Thursday, March 14, 2013

Weekend Preview: Pack, Broncos open at home

After playing for more than a month on the road, Boise State and Nevada finally get to see what it feels like to play some home games this weekend.

The Broncos and Wolf Pack are the only Mountain West softball teams yet to play on their home turf, but both host tournaments this weekend.  And, as an added bonus, the weather forecast in Boise and Reno is for sunny skies and temperatures well above normal.

The official high temperature in Reno yesterday was 77 degrees (normal is 59), and it was 71 in Boise, where the normal should be 54.  Global warming, anyone?

For the Broncos, this weekend also marks the opening of their new, on-campus facility at Dona Larsen Park.  Boise State makes its move this season after beginning its program at a former high school facility at Mountain Cove, where the Broncos had a history of success.  Boise State had a 28-game home winning streak snapped by New Mexico last season, and ultimately ended up losing its last four games played at Mountain Cove.

While the Broncos are hosting the SpringHill Suites Invitational, the Wolf Pack will be hosting the Nevada Classic at Christina M. Hixson Park.  Boise State plays six games this weekend before going back out on the road next week.  Nevada will be at home for consecutive weekends, playing eight straight home games.

San Diego State will host its third tournament of the season -- the San Diego Classic II, again co-hosted with the University of San Diego.  This is another of SDSU's tourneys filled with Mountain West teams.  Colorado State and UNLV will also be in San Diego for a tournament dominated by East Coast teams from smaller conferences.

Fresno State will head north to Sacramento for the Capital Classic, quite a departure from the Bulldogs' annual trip this weekend to Fullerton.  For more than a quarter century, Fresno State has traveled to Fullerton every year, facing national powers at the Judi Garman Classic (formerly the Kia Klassic and the PONY Invitational before that).  At the Capital Classic this season, the Bulldogs will find the top hitting team in the country -- the Kansas Jayhawks (19-5), sporting a staggering team batting average of .401, a shocking 27 points higher than any other NCAA Division I team.

The only Mountain West team not playing in a tournament this weekend is New Mexico, which wraps up a week-long swing through the Pacific Northwest today in Corvallis against Oregon State.  The Lobos have lost four straight, including three to ranked Pac-12 opponents Oregon and Washington.

Fresno State (15-11)

Capital Classic Official Site
Kansas, Friday, 10 am PT
Texas State, Saturday, 11 am PT
at Sacramento State, Saturday, 3 pm PT
St. Mary's, Sunday, 1 pm PT

Outlook:  The Bulldogs will look to take down their second Big 12 opponent of the season against the Jayhawks, who are on a roll with six straight wins.  Kansas hasn't played the toughest schedule, but a team .401 batting average and 11 players hitting over .300 means the Bulldogs must play their best to win.  The last time Fresno State faced Kansas was in 2006 when freshman Robin Mackin 1-hit the Jayhawks and set a then-school record with 17 strikeouts, including nine in a row to begin the game.  Sacramento State (12-6) is also on a roll, having won seven of its last eight games, including a win over Nevada last weekend.  One of the Hornets' six losses, though, was to Fresno State earlier this season.  Texas State was voted the preseason favorite to win the Western Athletic Conference this year after going 39-17 last season, winning the Southland Conference, advancing to the NCAA Tournament, and winning an NCAA regional game.  But the Bobcats have had to endure the loss of their ace all-conference pitcher, Anne Marie Taylor, to injury just four games into the season and are struggling at 4-19 against a monster schedule that has included Baylor, Texas Tech, Iowa, three games with Houston, two with Texas, two with Louisiana-Lafayette, and two with Purdue.  Texas State did, however, defeat Troy on Wednesday and enters the tourney with some momentum.  Fresno State meets St. Mary's for a third and final time this season, and the Gaels (4-16 against a difficult slate) have struggled against Bulldog freshman pitching.  Jill Compton tossed a no-hitter against St. Mary's a few weeks ago, and Hannah Harris threw a 3-hit shutout last week.  Fresno State, despite the best overall record in the Mountain West, doesn't have a lot of quality wins to its credit.  Grabbing a win over Kansas, and going 3-1 or 4-0 this weekend, would signal that the Bulldogs are ready to make a run at the Mountain West title in their first year in the conference.

San Diego State (14-12)

San Diego Classic II Official Site
Bryant, Thursday, 3:30 pm PT
San Jose State, Thursday, 6 pm PT
Buffalo, Friday, 7 pm PT
Seton Hall, Saturday, 4:30 pm PT
Texas Tech, Saturday, 7 pm PT

Outlook:  The Aztecs still look like the favorite to win the Mountain West title, just as they were predicted to be in the preseason by conference coaches.  The problem, if there is one?  San Diego State has completed the most difficult portion of its schedule and gone 0-9 vs. Top 25 opponents.  Kathy Van Wyk's squad should be commended for facing a juggernaut of a slate, but only four of San Diego State's 14 wins have come over teams that currently own a winning record.  And that's not to say the rest of the conference is doing much better, because they aren't.  San Jose State (14-9) has won 10 of 12 games and now appears to be the odds-on favorite to win the WAC before moving to the Mountain West next season.  Defeating the Spartans, especially if Amanda Pridmore is the San Jose State starting pitcher, would be a nice victory. A win over Texas Tech (21-8) in the weekend finale would be the Aztecs' second win over a Big 12 team this season, and likely their biggest.  The Red Raiders will almost certainly be an NCAA Tournament team in May, despite the fact they play a fairly embarrassing non-conference schedule, especially for a Big 12 team that wants to consider itself a national power.  Texas Tech has 21 wins, but is just 0-1 vs. the Top 25, giving up 10 runs in a loss to Louisville on the season's opening weekend.  Bryant University (2-5) and Buffalo (4-13) are also in the field this week, along with a Seton Hall (9-7) team that has a winning record, but against a weak schedule.  The Pirates have already been run-ruled twice by a 6-11 George Washington team.  It would not be a surprise to see San Diego State complete a 7-0 week after grabbing wins over Iona College and Miami-Ohio the past two nights. 

Nevada (13-12)

UTSA, Friday, 3 pm PT
Northern Colorado, Saturday, 12:30 pm PT
UTSA, Saturday, 3 pm PT
Northern Colorado, Sunday, 12:30 pm PT

Outlook:  Just two teams arrive for the Nevada Classic Friday through Sunday in the Wolf Pack's home opening weekend.  Texas-San Antonio and Northern Colorado provide the competition, and Nevada will play both teams twice.  UTSA is 14-8 on the season and has five consecutive wins, albeit not against the toughest slate of opponents.  The Roadrunners, in their first year in the WAC, do have some surprisingly good wins to their credit though, having already defeated Houston, Purdue and Iowa State.  Both UTSA and Nevada have run-ruled Rutgers; in fact, the Pack's 12-0 (five innings) win over the Scarlet Knights came in their last game.  The Bears of Northern Colorado may not know what hit them when they meet a Wolf Pack offense that leads the Mountain West, especially in the thin air of Reno.  UNC (7-15-1) has lost seven straight games, including a 10-0 (five innings) loss to Colorado State of the Mountain West last week.  The Bears have struggled in the circle and have been run-ruled six times already, and four of their past five defeats have been via the run rule.  With UNC giving up an average of 10 runs per game during its current 7-game losing streak, expect Nevada to put up some big scores this weekend.

Colorado State (9-12)

San Diego Classic II Official Site
Fairfield, Friday, 11:30 am PT
Harvard, Friday, 2 pm PT
UMass, Saturday, 9 am PT
Miami-Ohio, Saturday, 4:30 pm PT
Seton Hall, Sunday, 9 am PT

Outlook:  The Rams were idle last weekend and now, ironically, travel to the west coast to face teams from back east.  Fairfield (7-5) and Harvard (3-6) are up first on Friday, and the Rams may catch a break since the Stags are set to face Texas Tech (21-8) while the Crimson meet San Jose State (14-9) the same day.  If Fairfield and Harvard throw their top pitchers against the Red Raiders and Spartans Friday, as expected, things become significantly easier for Colorado State.  UMass on Saturday presents an interesting situation.  If the Rams and Minutewomen had played this game last year when UMass had All-American pitcher Sara Plourde on the roster, it would've made for a great game.  This season, UMass (2-11) is struggling like never before, with a shocking seven run-rule losses, a team ERA of 6.53, and an almost unfathomable team fielding percentage of .891 (fourth-worst in the nation).  The Minutewomen have committed 39 errors in only 13 games, and the free-fall of a once proud program is mystifying.  Miami-Ohio (2-15) has been bad.  Very bad, in fact, and you can't sugar coat the Redhawks' nine consecutive losses.  This 5-game weekend in San Diego is a time for Colorado State to get wins.  If the Rams go 5-0, then they may, indeed, eventually turn out to be the team we all thought they'd be when they were selected to finish second in the Mountain West.  Colorado State has underachieved early in the year, but if there's a weekend where the Rams are going to break out, it's this one against this group of teams.

Boise State (9-13)

SpringHill Suites Invitational Official Site
Utah State, Friday, 2 pm MT
Idaho State, Friday, 4 pm MT
Idaho State, Saturday, 2 pm MT
Portland State, Saturday, 4 pm MT
Portland State, Sunday, 2 pm MT
Idaho State, Sunday, 4 pm MT

Outlook:  Future Mountain West member Utah State is up first Friday for the Broncos.  The Aggies have been, ahem, terrible to put it mildly.  Utah State was 0-20 and had lost 24 straight games spanning two seasons until yesterday when the Aggies took on one of the nation's worst teams in recent years -- Weber State.  Utah State swept the Wildcats to improve to 2-20 on the year, and (maybe not coincidentally) send Weber State to an identical 2-20 mark.  Idaho State is only 7-11 overall, but has three wins over the Mountain West, having beaten Nevada twice and Fresno State once.  In the latter game, Fresno State was up 5-3 on Idaho State in the sixth inning when Bulldog second baseman and leading hitter Brooke Ortiz went down with a season-ending injury. Her abrupt departure in the sixth inning created a revamped Bulldog infield, which immediately committed a game-changing error that led to three unearned Idaho State runs as the Bengals rallied for the win.  Portland State is the preseason favorite to win the Big Sky Conference, but the Vikings have struggled to a 6-17 record.  One of those six wins, though, came over the Broncos on the season's opening weekend. Portland State is 1-2 vs. the Mountain West, having lost to Nevada and UNLV.  The traditionally tough Vikings have played a strong slate and own a win over a Top 25 team in Kentucky, and took No. 2 Arizona State to the wire twice in a 4-game series, losing a pair of 1-run games. 

UNLV (8-16)

San Diego Classic II Official Site
Texas-Arlington, Friday, 9 am PT
Marist, Friday, 2 pm PT
Bryant, Saturday, 9 am PT
Buffalo, Saturday, 11:30 am PT
UMass, Sunday, 9 am PT

Outlook:  Texas-Arlington is new to the WAC this year and is currently 12-8 overall with a couple of impressive wins (over Creighton and South Carolina).  Marist of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference is 6-2, but the Red Foxes haven't faced a team of note.  Bryant, Buffalo and UMass are a combined 8-29 overall and struggling.  Much like the other teams in the Mountain West participating in this weekend's San Diego Classic II, it's just important to get wins.  If a team can't come out with a minimum of three wins against this kind of schedule, it will signal trouble for a team's hopes during the Mountain West round-robin conference season.  UNLV will continue to look for a No. 2 starter behind Amanda Oliveto.  Last weekend's results for the Rebels proved what most already knew:  With Oliveto pitching, UNLV has a chance to beat any team in the country.  Without her, the Rebels have a chance to lose to just about anyone.  A second pitcher needs to step up, or coach Lisa Dodd may have no other choice but to throw Oliveto all three games of each upcoming conference series.