Thursday, February 7, 2013

WEEKEND PREVIEW: 2013 season begins today

New Mexico and Creighton line up for today's National Anthem.

The 2013 college softball season officially begins today with five games involving three Mountain West teams.

By tomorrow, all seven MW squads will be underway with their seasons, and will have combined to play a total of 18 games.  Let's take a look at what each team faces this weekend:

San Diego State

Creighton, today, 3 pm PT
Northwestern, Friday, 1 pm PT
Stephen F. Austin, Friday, 3:30 pm PT
Western Michigan, Saturday, 10:30 am PT
No. 13/14 Arizona, Saturday, 1 pm PT

Outlook:  The defending Mountain West champions come in as the 2013 preseason favorite and open their season today at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe.  For such a strong overall tournament field, the Aztecs get a relatively light set of opponents.  The lone ranked team SDSU faces on the opening weekend is Arizona, and the Aztecs may be getting the Wildcats at exactly the right time.  UA pitching ace Kenzie Fowler will be sidelined early in the season as she rehabilitates an injury and won't be available.  Without her, Arizona isn't nearly as strong.  Still, a win would be a quality one for San Diego State.  Northwestern is a team that could rise into the national rankings and will likely challenge for the Big Ten title.  The NU Wildcats are a respected team nationally, as evidenced by the fact they received an at-large NCAA bid a season ago despite a bare minimum 27-27 overall record during the regular season.  Northwestern was bounced in regional play and finished the season at .500.  Creighton went 28-25-1 overall a year ago and is 3-2 all-time versus the Aztecs on a neutral field.  However, the Bluejays haven't defeated SDSU since a 7-0 win 21 years ago.  Western Michigan (28-25 last season) and Stephen F. Austin (16-33, ninth-place finish in the Southland Conference in 2012) are also on the docket this weekend.  It's not out of the realm of possibility to see the Aztecs go 5-0 this weekend though a 4-1 record seems like a good bet.

Colorado State

BYU, today, 1:30 pm MT
Loyola Marymount, today, 4 pm MT
Arkansas, Friday, 11 am MT
Utah State, Friday, 4 pm MT
Oklahoma State, Saturday, 11 am MT

Outlook:  Though the Rams don't play any ranked opponents this weekend, it's a slate of solid opponents, including both past and future Mountain West teams at the Red Desert Classic in St. George, Utah.  BYU (45-15 in 2012) today may be the toughest of them all.  The Cougars have been to eight straight NCAA Tournaments and return a lot of talent from their 2012 WAC championship team.  The Cougars are a good measuring stick right off the bat for the Rams, who are predicted by the MW coaches to finish second in the conference this season.  Oklahoma State is a traditionally strong opponent and a win by CSU against the Cowgirls would be a key quality win early in the year.  Utah State, which joins the Mountain West for the 2014 season, is predicted to finish sixth in the WAC this season.  The Rams may have an edge when they face Arkansas of the Southeastern Conference. The Razorbacks will be opening their season against CSU, which will already have two games under its belt.  Arkansas went 29-28 last season and is predicted to finish fourth in the SEC Western Division by league coaches.  Loyola Marymount went 10-10 in the Pacific Coast Softball Conference's Coastal Division last year, finishing fourth.  With high expectations for the Rams this season, winning at least three of five games this weekend is important.

Fresno State

UTEP, Friday, 4:30 pm PT
UC Riverside, Friday, 7 pm PT
Southern Miss, Saturday, 1:30 pm PT
UC Davis, Saturday, 6 pm PT
Sacramento State, Sunday, 3:45 pm PT

Outlook:  The Bulldogs begin their first season as a Mountain West member by hosting the annual Fresno State Kick-Off.  On paper, this tournament field isn't that strong, but the game isn't played on paper.  Part of the reason for this slate of opponents is that coach Trisha Ford's team has the nation's youngest pitching staff comprised of three freshmen and a sophomore who went 1-0 last season.  UTEP (16-37 last season) is up first and has a ton of new faces itself.  UC Riverside, which picked up a program-record 25 wins last season, is led by first-year head coach Linda Garza, who grew up in Fresno and played at UNLV.  The Highlanders could be a team to watch this season.  Southern Miss returns only five players and three starters from a year ago and is a bit of a mystery.  The Bulldogs' final two games of the weekend come against a pair of quality teams.  UC Davis is the preseason No. 5 pick in the Big West and won 13 of its final 19 games a season ago.  The Aggies are always a tough out and beat Stanford last season when Ford was an assistant coach for the Cardinal.  Sacramento State (27-19 last season) is a formidable foe and predicted to finish second in the Big Sky Conference this year.  The Hornets defeated Fresno State and pitching ace Michelle Moses 2-1 in nine innings on the opening weekend of the 2012 season, so the Bulldogs would like some revenge.  The story of this weekend will be seeing how the Bulldogs' young pitching staff comes together and how the squad looks without legendary coach Margie Wright for the first time in more than a quarter century.

Boise State

Portland State, Friday, 10 am MT
Northwestern, Saturday, 11:30 am MT
Stephen F. Austin, Saturday, 4:30 pm MT
No. 5/6 Oregon, Sunday, 8:30 am MT
No. 4/4 Arizona State, Sunday, 1:30 pm MT

Outlook:  The Bronocos open at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, and they'll get a chance to make some major national noise Sunday.  That day alone, BSU plays a pair of consensus Top 10-ranked opponents in Oregon and Arizona State.  The Broncos lost a lot of talent from their squad that finished tied for second in the Mountain West a season ago, particularly in the pitching circle, so this is a weekend to see how it will affect the team against quality competition.  Boise State can swing the bat with the best of opponents and it wouldn't be a shock to see the Broncos pull off an upset if the pitching comes through.  Oregon and Arizona State are the big names here, with the Sun Devils predicted to finish second and the Ducks third in an always-tough Pac-12.  With San Diego State also playing Northwestern at this same tournament, it'll give everyone a chance to compare results.  Portland State is the slight favorite over Sacramento State to win the Big Sky Conference this season and returns last year's PCSC Pitcher of the Year Anna Bertrand.  A winning record this weekend will mean the Broncos posted at least one quality win over a team from one of the six power conferences.

New Mexico

Creighton, today, 1:30 pm MT
No. 4/4 Arizona State, today, 7 pm MT
Cal Poly, Friday, 10 am MT
San Jose State, Friday, 12:30 pm MT
No. 2/2 Oklahoma, Saturday, 11:30 am MT

Outlook:  The Lobos are another Mountain West squad that will compete in Tempe this weekend at the Kajikawa Classic.  Creighton and 2011 NCAA champion Arizona State are on tap today as UNM hopes to jump to a record-breaking start for a second season in a row.  Erica Beach's Lobos beat quality opponents early in the year last season and have a chance to do so again this weekend.  Oklahoma is the big name here, as the Sooners are loaded and ready to win a national title after falling in the NCAA championship series a season ago.  If there's hope for New Mexico against the Sooners, it comes via the schedule.  Oklahoma faces Pac-12 power Oregon in the game immediately prior to facing the Lobos on Saturday.  And this early in the season, OU may be reluctant to send All-American ace pitcher Keilani Ricketts against the Lobos after what will likely be a pressure-packed game against the Ducks.  Future Mountain West member San Jose State, predicted to finish second in the WAC this season, poses a threat on Friday if Spartans ace Amanda Pridmore gets the start.  Three wins this weekend would be a good start.  Anything more than that and UNM will have made some major national noise and send a message to the rest of the Mountain West.

UNLV

No. 18/18 Louisville, Friday, 3:45 pm PT
DePaul, Friday, 6 pm PT
Central Florida, Saturday, 6 pm PT
Texas Tech, Saturday, 8:15 pm PT
Minnesota, Sunday, 12:30 pm PT

Outlook:  The Rebels begin their 2013 season under first-year head coach Lisa Dodd by hosting the annual Kick-Off Classic in Las Vegas.  Teams from power conferences dot the landscape here, and UNLV jumps into the fire early by facing Louisville in the opener.  The Cardinals, one of four 2012 NCAA Tournament teams the Rebels will face on opening weekend, had a gaudy 55-5 record a year ago, but failed to make it out of regional play despite hosting.  Louisville won a staggering 28 consecutive games to begin the 2012 season and is predicted to finish third in the Big East this year by conference coaches.  Always tough DePaul came in just behind the Cardinals in preseason Big East balloting, with the Blue Demons picked fourth.  UCF advanced to the NCAA tourney a season ago and is predicted third in Conference USA this time around.  Texas Tech is coming off consecutive 40+ win seasons and has been chosen fourth in the Big 12 Conference, while Minnesota enters after going 31-22 last year.  It's a strong slate and there's not a sure win or guaranteed loss in the bunch so a lot of eyes will be on UNLV to see how Dodd's team matches up.

Nevada

BYU, Friday, 1:30 pm PT
Idaho State, Friday, 4 pm PT
Weber State, Saturday, 1:30 pm PT
Utah Valley, Sunday, 11 am PT
Utah, Sunday, 1:30 pm PT

Outlook:  The Wolf Pack are another Mountain West team that opens the season in St. George, Utah, at the Red Desert Classic.  The season-opening game against BYU looks to be the toughest of the weekend.  The Cougars swept a 3-game conference series against Nevada in Reno last year when both were WAC members.  BYU outscored the Pack 25-4 in that series with a pair of run-rule shutouts so it will be interesting to see how those teams match up this season. Utah and Idaho State are both predicted to finish last in their respective conferences by league coaches, though the Utes could be an improved team from a season ago when they lost 22 of 24 games in Pac-12 play.  Utah Valley and Weber State are predicted to finish fifth in the PCSC and Big Sky, respectively.  It is possible that Nevada could enjoy a 4-1 weekend (or perhaps even better) in the high desert.