for extra-bases, with a .327 average as a freshman.  Junior Alysa Greckel returns after starting 50 games as a sophomore with a team-high 14 doubles alongside five home runs.  The list goes on and on.

The biggest loss is All-MW outfielder Lyssa Roberts, who led the team in conference play with a .447 batting average.  Roberts made 48 starts as a senior and finished with a .317 average overall.

Also gone is pitcher Kelli Eubanks, a one-time star at CSU, who battled injuries throughout her career.  Eubanks was 3-7 with a 5.92 ERA last year in 17 starts, but won 38 games as a Ram in her four years.  Her best season came as a sophomore when she was the go-to pitching ace, picking up 23 wins that season.

Senior pitcher Kailey Snyder returns after going 9-0 last season with an ERA (4.34) that didn't quite match the record.  None of the other returning pitchers picked up a win last season.

Fisher added six new players -- five freshmen and one transfer -- despite returning almost her entire 2012 team.  Freshman pitcher Holly Reinke (Littleton, CO) could be one to watch.  With such a veteran squad, it could be tough for some of the newcomers to see much playing time.  Eight starters and 11 who participated in the team's final game last season -- a win over New Mexico -- are back.

Expectations are very high for Colorado State this season, bringing added pressure as well.  With two new added teams to the Mountain West, the road to the conference title got tougher.  But if there's a team that's ready to battle opponents like San Diego State and Fresno State, it's this year's Rams squad.

Sixth in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: Fresno State Bulldogs

If there's one Mountain West softball team everyone will be curious to see this season, it's Fresno State, which joins the conference after nearly two decades of unrivaled success in the WAC.

This is clearly a season of change for the Bulldogs.  For the first time in a generation, softball's all-time winningest coach -- Margie Wright -- won't be on the sidelines.

After 1,457 career victories, 10 Women's College World Series appearances, 26 NCAA Tournament bids, 81 NCAA Tournament victories, a quarter century of Top 25 rankings, 17 conference titles, 4 trips to the national title game, and winning Fresno State's first-ever team national championship in 1998, Wright announced her retirement last May.

To say that she leaves giant shoes to fill would be an understatement.

Indeed, whoever got the job to replace her was going to face a monumental challenge to continue the program Wright built.  Enter Trisha Ford.  After nine years at Stanford, where she rose to be the associate head coach, Ford now has the task of leading Fresno State in its first year in the Mountain West.

Ford lists three P's in describing how her team will play -- with passion, preparation and purpose.  And her players have already bought into her vision, which is a great first sign.  All 13 letterwinners who were expected back this season have returned, and Ford was able to keep Wright's entire final recruiting class of six freshmen intact, as well as bring in a pair of JC transfers.

The biggest task for Ford revolves around pitching.  The Bulldogs lost their top two pitchers from a year ago, and replacing first team All-WAC and first team All-Region star Michelle Moses will not be easy.  Moses will go down as one of the greatest players in Fresno State history, which is quite an achievement considering this is a softball program full of former All-Americans and Olympians.

Moses had the ability to beat opponents with both her pitching and her hitting. She won 51 games as a pitcher in her career, including 23 as a senior.  She tossed three career no-hitters, including one over powerful Hawai'i during her junior season.  Moses joined former Olympian and All-American Monica Abbott as the only two pitchers to no-hit Hawai'i in the past decade.  But if she wasn't beating opposing teams with her arm, she was beating them with power at the plate.

Moses finished with 59 career home runs, second-best in school history and third all-time in the WAC.  She had 175 career RBI (seventh-best in the WAC all-time) as a hitter, and, as a pitcher, she held opponents to three hits or less in a complete-game effort 28 times. In addition to her three no-hitters, Moses pitched 5 one-hitters, 6 two-hitters and 14 three-hitters as a Bulldog.  Her wins came over the likes of UCLA, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas, among others.  Simply put, no MW team lost a more valuable player this season.

Not only is Moses gone, but so is 4-year starting pitcher Mackenzie Oakes, one of the more underrated pitchers in school history.  Oakes finished her career with 48 wins -- only three fewer than Moses -- and also came up huge in marquee games, beating teams such as Michigan, North Carolina and UMass. She out-dueled All-American pitchers Jordan Taylor, Danielle Spaulding and Sara Plourde in those wins over the Wolverines, Tar Heels and Minutewomen.

With the one-two punch of Moses and Oakes gone, Ford will turn to an almost entirely unproven staff of pitchers at the Division I level.  Only two returning pitchers (Destinee Levesque and Kiley Shae Aldridge) are on the roster, and it appears as though Aldridge's season may be over already.  A rumored ACL injury (which has not been confirmed publicly by the school) may force the lefty to miss all of the 2013 season.

If true, it stings, particularly because it leaves the Bulldogs without a left-handed pitcher.  Aldridge threw just 10 innings as a freshman and picked up one win, but picked up perhaps the biggest save of the year. The Arizona transfer came up big in a clutch situation, striking out three in two scoreless innings of relief as Fresno State knocked off eventual WAC champion BYU last season.  Levesque could see significant action after going 1-0 as a freshman (5.06 ERA) in 18 innings. Her victory came in 5.2 innings of 2-hit relief against Charlotte of the Atlantic 10.

It's interesting to note that both Levesque and Aldridge earned one more win in their freshman seasons than the aforementioned Moses (0-2, 7.70 ERA as a frosh in 2009).

Fresno State will feature the youngest pitching staff in the Mountain West, if not the nation.  And while they may be young, they arrive with some strong credentials.  Freshman right-handers Hannah Harris (Goleta Dos Pueblos HS), Jillian Compton (Arroyo Grande HS), and Taylor Langdon (Glendora HS) are new to the squad and will be asked to contribute a lot.

Harris, in particular, arrives as one of the most decorated freshman pitchers in school history.  A first team CIF and ESPN All-State pick for three straight years, Harris earned CIF Southern Section Pitcher of the Year honors as a junior after allowing just one run in 45 playoff innings.  Her Dos Pueblos team won the section championship title when she tossed a complete-game, 5-0 shutout with 10 strikeouts. Harris won 22 games as a junior, had a better than 10-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, and finished with a 1.03 overall ERA that improved to 0.39 in playoff games. Her numbers improved even more as a senior when she went 23-3 in California's most demanding section with a 0.53 ERA for the year, often out-dueling other Division I pitching signees in the process.

Harris didn't allow an earned run in 18 of her 26 games last season, and 19 times she allowed three or fewer hits.  The 2-time Channel League Most Valuable Player struck out 645 batters during an award-filled high school career that featured 32 shutouts.  Alongside Harris this season will be the talented Compton, a dominant strikeout pitcher herself.

Compton recorded 764 strikeouts in her final three years of high school, winning Pac-7 and San Luis Obispo County MVP honors in both her junior and senior seasons.  She pitched a perfect game (one of two in her career) with 14 strikeouts in a CIF Southern Section playoff as a junior, and struck out 198 in 115 innings that season. An All-CIF Southern Section first team, All-State first team, and ESPN second team pick as a junior when she led her team to a conference title for the first time in 11 years, Compton was even more dominant as a senior. Her 275 strikeouts last year were the most in conference history.

One of Wright's strongest attributes was her ability to recruit exceptional pitchers.  Every time Fresno State has needed a freshman to lead the way in the circle, Wright's recruits delivered.  Jamie Southern (2002), Robin Mackin (2006) and Morgan Melloh (2008) all earned WAC Freshman and Pitcher of the Year honors, in addition to All-American honors, during their debut seasons in college with the Bulldogs.

The staff at College Sports Madness is already convinced, naming Fresno State the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West title and ranking the Bulldogs as the No. 31 team in the nation.  It's an optimistic outlook for sure, and many are taking a wait-and-see attitude, but there's no denying that there is a ton of talent coming on board, along with a great deal of returning talent as well.

The top five hitters in terms of batting average all are back this year and five starters return to form a strong nucleus.  Despite being a veteran team in the circle in 2012, Fresno State was a relatively young team overall with many freshmen and newcomers gaining valuable experience.  The Bulldogs' entire starting infield returns and there aren't a lot of holes to fill on defense.

Second baseman Brooke Ortiz, a former All-WAC pick, is now a junior and has led the team in batting average both of her first two seasons. Ortiz started every game as a sophomore and hit .312 last year with 54 hits, including four triples.  Junior Stesha Brazil, one of the more underrated players on the squad and in the WAC last year, hit .304 and started all 59 games. The power-hitting Brazil had 24 extra-base hits last season with 14 doubles, six home runs and 33 RBI.

Power also comes from All-WAC selection Vonnie Martin, who took the league by storm after working her way into the starting lineup one-third of the way into the season as a sophomore last year.  Martin earned All-WAC and All-WAC Tournament honors, hitting .327 in conference play.  She had 16 extra-base hits, a.548 slugging percentage and seven home runs.  Martin blasted three home runs in the WAC Tournament alone, including an extra-inning shot that ended San Jose State's season.

Outfielder Brenna Moss, one of the fastest players in the Mountain West, started 58 games as a freshman and could be in for a breakout season this year.  Her 56 hits led the Bulldogs and she hit a WAC-best five triples and added 11 stolen bases while batting .283 overall.  Moss provided one of the key hits of the season last year, delivering a bases-loaded triple with two outs in the seventh inning as Fresno State broke a 3-all tie and stunned UCLA 6-3.

Maria Sio is back after starting all 59 games as a freshman shortstop a year ago.  Sio hit .281 with 38 hits and a .406 on-base percentage.  Sophomore Michelle Solomon (.229) returns after making 36 starts last season with four home runs and 18 RBI.  More than half of Solomon's hits went for extra bases a year ago.

The incoming freshmen are a talented bunch. In addition to Compton and Harris, Langdon was a 2-time all-conference pitcher in high school.  A lot of buzz centers around talented Whitney Smith (Loomis Del Oro HS), who could maneuver her way into the starting lineup as Ford works with different combos.  A feared hitter, Smith belted nine home runs, with a career .442 batting average and .766 slugging percentage while being named first team all-conference all four years of high school.  Smith earned MVP honors on a high school team with multiple NCAA Division I signees.

Freshman Paige Gumz could see immediate playing time at catcher after an outstanding career at Chino Hills HS. Known as a defensive specialist, Gumz committed just one error behind the plate in her final two seasons combined.  Her Chino Hills team won an impressive CIF Southern Section Division 3 championship last season and she played a huge role.  Gumz smashed the game-winning home run -- a 3-run, sixth inning shot that broke a 2-all tie -- in a section semifinal win that propelled her team to the final as a senior.

Freshman outfielder Bria Kennedy (Hanford West HS), a first team All-Central Section pick, and two JC transfers from Fresno City College (outfielder Kapri Angotti and catcher Kim Fisher, both first team all-conference selections) will likely also see significant playing team on a roster that looks very well-rounded.  Sophomore returnees Kelly Megee, Taylor Green and Caitlin Neal are back and vying for playing time as well.  Megee, in particular, showed some pop with the bat a season ago, mostly in a pinch-hitting role.

There are only two seniors on the 21-member roster -- Diane Runge and Mackenzie Mendonca, who combined for just three starts and six at-bats last season.  Runge is one of the team's fastest players and has been used almost exclusively as a pinch-runner in her career but could see more playing time as a senior.

Overall, there are probably more questions going into this season than for any Fresno State softball team in history.  Like every year, there is the pressure from one of the country's largest softball fan bases to produce a winner.

Last season the Bulldogs experienced a season like no other.  There were the highs to which Fresno State fans have become accustomed (the wins over then-No. 11 Hawai'i and then-No. 5 UCLA, and the victories over teams from the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East conferences).  But there were head-scratching losses also.

Too often last season, Fresno State had trouble putting teams away.  The Bulldogs were one strike away from a marquee win over eventual WCWS qualifer Oregon before letting it slip through their grasp.  A seventh-inning lead disappeared at home against Cal Poly.

Extra-inning losses came in the most painful of ways as Fresno State fell due to the international tie break rule against Sacramento State and Long Beach State.  The Bulldogs were tied with powerful Arizona State and Ohio State as late as the sixth inning both times, but lost.  They were one out away from a series sweep of Nevada, but lost.  They lost a game where Moses pitched a no-hitter through seven innings.  And the tough, gut-wrenching losses took their toll.

By the end of the season, the Bulldogs were playing well.  They swept the regular-season series from eventual WAC champions BYU.  They knocked powerful Hawai'i out of the WAC Tournament, scoring nine unanswered runs to rally from a 6-run deficit against the Wahine's All-American ace Stephanie Ricketts.  And they became the first team to reach the WAC tournament championship game for a fourth straight season.

In the end, though, they sat home disappointed on NCAA Selection Sunday, uninvited to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.  After 30 years atop the perch, it was a humbling moment.  And it certainly wasn't the way Wright wanted -- or should -- have gone out.

Fresno State was one of the 64 best teams in the country last season, but too often it didn't play like it.  This year's mission:  Play every pitch of every game as though the postseason depends on it.  And you know what?  Last season is proof that it does.

The returning talent is there.  The incoming talent is there.  If Ford can put it all together, the Bulldogs will be looking at starting another long string of NCAA Tournament appearances.

Fifth in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: Boise State Broncos

As well as the Boise State softball team has played in recent seasons, it's easy to forget that this is one of the newest programs at the NCAA Division I level.

The 2013 season will mark just the fifth year the Broncos' softball program has been in existence.  And it's been a steady rise to the top for Coach Erin Thorpe's team.

Boise State has improved its wins total every year in the program's short history.  A 22-win season in 2009 was a surprise for a first-year program.  It was followed by a 29-32 campaign in 2010 when the Broncos finished 13-8 in Western Athletic Conference play.  In 2011, Boise State went 33-20, including 15-6 in WAC play.

And last year, BSU went 34-20 and 8-4 in its first season as a Mountain West member, falling just shy of of its first NCAA Tournament berth.  Boise State went to San Diego State in its final conference series of the season last May with the MW title and automatic NCAA bid within reach.  After winning the first two games of the 3-game series against the Aztecs, the Broncos fell short in the series finale, and that loss proved to be the difference in the final conference standings.

After falling at San Diego State to conclude their Mountain West season, the Broncos were swept at home in a 3-game series by Texas A&M last year.  Likely needing to win one, if not two, of those games against the Aggies, Boise State was denied an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.  A final RPI of 57 wasn't enough in the eyes of the selection committee.

After coming so close to an NCAA berth last season, the Broncos will try to increase their win total for a fifth straight season in 2013.  It won't be easy.  Not only does the addition of Fresno State and Nevada to the Mountain West complicate things, but Boise State loses a ton of talent, especially in the pitching circle.

Indeed, it's not a stretch to say the Broncos lost the heart and soul of their team by graduation, losing six key players who were the cornerstone of the program during its early years.  In many respects, this will be an entirely different team from past seasons.

A huge loss is All-Mountain West pitcher Aubray Zell, the career leader in almost every pitching category for Boise State.  When you add in the loss of fellow pitcher Allie Crump, the numbers Thorpe will have to replace are staggering. Zell and Crump combined for 184 pitching starts in 222 appearances, 99 wins, 89 complete games and 819 strikeouts.

Zell was the go-to pitcher for Boise State nearly her entire 4-year career.  She lowered her ERA every season, and last year's 2.41 mark bettered her 2.52 ERA of the previous season.  Often pitching at altitude in MW stadiums, an ERA of 2.41 is impressive to say the least.  Zell ranked second in the conference in ERA and topped the league in innings pitched (200.2).

When Zell wasn't in the circle for the Broncos over the past four years, it was usually Crump who was there.  The two combined to pitch in 49 of Boise State's 54 games last season.  Crump finished her career with 42 wins, 39 complete games and 387 strikeouts.  What made Crump special was the fact she was also one of Boise State's leading hitters as well.

Crump hit .311 as a senior and played in 188 games as a Bronco.  She was the team's RBI leader last season (41), was second on the team in home runs (9) and third in hits (47) and total bases (81).  But the list of key personnel losses doesn't end with Zell and Crump.

Also gone are four other 4-year starters:  All-MW Kellie Caplan (206 starts), Christina Capobianco (193 starts), Kelly Sweeney (131 starts) and Tazz Weatherly (166 starts).  When you begin to add up the numbers, there are few teams in the country that lost more experience and talent than Boise State.

Caplan hit better than .300 overall during the last three seasons and finished with 175 hits and 46 stolen bases in her career.  Capobianco, who hit over .300 for her career, was one of the Broncos' best power hitters, with 37 home runs and 143 RBI.

While the team loses four of its top seven hitters in terms of batting average, the players who are returning are good ones who provide a strong nucleus, led by 2012 MW Co-Player of the Year Tara Glover.  As a sophomore, the center fielder led the MW (in conference games only) in the following categories:  hits (28), on-base percentage (.638) and stolen bases (6), while ranking second in runs (17), doubles (6) and slugging percentage (1.067).  She hit a staggering .476 for the season and her team-leading 88 hits were 34 more than her closest teammate.

Junior Devon Bridges returns after an All-MW campaign a year ago.  Bridges led the team in home runs (14) and was second in hits (54) and batting average (.342).  Also returning are Mackenzie Whyte (.257 BA, 3 HR, 51 starts), Holly Bourke (.232, 3 HR), Jordan Kreiger (.306 in 29 starts with 16 RBI), and Katie Engelbrecht (.159).

Pitcher Lela Work, who went 6-3 (3.96 ERA) in seven starts is the top returning pitcher.  Work, used mostly as a reliever throughout her collegiate career, will likely see significantly more playing time than in recent seasons.  She had three saves a year ago.  Also back is sophomore pitcher Kenzie Cole (2-2, 5.71 ERA), who started five games in 2012.

Cal Poly transfer Rebecca Patton arrives to join the Broncos pitching staff and will almost certainly see immediate playing action.  Patton was 5-6 with a 4.75 ERA for the Mustangs, allowing 89 hits in 66.1 innings. She pitched Cal Poly's only shutout of the season and also picked up perhaps the Mustangs' best quality win of 2012, defeating Texas Tech.

Eight freshmen are new to the Broncos this year, including pitcher Sarah Barnes of Onalaska, Wash.  Freshman Ashley Palmer and junior Brittany McCray (a transfer from North Dakota State) are also newcomers to watch.

While there are some key offensive stars returning, it appears as though Boise State could struggle a bit more than it has over the past two seasons.  There will be a lot of new faces on the team, and many that will contribute immediately.  Pitching, though, could be a concern.  In the end, BSU may have to rely on outscoring opponents rather than shutting them down.

A word of caution:  It's never wise to underestimate a Thorpe-coached team. The Broncos will begin their first season in their new on-campus home (Dona Larsen Park) after spending their first four years of Division I action at the Mountain Cove softball complex.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: Nevada Wolf Pack

The Nevada Wolf Pack head into their first season as a Mountain West softball member with some very high hopes.

With an abundance of talent returning to the squad, those high hopes for Coach Matt Meuchel and company appear warranted.  Nevada has more starters back than any other MW team, and the Wolf Pack could be the team most likely for a dramatic turnaround from the 2012 season.

And that's not to say the 2012 campaign was a bad one.  Sure, the overall record doesn't look great on paper (21-36 overall), but the Pack finished 9-12 in a demanding Western Athletic Conference.

The WAC last year consisted of heavyweights Hawai'i, BYU and Fresno State, meaning the league boasted a Top 15-ranked team that was two years removed from a Women's College World Series berth, a 3-time defending conference champion looking for an 8th straight NCAA Tournament appearance, and a former NCAA champion with 12 WCWS appearances under its belt, looking for a 31st straight NCAA Tournament bid.

All three of the aforementioned teams (Hawai'i, BYU, and Fresno State) are gone from the WAC this year, along with Nevada.  And all three are this year projected to win their respective new conferences, according to College Sports Madness in its preseason projections.

For Nevada to finish with nine wins in a league as strong as the WAC was in 2012 is an accomplishment in itself.  The Wolf Pack took a game from both Fresno State and Hawai'i in conference play before faltering down the stretch.

Nevada enters 2013 on a 5-game losing streak after being swept in three games by BYU in the final series of the regular season, and then going a disappointing 0-2 in the WAC postseason tournament, where it was bounced early.  The Wolf Pack squandered leads late in both games they lost at the WAC tourney to end the year.

But it's a new year and a new conference.  And the future looks bright with a roster dominated by upperclassmen and veteran players.  Nevada returns all seven of its top hitters in terms of batting average from last season, and features a roster where more than half of the team are seniors and juniors.

And those players are experienced.  Eight position players who started the Pack's final game of the season a year ago are back.  The lone player missing is pitcher/infielder Emily Seidel, a freshman a year ago, who made five pitching starts and 25 starts overall.  Seidel started at third base for Nevada in its season-ending loss to Louisiana Tech.

Not to worry.  Returning to the squad after a year that saw her miss all of 2012 with injury is one of the Pack's most feared hitters -- third baseman Erin Jones.  A second team All-WAC pick as a sophomore in 2011, Jones led Nevada with a .362 average that season.

Junior shortstop Karley Hopkins, senior first baseman Lauren Lastrapes and junior second baseman Caylin Campbell all return.  Hopkins led the Pack with a .333 batting average in 2012 with Lastrapes the only other member of the team batting over .300 (.302).  A team without a whole lot of power at the plate last season, Nevada hit just 30 home runs.  Lastrapes was tied for the team lead with six.

The outfield appears set as well.  Center fielder Sara Parsons (.299), left fielder Chelsea Barilli (.273) and right fielder Megan Fincher (.256) all return.  The trio combined for 114 hits and 22 stolen bases on the year.  Also back:  Sam Puzey (.251), Chelsea Venable (.210) and Ashley Butera (.279).  As a freshman last season, Butera tied Lastrapes for the team lead in HR with six, and her .500 slugging percentage led Nevada.

In the circle, the Wolf Pack appear set as well.  Junior right-hander Karlyn Jones returns after leading the team in earned-run average (3.58).  A quick worker who continually frustrates opponents, Jones pitched better than her 9-6 record might indicate.  Her strikeout-to-walk ratio is one of the best in the country and she allowed just nine walks in 107.2 innings last season.  At one point, she posted eight straight wins (going nearly two full months without a loss), and her three saves and two shutouts paced the team.  Jones is one of the pitchers to watch in the Mountain West in 2013.

Northern Illinois sophomore transfer Megan Dortch (a Reno native) will begin her first year with the Pack after leading the Huskies in wins, ERA and complete games a year ago.  Dortch went 11-13 with a 3.28 ERA for NIU, which plays in the Mid-American Conference.  In MAC play only, she finished 2-2 with a 5.60 ERA.  In her best win of the season, Dortch limited Mountain West member Boise State to five hits in a complete-game, 5-1 win for NIU over the Broncos and pitcher Lela Work.

Aside from the loss of Seidel, there is just one major loss:  Pitcher Mallary Darby, a 4-year mainstay for Nevada.  The first pitcher in school history to finish with double-digit wins for four consecutive seasons, Darby led the Pack in numerous pitching categories over her career. Her 28 starts last season were nearly double any other pitcher on the staff, and her 16 complete games were four times more than any other teammate. Darby tossed at least one no-hitter in three different seasons as a collegian, and her shutout of then-No. 14 Hawai'i last year was Nevada's best win.

One thing to watch is how Jones, Dortch and fellow pitchers Ariel Craig and Bailey Brewer handle the pitching spotlight.  For years, it was Darby who started nearly every big game on the schedule (Darby started both of Nevada's WAC Tournament games in 2012).

A 5-member freshman class, comprised of mostly players who could see time in the infield, may struggle to see much action with such an upperclassman-filled lineup.

After three straight losing seasons, the time seems right for Nevada to make noise.  With so many veteran players coming back, the Wolf Pack appear on the verge of competing for an NCAA Tournament spot once again.  This team will definitely be able to hit, but if the pitching and defense (errors were a problem in 2012) can come through, Meuchel's squad could be challenging for the MW title in its first season in the conference.

Third in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: UNLV Rebels

Former UCLA softball great Lisa Dodd takes over the UNLV Rebels program this season, inheriting a team that finished fourth of five teams in the Mountain West standings a year ago.

After four years and a 113-86 overall record that included a 2009 trip to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Pete Manarino's contract was not renewed, paving the way for Dodd to take over the reins as the fifth head coach in Rebels softball history.  Under Manarino's leadership, UNLV had nine All-MW players in four years and -- perhaps most impressively -- 34 Academic All-MW student-athletes.

Manarino's Rebels squad finished five games under .500 last year after three straight winning seasons.  UNLV went 31-21 in his first season (2009), followed by 33-20 and 27-18 campaigns.

When a school terminates a contract for a coach with those credentials, Dodd knows one thing is clear:  Her job is to win.  And win big.  And do it quickly.

Things are made a bit difficult with the loss of three of last season's four pitchers, along with the departure of All-MW outfielder Paige Emerson, who led the squad in virtually every offensive category.  Emerson led the team in batting average (.387), hits (63), runs (37), at-bats (165), doubles (11), triples (5), total bases (96) and slugging percentage (.582) while starting a team-high 48 of the Rebels' 49 games.

Pitchers Jessica O'Connor and Amber Petersen (both seniors a year ago), and Caitlin Klepper (a freshman in 2012) are all gone.  The trio combined for 46 appearances, 20 starts and 139 innings pitched last season.  O'Connor is the biggest loss of the three.  She went 8-8 as a senior and finished her UNLV career with 33 wins and 103 appearances in the circle.

The best news for Dodd and company is that junior pitcher Amanda Oliveto is back, and provides a good nucleus around whom to build a strong team.  Oliveto's 13-17 overall record last year is deceiving and not indicative of the type of pitcher she really is.

Already with three career no-hitters under her belt (over Cal Poly and Seattle as a freshman, and Memphis last year as a sophomore), Oliveto finished with an ERA of 2.92.  In a conference that plays a lot of games at altitude, that's an impressive number.  Oliveto has four times been named the MW Pitcher of the Week (twice in each of her two seasons) and tossed four shutouts last year.  She is a workhorse, having appeared in 40 of the Rebels' 49 games last year with 18 complete-game efforts.  She made 29 starts as a sophomore and struck out a team-high 128 batters.

Incoming freshman pitcher Francesca Foti, a former all-state honoree in Nevada (Liberty HS, Henderson), is currently the only other hurler on the roster, creating some major concern.  Heading into a season with just two pitchers is risky to say the least.  Will another pitcher eventually be added to this season's roster?  We'll see.

A lot of returning position players dot the UNLV roster.  Even with the departure of Emerson, there are numerous experienced upperclassmen returning, perhaps signifying an overall improvement on last year's .262 team batting average.

Junior All-MW outfielder Stefany Valentino is back after a strong conference season a year ago.  In MW play only, Valentino reached base safely in all 12 conference games and hit a team-leading .395 (.341 overall).  She finished with 42 hits in 42 games and concluded the year with 21 RBI.

Junior Jaexie Balilea returns after hitting .313 last season with six home runs.  Balilea's 45 hits ranked second on the squad behind Emerson.  Senior Tayler Aleman (.273 BA) led the team in home runs (10) and ranked second with 29 RBI in 46 starts last season.  Also making noise this year could be junior first baseman Tayler Van Acker (3 HR in 2012) and Pauline Monreal.  Despite just a .234 average as a sophomore last year, Monreal hit for power with 30 RBI and eight home runs, second-best on the team.

Of Monreal's 33 hits last season, more than half (17) went for extra bases.  Senior catcher Heather Harrison made 34 starts last year and hit .171.  Harrison showed some power in the school's annual Alumnae Game, blasting a home run off former Rebels pitcher Stephanie Bregante. 

A 6-member freshman recruiting class could be relied on heavily.  Maleena Esparza (La Habra HS, Calif.) is a two-time Whittier Daily News Player of the Year honoree and competed in California's tough Southern Section.  She hit .545 as a high school senior with an area-best 12 home runs.  Also from that section is highly-regarded freshman Alyssa Cordova (Chino HS), an All-CIF honoree who could see immediate playing time in the infield.

Overall, UNLV appears capable of turning things around quickly.  A lot of the burden will fall on the arm of Oliveto, who is the key to a successful season.  And there's no denying that the lack of pitching depth is a major concern.  But with the return of six position players who started more than 30 games each a year ago, UNLV could be improved.  A tougher Mountain West, with the addition of Fresno State and Nevada, awaits.

Second in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2013 PREVIEW: New Mexico Lobos

The New Mexico Lobos started out the 2012 softball season like no other.  Not only was UNM the talk of the Mountain West Conference, but also one of the top stories nationally.

New Mexico began last season by winning its first nine games and 17 of its first 19.  The wins weren't flukes, either.  The Lobos picked up early-season wins over the likes of Oregon, Texas A&M (a 15-3, run-rule victory) and Oregon State, all of whom eventually reached the NCAA Tournament.  Oregon, in fact, advanced all the way to the Women's College World Series.

By late February and early March last season, New Mexico had defied the odds, was 17-2 overall, and roared into the national Top 25 polls.  Off to the best start in school history, it looked like the Lobos were on their way to a certain NCAA Tournament berth, if not the Mountain West title also.

En route to what seemed like a record-breaking season and an NCAA bid, the team's fortunes changed quickly.  And boy did they change!  New Mexico began losing, and losing, and ... well, you get the picture.  By the time the season was over, the Lobos were alone in last place in the Mountain West standings. 

It was a stunning fall that saw UNM lose 15 of its final 18 games, and it was clear --  the Lobos peaked in February.  From March through May, New Mexico posted only one victory over a team with a winning record (a 6-5 victory in eight innings over Boise State on April 29).

New Mexico led the Mountain West in hitting last season with a .311 team average and a staggering 95 home runs.  In fact, the Lobos led the MW in virtually every offensive category (hits, runs, HR, RBI, triples, total bases).  The problems came mostly in the circle, where UNM's team earned-run average (5.46) was a full point higher than anyone else in the conference.

In Mountain West games only, New Mexico fared even worse with a league-high 6.88 team ERA.  Lobos pitchers allowed an average of 11 hits per game in conference play and gave up 94 runs in 12 contests.  UNM was the only pitching staff with a higher walk to strikeout ratio in the MW, walking 55 as a team while striking out just 31.  Clearly, for the team to improve this time around, pitching must be improved.

The entire pitching staff from a year ago returns, though none finished with an ERA below 5.00.  Kaela DeBroeck went 13-6 and tossed a team-high 133.2 innings as a junior.  Carrie Sheehan, as a freshman in 2012, went 8-9 with a team-best 5.07 ERA and picked up a MW Pitcher of the Week honor along the way, so the potential is there.  Kari Gutierrez returns for senior season after going 6-10.  All three of last year's starting pitchers walked more batters than they struck out.

Two freshman pitchers have been added by coach Erica Beach and will likely see a significant amount of time in the circle.  Both Lauren Soles and Lisa Rodrigues are from California, and Rodrigues finished with a 0.53 ERA as a senior at Heritage HS (Brentwood, Calif.) where she was named first-team All-Bay Valley League Conference for three straight years.  Soles is a lefty from Simi Valley, and led her high school team to three straight Marmonte League titles.

If it's possible, perhaps even bigger concerns lie on the offensive side of the ball.  For a team that was practically a juggernaut at the plate a year ago, it seems strange to ask:  Where will the hits and runs come from?  The losses on offense are deep and wide-ranging.

New Mexico lost All-MW, All-Region and All-American catcher Jessica Garcia, who's now playing with the NPF's Akron Racers.  Garcia had a record-breaking season a year ago with a school-record 24 home runs, which ranks second in conference, single-season history.  She led the team in virtually every offensive category, with 81 hits, 69 RBI, 166 total bases, a .448 batting average and .917 slugging percentage, in addition to those 24 home runs.

If that loss isn't enough, the departure of All-MW third baseman Stefanie Carramusa may hurt even more, if only because she was expected back.  Carramusa was set to be a senior at UNM, but enrolled at the University of Arizona in the offseason and is no longer on the squad.  For much of last season, Carramusa and Garcia went back and forth in the quest for the school's home run title.  Carramusa, with 23 round-trippers, finished one behind Garcia.  She was also second to Garcia in team hits (67), RBI (49), total bases (152) and slugging percentage (.831).  Carramusa led the Lobos with 16 doubles and will be missed.  Both she and Garcia started all 52 games a season ago.

Also gone are outfielder Kerry Hodgins (second on the team with a .369 batting average) and Shenise Cox, who started all 52 games and hit a career-high 15 home runs with a .293 average.  In all, New Mexico hit 95 homers as a team last year, but players who accounted for 75 of them are no longer with the team.  Five of the top six hitters overall are gone. 

All-MW infielder Chelsea Anaya returns as the biggest offensive threat for UNM. Anaya hit .327 with nine home runs and 33 RBI a year ago.  Also back are Jordan Sjostrand (.284, 52 starts, 7 home runs), Jordyn Bledsoe (.250 with 28 hits in 43 starts), and Sheryl Guillermo (.237, 43 starts).

One of the impact newcomers could be freshman outfielder Mariah Rimmer, who's already been forecast as the preseason MW Freshman of the Year by the web site College Sports Madness.  The speedy Rimmer finished fall ball hitting over .500 and was perfect in stolen base attempts.

On paper, this looks to be a rebuilding season in Albuquerque for Beach and the Lobos.  Only three position players who started the team's final game a year ago are back this time around.  After a disappointing, last-place finish in 2012, there's no place for New Mexico to go but up.

First in a 7-part series of Mountain West softball previews.

Monday, January 14, 2013

PREVIEW: Sizing up the 2013 MW softball race

The 2013 college softball season officially begins in three weeks, and it's shaping up to be the most competitive season ever in the Mountain West Conference.

With the addition of Fresno State and Nevada, the road to the Mountain West championship appears to be tougher than ever.  In Nevada, the MW is gaining a program that has been to the NCAA Tournament three times in the last seven years.  In Fresno State, the MW is gaining even more:  A former NCAA championship program that has been to a national-record 30 NCAA tourneys all-time, and 12 Women's College World Series.

The Bulldogs' 12 WCWS appearances rank third in the nation, behind only perennial powers UCLA and Arizona.  Suffice it to say that adding Fresno State and Nevada in softball is a significant upgrade for the Mountain West, making this year's race to the top the toughest it's ever been.

When analyzing the upcoming season, it's not a stretch to say that as many as five or six of the seven Mountain West teams has a legitimate shot at the league title.  Defending champion San Diego State returns a great deal of talent, including four all-conference selections and seems like the logical pick to win the crown again.  However, things could get dicey with a stronger top to bottom conference this time around.

Despite winning the MW regular season title and advancing to the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the Aztecs lost games in San Diego to both Fresno State and Nevada last year.  In fact, the Bulldogs have beaten San Diego State on the road each of the last two seasons, albeit in non-conference play.  The experience Fresno State and Nevada got by playing in a then-stronger Western Athletic Conference should suit both programs well as they make the transition to the MW.

San Diego State will have the Ratings Percentage Index on its side with a demanding slate that includes 18 games against teams that reached the postseason a year ago.  Among the Aztecs' returners:  One of the conference's most feared hitters in Hayley Miles, predicted as the 2013 MW Field Player of the Year recently by College Sports Madness.  The NFCA All-West Region second team pick a year ago hit .429 with 20 home runs.

Up and coming Colorado State, under the guidance of head coach Jen Fisher, looks to be a force to be reckoned with this season.  The Rams, who finished tied for second a year ago, are loaded. Colorado State returns four players who hit over .300 and a veteran pitching staff that includes 2012 MW Pitcher of the Year Kacie McCarthy.

Consistency will be the key for CSU, which has had a very up-and-down program recently.  After going 29-20 overall during the 2010 season, the Rams were just 8-43 overall in 2011 before surprising many with last year's 29-22 mark.  Colorado State completely turned its fortunes around in MW play, after finishing with just one league win the previous year.  Anyone making a prediction on how the Rams will fare in 2013 does so at great peril, but CSU -- on paper at least -- appears ready to make a run at an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Fresno State is this year's mystery pick.  The Bulldogs won 36 games a year ago and reached the WAC championship game for a fourth straight season, but will go with an almost entirely unproven pitching staff and a completely new coaching staff anchored by former Stanford top assistant Trisha Ford.  With softball legend Margie Wright gone after 27 years and a staggering 1,454 wins, Ford was able to keep a strong recruiting class intact after Wright's departure.  Fresno State returns its top five batting averages from a year ago, but it will likely be the Bulldogs' highly-regarded freshman pitching recruits that determine the season's outcome.

Ford's Bulldogs are predicted to win the Mountain West championship in their first year in the conference, according to College Sports Madness.  Considering the talent that was lost, as well as the coaching change, it's an optimistic projection to say the least.

Boise State enters its fifth year as a Division I NCAA softball program and continues to be a program on the rise.  The Broncos, however, lost some major talent in all-conference pitcher Aubray Zell, a 20-game winner who made 32 starts last season, and All-MW infielder Kellie Caplan. In addition, BSU lost valuable multi-purpose player Allie Crump (3.14 ERA as a pitcher, .311 batting average with a team-high 44 RBI as a hitter) and several others who'd been with the program all four years of its existence.  The Broncos will have a new look in 2013 and are another team that is difficult to predict.

Nevada returns several players who earned either first or second-team All-WAC honors last year and this is a program that looks to be on the rise again after a few down years.  A significant loss is pitcher Mallary Darby, the first pitcher in school history to finish with double-digit wins for four consecutive seasons.  Darby tossed at least one no-hitter in three different seasons and shut out then-No. 14 Hawai'i in a 4-0 win over the Wahine last year.

Pitcher Karlyn Jones returns for the Pack after a strong sophomore campaign and has the potential to be one of the league's premier hurlers.  With a great deal of talent coming back as well as a transfer pitcher from Northern Illinois coming on board, Nevada could be the team to watch this year.  The reason the Pack isn't picked higher?  Three straight losing seasons, and a quick exit from last year's WAC Tournament (where they went 0-2) means the Pack must prove it on the field.  Nevada seems like a good bet to be the MW's most improved team from a year ago.

UNLV is a bit of an unknown like a few other MW teams.  New head coach Lisa Dodd takes over a Rebels program that struggled a year ago, winning just three conference games.  However, UNLV did show some fight and picked up some victories over high-profile programs San Diego State, Fresno State and Purdue, among others.  A thin pitching staff is led by junior Amanda Oliveto (21 wins in a sterling freshman season, followed by a 13-17 mark last year).  Outfielder Stefany Valentino (42 hits and one home run last year) is the lone returning all-conference player.

On paper, New Mexico looks to be in a precarious position this season.  The Lobos took the college softball world by storm early in the season a year ago, winning their first nine games, moving to a 17-2 overall start and surging into the national Top 25 rankings.  From there, it was all downhill.

New Mexico lost 19 of its final 24 games, including 12 of 14 during a stretch that included an 8-game losing streak.  In mid-March, the Lobos were the only Top 25-ranked team in the Mountain West.  By May, they'd finished in last place in the conference standings, with just two conference victories.  It was a stunning fall to say the least, especially for a team with two All-Region picks in Jessica Garcia and Stefanie Carramusa.  Garcia, a senior last year, has departed.  Carramusa, a junior a year ago, is no longer on the roster.  Incoming freshman pitcher Lisa Rodrigues arrives after an impressive high school career.

Our predictions for the 2013 Mountain West race (with each team's 2012 record in parentheses):

1.  San Diego State (32-24)
2.  Colorado State (29-22)
3.  Fresno State (36-23)
4.  Boise State (34-20)
5.  Nevada (21-36)
6.  UNLV (22-27)
7.  New Mexico (27-25)

We'll have complete, individual previews of all seven teams in the coming days.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fresno State ranked 31st in preseason poll

The web site College Sports Madness has ranked Fresno State as the No. 31 softball team in the nation in its preseason rankings, and also picked the Bulldogs to win the Mountain West championship in their first year in the conference.

The ranking and prediction seem to be a bit optimistic when considering that Fresno State's two dominant pitchers last season -- Michelle Moses and Mackenzie Oakes -- have graduated. The duo combined for 34 of the team's 36 wins, including 15 shutouts. Not only that, softball legend Margie Wright retired as the country's winningest all-time coach, meaning Fresno State will have a new head coach at the helm of the program for the first time in a generation.

New coach Trisha Ford inherits a squad that returns its top five hitters in terms of batting average, and a total of 13 letter winners.  Eight newcomers will be relied on heavily, particularly in the circle where freshman Hannah Harris (a California All-State pick, who earned CIF Southern Section Division 4 Player of the Year honors at Goleta Dos Pueblos HS) is expected to be a force.  Harris is one of the most highly-decorated pitching recruits in Fresno State history.  She and fellow newcomer Jill Compton (Arroyo Grande HS) combined for more than 1,400 strikeouts in their high school careers.

Fresno State and Nevada will both be playing in the Mountain West for the first time this season after departing the Western Athletic Conference.  The MW should be as strong as it's ever been this year.  Both the Bulldogs and the Wolf Pack picked up wins last season in San Diego over eventual 2012 MW champion San Diego State, setting the stage this year for an intriguing and challenging race to the conference title.

The Bulldogs have been to 30 NCAA Tournaments in the last 31 years, best in the nation.  However, the squad didn't receive an at-large berth last year after 30 consecutive bids.  Fresno State, which has never had a losing season in school history, won 36 games in 2012 and picked up wins over the likes of 5th-ranked UCLA and 11th-ranked Hawai'i.

We'll have full previews of all seven MW teams beginning next week, with our own predictions of the conference race.