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.