The race for the Mountain West regular-season softball championship and the accompanying automatic NCAA tournament bid heats up this weekend in a big way.
In fact, no weekend this season may be more important than this one as teams near the top jockey for position. The top five teams in the Mountain West standings are separated by just two games, and one series stands out as the one to watch this weekend.
Fresno State travels to San Diego State in the week's highlight series. The Bulldogs have been to a national-best 30 of the past 31 NCAA tournaments, while the Aztecs have been to five in a row and eight overall. Despite a final RPI of 60 a year ago, Fresno State was not included in the Field of 64 for the first time ever in 2012. That snapped a 30-year streak where the Bulldogs were the nation's only team to advance to every NCAA tournament.
For coach Trisha Ford's squad, this is a make-or-break weekend. Fresno State must win this week's series at San Diego State in order to have a shot at the MW title and the accompanying NCAA bid. This is the Bulldogs' final conference road series before returning home to host last-place New Mexico next week. A sweep by Fresno State, albeit unlikely given its 2-4 MW road record and SDSU's 3-0 conference home mark, would put the Bulldogs in a strong position with one series left.
Coach Kathy Van Wyk's Aztecs, meanwhile, can basically eliminate Fresno State from the league title chase this weekend with a series win or sweep. San Diego State has historically struggled against the Bulldogs, winning just nine times in the 63-game history between the two schools. In a series that began in 1981, Fresno State leads it 54-9 and has won the last three meetings, including victories in San Diego in both 2011 and 2012.
The Aztecs enter the weekend having lost four of their past seven games. With an RPI of 45 this week, San Diego State is in bubble territory when it comes to NCAA at-large bid possibilities. Despite a demanding schedule, the Aztecs have a lack of quality wins and are 0-9 vs. the RPI top 40, creating some concern. Against common opponents this season, SDSU and Fresno State have fairly similar records (11-8 for the Aztecs, 13-11 for the Bulldogs).
Having a say in the race for the Mountain West title is Nevada, which was picked to finish last in the conference during a preseason poll of MW coaches (and fifth by us here at the blog). The Wolf Pack picked up a 3-game road sweep of New Mexico last weekend and have already concluded their season series with Colorado State, Fresno State and San Diego State. That's a huge plus that can't be ignored.
Nevada hosts in-state rival UNLV at Christina M. Hixson Park this weekend in the final home games for seniors Chelsea Barilli, Megan Fincher, Alex Hayes and Lauren Lastrapes. The Pack have won five straight conference games following a 2-5 start to surge into a tie for third place with Fresno State. The Rebels ventured outside the Mountain West last weekend and were swept in a non-conference doubleheader at Cal State Fullerton.
A sweep by Nevada would set up an intriguing series on the season's final weekend at Boise State, where the Broncos are always tough. A sweep by the Rebels -- or even a series win -- would potentially move UNLV back into the title hunt since it still has a series remaining with San Diego State.
Yet another important series takes place in the state of Idaho this weekend when Colorado State comes calling on Boise State. The Broncos handed San Diego State a series loss last weekend and narrowly missed a 3-game sweep of the Aztecs. After being swept itself at Fresno State a week earlier, Boise State jumped back into the Mountain West title discussion and now sits only three games back of first place.
With a 3-6 record in conference play, Boise State is in an almost must-win situation and can not afford to lose this series. Conversely, Colorado State needs to keep pace itself and still has to face San Diego State next week before traveling to Albuquerque on the season's final weekend.
The bottom line: This weekend will go a very long way in determining the Mountain West regular-season title winner.
Fresno State (7-5, 26-20) at San Diego St. (6-3, 28-16)
Friday, 6 pm PDT; Saturday, 1 pm PDT; Sunday, 1 pm PDT
UNLV (4-5, 18-25) at Nevada (7-5, 28-19)
Friday, 3 pm PDT; Saturday, 1 pm PDT; Sunday, noon PDT
Colorado State (6-3, 20-20) at Boise State (3-6, 19-23-1)
Friday, 3 pm MDT; Saturday, 3 pm MDT; Sunday, 1 pm MDT