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.