Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Week 2 preview: Several ranked teams on deck

Week two of the 2013 college softball season is about to get underway and we'll have five days in a row of action involving Mountain West teams.

Fresno State, off to a conference-best 4-1 start, gets things started with its first home weekday afternoon games in years.  The Bulldogs will host Cal State Northridge in a doubleheader set to begin at 3 p.m. local time Wednesday, three hours earlier than weekday home games have traditionally started at Fresno State.

For one of the nation's top home softball draws (Fresno State drew 3,524 fans for its home tourney last weekend), it's an odd weekday start time, and one not seen at home for many years.  We'll see if attendance figures are affected by a unique 3 p.m. weekday start.

The Bulldogs will see a significantly tougher group of opponents this weekend than it did last week.  Headlining the list:  Southeastern Conference member Missouri and its All-American ace pitcher Chelsea Thomas.  Missouri enters the week ranked seventh and eighth in the two major polls.  Also on tap for the Bulldogs at the UC Santa Barbara Tournament are the host Gauchos, who are unbeaten (5-0) after sweeping their competition to win the Louisiana-Monroe tourney last weekend.

San Diego State, which today received six votes in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll to rank 30th, hosts its annual Campbell-Cartier Classic against an impressive field.  It doesn't get any tougher than the Oklahoma Sooners, led by National Player of the Year candidate Keilani Ricketts.  The Aztecs will face unbeaten (5-0) OU, which is ranked first and second in the national polls, in their second game of the tournament on Friday after opening play against Kentucky.

The Wildcats moved into both national polls today based on a 3-1 record last weekend over Pac-12 teams.  Kentucky, No. 22 and 24 in this week's rankings, upset both Cal and Stanford last week, but were also upset themselves by Portland State.

Nevada, which went 3-2 in its opening weekend as a member of Mountain West softball, travels to Las Vegas to compete in UNLV's Easton Desert Classic.  There, the Wolf Pack will face Cal (2-2), which fell five spots in one poll and six in another this week.  The Bears are eighth and ninth in the two national polls after being third a week ago.

In Las Vegas, the Wolf Pack will also get an up-close look at a familiar foe in No. 20/23 Hawai'i (5-1), their former Western Athletic Conference foe.  Nevada dealt the Rainbow Wahine a loss a year ago and would like to do it again against a team that is much different on the mainland than it is at home.  Nevada and Hawai'i meet on Sunday, the final day of that Vegas tourney.

Elsewhere, Boise State looks to pile up wins at the UTSA Classic in San Antonio, UNLV spends a second straight weekend at home in tournament play against a manageable field, Colorado State travels to Las Cruces for the Troy Cox Classic, and New Mexico looks for its first win of the season at its own Lobo Classic in Albuquerque.

This week's games:

Fresno State (4-1)

Cal State Northridge (1-4), Wednesday, 3 pm PT
Cal State Northridge, Wednesday, 5 pm PT
#7/8 Missouri (0-0), Friday, 10:30 am PT
San Diego (1-1), Friday, 1 pm PT
at UC Santa Barbara (5-0), Saturday, 9 am PT
#7/8 Missouri, Saturday, 11:15 am PT
San Diego, Sunday, 11:15 am PT

Outlook:  One of the Bulldogs' marquee wins in recent years came in a February tournament two years ago when they knocked off then-No. 8 Missouri.  Can history repeat itself?  Despite a 4-1 record last weekend, Fresno State didn't pick up any attention-grabbing wins and would love to get some this week.  There was a lot to like last weekend, especially for such a young team with a new coaching staff.  All four pitching wins came from freshmen, and Jill Compton emerged as a go-to pitcher with three victories in her collegiate debut.  A key this week could be finding additional time in the circle for others besides Compton.  Quality at-bats occurred more often than in recent seasons as Fresno State made opposing pitchers work, and Bulldog hitters ended up walking a league-high 21 times.  Coach Trisha Ford utilized her squad's overall speed to the tune of a Mountain West-high nine stolen bases on the opening weekend of play.  To consider how staggering that number is for a Fresno State softball program, consider this:  In only three days of action, Fresno State is already half-way to its total number of stolen bases from last year's entire season.  In 2012, the Bulldogs had just 18 stolen bases as a team.  Coming out with intensity in every game -- and not just some -- will be key, especially against underrated teams like UCSB and San Diego.  The Toreros, as well as Wednesday's opponent Cal State Northridge, beat Fresno State a year ago.  Those non-conference defeats played a role in the school being denied its first NCAA bid in more than three decades.  Northridge's record is skewed right now since three of its losses came against Top 10 powers Arizona State, Florida and Cal.

San Diego State (3-2)

#22/24 Kentucky (4-2), Thursday, 6 pm PT
#1/2 Oklahoma (5-0), Friday, 6 pm PT
Cal Poly (1-4), Friday, 8:15 pm PT
Notre Dame (2-2), Saturday, 6 pm PT
UC Riverside (2-3), Sunday, 1:30 pm PT

Outlook:  If the Aztecs are going to be a 2013 NCAA Tournament team, as most predict they will be, a win over a team like Kentucky (especially at home in San Diego) could be important if an at-large bid becomes necessary.  The Aztecs went 3-2 on the opening weekend of play, but the three wins came over teams who went a combined 3-13 last week.  Oklahoma is the toughest possible opponent no matter where the game is going to be played, but if Ricketts is the opposing pitcher, it becomes extremely difficult.  While it's a longshot, a win over the Sooners is the type of marquee win few teams will have when Selection Sunday rolls around.  Lorena Bauer and Rebecca Arbino earned Mountain West Player and Pitcher of the Week honors, respectively, for their performances last weekend. Arbino's three pitching wins matched Fresno State's Compton for the highest total among all MW pitchers on the opening weekend.  And Bauer already has four home runs after just five games, along with nine RBI.  She has a 1.250 slugging percentage.  Notre Dame began the season just outside the Top 25 and was the next-highest ranked team (USA Today/NFCA poll) receiving votes before going 2-2 last weekend.  The Irish lost twice to a middling Big Ten team in Wisconsin and lost all 43 votes they received in that preseason poll.  Cal Poly struggled last week, with its lone win coming over 0-7 New Mexico.  UC Riverside went 2-3 at the Fresno State Kick-Off and fell to the host Bulldogs 7-3.  It will be interesting to see how San Diego State fares over the final three games of the weekend after facing its two toughest opponents in its first couple of contests on a top-heavy weekend slate.

Nevada (3-2)

Idaho State (2-3), Friday, 9 am PT
#8/9 California (2-2), Friday, 11:15 am PT
Long Beach State (2-1), Saturday, 3:15 pm PT
Portland State (2-4), Saturday, 6 pm PT
#20/23 Hawai'i (5-1), Sunday, 1:30 pm PT

Outlook:  There are a pair of ranked foes here and some intriguing match-ups.  The game versus Hawai'i should be a great one for several reasons.  For one, the teams are no longer meeting as conference rivals after both departed the WAC after last season.  Also, Nevada's biggest win a year ago was a shutout victory over the Rainbow Wahine and ace Stephanie Ricketts in a game played in Reno.  Senior Kaia Parnaby is now Hawai'i's No. 1 pitcher and has started four games against Nevada in her career -- all complete-game victories.  With Parnaby never having lost to the Wolf Pack, and with Nevada returning every player who got a hit in its win over Hawai'i last year, something has to give.  Cal, on Friday morning, could tell us a lot about both teams.  The Bears, ranked No. 3 in the preseason and favored to win the Pac-12 by conference coaches, had a disappointing opening weekend, falling twice.  Long Beach State was selected to finish second in the Big West behind Hawai'i and had a fairly standard opening weekend, beating Cal State Bakersfield and Wright State, but being run-ruled by Texas A&M in five innings.  Idaho State offers a rematch of a game Nevada would like back from last weekend.  The Bengals, picked to finish last in the Big Sky, surprised the Pack at the Red Desert Classic.  If Nevada falls to Idaho State again this weekend, it could be an early red flag.  Portland State has a deceiving 2-4 record after knocking off Kentucky and Boise State last week.

Boise State (2-3)

Rutgers (0-0), Friday, 9 am CT
Missouri State (1-4), Friday, 2 pm CT
Iowa State (4-1), Saturday, 9 am CT
UTSA (1-2), Saturday, 11:30 am CT
Rutgers, Sunday, 9 am CT

Outlook:  Boise State got what looked like a big win Saturday, defeating the Big Ten's Northwestern Wildcats in an 11-3 romp.  But after Northwestern finished with an 0-5 record for the weekend and the Broncos were run-ruled in consecutive losses to ranked opponents Sunday, the jury may still be out on Boise State.  On paper, this isn't a great bunch of opponents, but it's still early in the season and a little difficult to know.  Rutgers finished 26-28 last year and won't open its season until Friday.  Missouri State (1-4) allowed 37 runs last weekend and lost a pair of games to Coastal Carolina and a single game to Kennesaw State.  Texas-San Antonio, selected to finish fourth in a watered-down WAC this year, took it on the chin twice to a Lamar team that had not played a softball game in 26 years.  Lamar resurrected its softball program after discontinuing it in 1987 and still managed to take two of three from UTSA.  Iowa State is a Big 12 team, but the Cyclones have had one winning season (1995) in the last 23 years and were again predicted by conference coaches to finish last this year.  ISU went 4-1 against a soft schedule of opponents last weekend, defeating teams such as North Dakota and South Dakota State, and falling to IPFW.  After gaining valuable experience last week against high-powered opposition, it's not only possible, but probable, that Boise State turns in a 5-0 or 4-1 weekend against this group.

Colorado State (2-3)

Penn State (0-0), Friday, 9 am MT
Texas Tech (3-2), Friday, 11:30 am MT
at New Mexico State (3-1), Saturday, 4 pm MT
Mo.-Kansas City (3-1), Saturday, 6 pm MT
at New Mexico State, Sunday, 11:30 am MT

Outlook:  On the second weekend of play, the Rams play a schedule that looks similar to what they played last week.  There were no ranked opponents for Colorado State to start the season and there are none this week as well.  However, it's a solid group that will test CSU pitching.  Traditionally strong Penn State hasn't played a game yet and is trying to bounce back from a very down season a year ago when the Nittany Lions went 18-32.  Texas Tech and New Mexico State are traditionally heavy-hitting teams and the Red Raiders look formidable again.  Texas Tech scored 34 runs at last week's Sportco Kick-Off in Las Vegas, including a 10-6 win over host UNLV.  And while New Mexico State unexpectedly finished last in the WAC in 2012, much of it was due to injuries.  The Aggies are predicted to finish third in the WAC this year and should be improved.  NMSU notched a 3-0 shutout win over New Mexico on Sunday.  Mo.-Kansas City comes in at 3-1 on the young season but the wins came over the likes of North Carolina-Central, Maine and Western Carolina.  Where CSU will need to improve this week is on the defensive end.  The Rams committed a Mountain West-high 16 errors in their five games on opening weekend and currently have a woeful fielding percentage of .906.  Those miscues meant that half of the runs Colorado State allowed last week (11 of 22) were unearned.

UNLV (2-3)

San Jose State (4-2), Thursday, 6:45 pm PT
Seattle (4-1), Friday, 1:30 pm PT
Portland State (2-4), Friday, 3:45 pm PT
Utah Valley (4-1), Saturday, 3:45 pm PT
Ohio U. (4-1), Saturday, 6 pm PT
Utah (2-3), Sunday, 1:30 pm PT

Outlook:  The Rebels began the Lisa Dodd coaching era with a bang, sending Louisville to a surprising 10-1, run-rule defeat.  After the Cardinals ripped off four straight wins following that loss, UNLV's win looks even better now.  That's not to say there weren't disappointments or concerns after one weekend.  Dodd will likely use weekend two of the season to see if anyone wants to secure the role of No. 2 pitcher behind ace Amanda Oliveto, who picked up both wins last week.  Pitching was an adventure for much of last weekend as the Rebels allowed nine or more runs in three games, and lost a 9-run lead in a game they eventually won against Central Florida 12-10 in extra innings.  After starting the game against UCF and leaving with a 9-0 lead, Oliveto was forced to re-enter and pick up the win in extra innings. Later that same night, she threw an additional 182 pitches and walked 11, going the distance in a loss to Texas Tech. This weekend's slate isn't as daunting as last week's.  Future Mountain West member San Jose State has a strong pitcher in Amanda Pridmore and will provide a stern test if the pitching matchup is Pridmore vs. Oliveto.  Seattle, predicted to finish last in the WAC this year by conference coaches, had a surprisingly strong opening weekend and picked up upsets over Oklahoma State and Utah.  Utah Valley also beat Oklahoma State and run-ruled Nevada last weekend, and Ohio U. earned a couple of wins on the road at East Carolina.

New Mexico (0-7)

Hampton (0-4), Friday, 3:45 pm MT
Central Michigan (0-0), Friday, 6 pm MT
Hampton, Saturday, 9 am MT
Bradley (2-3), Saturday, 11:15 am MT
IPFW (2-2), Sunday, 11 am MT
Central Michigan (0-0), 1 pm MT

Outlook:  The first weekend of the season is one New Mexico would like to forget after going 0-7 and being outscored a staggering 45-4.  UNM was shut out four times in its first seven games, and scored more than a single run in a game just once.  With a team pitching ERA of 7.00, that would never cut it.  Dating to last season, New Mexico has lost 22 of its past 25 games.  There may be no better way to change things than by facing this slate of opponents in Albuquerque, though, as UNM hosts the Lobo Classic.  Hampton is traditionally one of the weakest softball programs in the country (RPI of 263 a year ago among 289 Division I teams).  The Lobos will have two games this weekend to try to remedy things against the Pirates, who were shut out themselves in three of their four games last weekend.  IPFW is 2-2 with losses to Northern Colorado and Indiana State last weekend, while Central Michigan hasn't played a game yet in 2013.  Also on deck this weekend is Bradley, which posted one of the biggest upsets of last weekend.  The Braves, who haven't had a winning season since 2007, shocked Arizona 2-1 at the Kajikawa Classic on Friday, suggesting they could make some noise in the Missouri Valley Conference this year, despite being selected to finish seventh by league coaches.  Not only should New Mexico pick up its first win of the season against this group of opponents, but considering the Lobos are at home, they should come out with a winning weekend.