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.