Thursday, March 7, 2013

A slew of Pac-12 powers on tap this weekend

Ranked opponents from the Pac-12 Conference dot the landscape this week as Mountain West softball teams continue to play some of the best of the best.

The biggest spotlight this week will shine on the Fresno State Classic, where the host Bulldogs and San Diego State take on a monster slate.  In a tournament that runs today through Sunday, the Fresno State Classic features three of the nation's hottest teams:
  • No. 6 California, the defending Pac-12 champion and a 2012 Women's College World Series qualifier, which is 16-2 overall and riding a 15-game winning streak this season.
  • No. 9 Oregon, a 2012 Women's College World Series qualifier, which is currently 19-3 overall and has won 12 consecutive games.
  • No. 23 Oregon State, a 2012 NCAA Tournament team off to one of the best starts in school history at 17-4 overall, and winner of 15 of its past 16 games.

Add the Big 12 Conference's Iowa State Cyclones (9-6 overall), and you've got four teams in the Fresno State Classic field who are a combined 7-0 against the Mountain West already this season.  Also in the field:  St. Mary's (4-11), which was no-hit by Fresno State freshman Jill Compton two weeks ago.

In other action, Boise State, for the first time, will take on Arizona (15-5) in a 3-game series in Tucson beginning tonight.  The Wildcats are ranked 16th in one poll and 20th in another this week, and have won five straight games. But most experts agree:  If there's a year you want to play the Wildcats, it's this season.  Arizona has already lost to the likes of Bradley (which hasn't had a winning season in six years), and is currently 0-3 vs. Top 25 opponents, having been outscored 22-3 in losses to Oklahoma, Florida and LSU.

New Mexico will be at the Husky Softball Classic in Seattle, hosted by Washington, which is 19th in this week's USA Today/NFCA poll.  In addition to facing the host Huskies (14-5), UNM will tangle with the aforementioned Bradley (10-9), along with Yale (0-2) and Seattle (6-9). Washington has won nine straight games after a 5-5 start to the season.

Nevada is at the Mustang Classic, hosted by Cal Poly, which is 5-14-1 overall.  There, the Wolf Pack will see the hosts, along with Rutgers (6-4), Sacramento State (8-5) and Northern Illinois (6-7).

UNLV, which has already played 15 home games, will be at the Long Beach State Invitational.  Though the Rebels won't face the host 49ers, they'll face 9th-ranked UCLA (18-3), which is coming off a shocking loss Wednesday to Cal State Northridge (9-15).  Also in the field:  Virginia Tech (12-1 overall against a soft schedule, and ranked 23rd in this week's Softball poll), UC Santa Barbara (14-5), North Dakota State (7-10, but against a strong slate), and lowly Weber State (1-14).

Colorado State, which defeated Northern Colorado 10-0 in five innings Wednesday, is idle this weekend.

Fresno State (13-10)

Iowa State, Thursday, 5 pm PT
Oregon, Friday, 6 pm PT
Oregon State, Friday, 8:15 pm PT
California, Saturday, 8:15 pm PT
St. Mary's, Sunday, 1:45 pm PT

Outlook:  The loss of All-WAC junior Brooke Ortiz (.361) to a season-ending knee injury will be tough to overcome in many ways:  At the plate because of her hitting and team-leading batting average, on the base paths because of her speed, defensively in the infield, and because she was, in many ways, the team's emotional leader.  Ortiz had eight hits in her last nine at-bats before the injury two weeks ago.  On the bright side, there's now additional opportunity for others to step up.  That must happen for this team to succeed.  Rain could be a factor in this tournament, where Fresno State did itself no favors by scheduling Oregon and Oregon State back to back Friday evening.  The game with the Beavers marks the return to Bulldog Diamond by former Fresno State 4-time, first team All-American Laura Berg, now head coach at Oregon State.

San Diego State (10-9)

Iowa State, Friday, 11:15 am PT
Oregon, Friday, 1:30 pm PT
California, Saturday, 3:45 pm PT
St. Mary's, Saturday, 6 pm PT
Oregon State, Sunday, 9 am PT

Outlook:  This is more in line with the balanced schedule one would've expected Fresno State to give itself playing at home.  Iowa State and Oregon are up first on Friday, and the game with the Ducks sets up a rematch from two weeks ago when Oregon defeated the Aztecs 3-1 in Palm Springs.  San Diego State has already faced six Top 25 teams and will face three more this weekend.  Offensive consistency has been something coach Kathy Van Wyk has been looking for.  Like Fresno State, a key loss came when its top hitter (Hayley Miles) went down with an injury, and the Aztecs have struggled on offense against top competition.  In its six games against Top 25 teams, SDSU has either been shut out or held to one run in five of those contests.  The Aztecs' pitching has been the best in the conference, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see them sneak out with a win or two over a ranked opponent at Bulldog Diamond, long known for being a pitcher's park.

New Mexico (11-12)

Bradley, Friday, 10 am PT
Seattle, Friday, 12:30 pm PT
at Washington, Saturday, 7 pm PT
Yale, Sunday, 10 am PT

Outlook:  The Lobos have lost three straight, but have a good chance at a winning weekend this time around.  Washington is a quality opponent, especially playing at home, but the three other games are all very winnable.  Yale has yet to win a game, losing a doubleheader to Central Connecticut State, and is just two games into its season.  Seattle was predicted to finish last in the Western Athletic Conference by WAC coaches this season, and Bradley has already lost to UNM earlier this year.  Freshman pitcher Lauren Soles didn't allow an earned run and tossed a 4-hitter in the Lobos' win over the Braves on February 16. 

Boise State (9-10)

Arizona, Thursday, 6 pm MT
Arizona, Saturday, 5 pm MT
Arizona, Saturday, 7 pm MT

Outlook:  Due to weather concerns, this original Friday-Saturday series was altered.  Now the teams will face an odd slate consisting of a single game Thursday, followed by an off day Friday, and a Saturday doubleheader.  Arizona and Boise State have never faced each other in the sport of softball.  Like a lot of Mountain West teams this season, the Broncos are looking for consistency, especially on offense.  A power-hitting squad in recent years, Boise State is hitting just .255 as a team.  Surprisingly, Boise State ranks last in the conference in doubles, and next to last in both hits and RBI.  Along with that, the Broncos have seen their team earned run average climb by almost a full point over last year (4.09 compared to 3.12).  Still, it would not be a shock to see Boise State win once -- or even twice -- in Tucson against an Arizona squad that has been inconsistent itself and is still without ace pitcher Kenzie Fowler.

Nevada (9-11)

Northern Illinois, Friday, 9 am PT
Sacramento State, Friday, 7 pm PT
Rutgers, Saturday, 11:30 am PT
at Cal Poly, Saturday, 2 pm PT
Rutgers, Sunday, 9 am PT

Outlook:  An interesting opening game to the weekend takes place when Nevada meets Northern Illinois Friday.  Will coach Matt Meuchel send pitcher Megan Dortch, the NIU transfer, to the circle to face her former team?  Nevada leads the Mountain West offensively in numerous categories, including a team batting average of .298.  The Wolf Pack feature two of the more feared hitters in the conference in Karley Hopkins (.449 BA, .506 OBP) and Erin Jones (.400 BA, 19 RBI), who has come back nicely from an injury that forced her to miss the entire 2012 season.  Pitching has been inconsistent, and the Pack has the highest team ERA in the Mountain West and has allowed a conference-worst 19 home runs.  This weekend concludes a stretch of 25 road and neutral-site games to begin the season for Nevada, which, like many others in the conference, has had both impressive wins (Hawai'i, UCSB, Pacific, BYU) and puzzling losses (Southern Utah, Utah Valley, two to Idaho State).

UNLV (7-13)

UC Santa Barbara, Friday, 11:30 am PT
North Dakota State, Friday, 2 pm PT
Virginia Tech, Saturday, 11:30 am PT
Weber State, Saturday, 2 pm PT
UCLA, Sunday, 9 am PT

Outlook:  It's looking more and more like pitcher Amanda Oliveto is the key to the entire 2013 season for the Rebels.  In fact, perhaps no player in the conference is more important to her team than Oliveto, who's thrown a conference-high 81.1 innings. Oliveto's 2.60 ERA has kept UNLV in nearly every game she's started, but she's lost four of her past five decisions after starting the season very strong. The trouble has been finding a second pitcher who can provide some quality innings.  No other UNLV pitcher who's thrown more than one inning this season has an ERA under 7.00.  Opponents are hitting .400 or better against every other Rebels pitcher who's started a game in 2013.  Offensively, UNLV is struggling as well, hitting .242 as a team and ranking last in the conference in hits.  Considering the Rebels have played 15 of their 20 games at home, these stats may be even more of a concern.  After losing 10 of its past 12, no one needs a bounce-back weekend more than UNLV.  Against this slate of opponents, it could be tough because the only sure win looks to be against Weber State.