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.