Friday, December 26, 2014

Off-season moves cause big changes in the Mountain West

A series of off-season softball moves changed the way the Mountain West will look in 2015.  Here are our picks for the five biggest transactions that took place off the field between the end of last season and now.

1.  Danielle O'Toole transfers from San Diego State to Arizona.  If there was one off-season change that completely transformed the race for the 2015 Mountain West championship, this was it.  Recognized as the conference's top pitcher in 2014 and the Mountain West's top freshman in 2013, O'Toole was the face of the Aztecs program the last two seasons.  Her sudden departure to the Pac-12 and Arizona turned heads not only among conference foes, but nationally.  Indeed, this ranks as the most notable transfer in conference softball history.  In the west, the only comparison could be when Fresno State's Morgan Melloh, ironically a left-hander just like O'Toole, left the Bulldogs program before her senior year to transfer to her home state of Indiana and the Hoosiers.  Melloh ended up winning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year honors in her only season at Indiana and almost single-handedly took the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament.  O'Toole's future at Arizona looks bright, albeit in a conference filled with elite pitching and several Top 25 powers.  The loss of O'Toole puts a damper on the Aztecs' hopes of a fourth straight Mountain West championship.  She played in 48 of SDSU's 59 games a year ago, including 21 of the Aztecs' 24 conference games.  San Diego State's only two returning pitchers from 2014, Erica Romero and Andi Smith, combined to go 9-9 overall and 3-3 in Mountain West play.

2.  Fresno State adds a pair with NCAA Tournament experience, including one from the SEC.  The Bulldogs, runners-up in Mountain West play a season ago, return their entire pitching staff in 2015, and are the first team in league history to enter a season with four different pitchers who've all won MW Pitcher of the Week honors, likely making Trisha Ford's team the early favorite for the conference crown.  But Fresno State does lose some key cogs on offense.  Gone are infielders Stesha Brazil, Vonnie Martin and Brooke Ortiz, who were valuable contributors in impressive careers.  Ortiz was a 4-year starter, while Martin and Brazil were the team's top home run hitters a year ago, combining for 19.  All three earned all-conference honors while a Bulldog.  Enter an 8-member newcomer class, including transfers from SEC power Georgia and Hawaii.  Transferring from Georgia, which advanced to Super Regional action in 2014, is infielder Malia Rivers, who was heavily recruited out of high school in Brentwood, Calif.  Rivers, her conference MVP as a high school senior and a captain on the USA Elite 18 Gold travel club, saw action in 19 games for Georgia as a freshman last year.  That included a pinch-hit single in UGA's NCAA Tournament opener and time in the infield against the likes of NCAA qualifier Auburn.  Arriving from Hawaii for the Bulldogs is utility player Alyssa Villalpando, who played in 69 games and started 51 in two seasons with the Rainbow Wahine.  Villalpando brings a big bat, ranking second on UH's team last season in slugging percentage (.524), and adding seven home runs and 33 RBI as a Wahine.  She had a pair of hits against Big Ten power Minnesota in an NCAA Tournament game as a freshman, and her career at Hawaii also included hits against heavyweights UCLA, Washington and North Carolina.  Villalpando hit a pair of home runs against Pacific and blasted one out vs. San Jose State last year.

3.  Utah State adds Pac-12 pitcher.  The Aggies had a thin pitching staff a year ago, and when talented Noelle Johnson was unable to go in a few games, things got scary.  In an April 23 doubleheader against Boise State, USU pitchers set a Mountain West record with 28 walks, including 17 in one game.  That came less than a week after a healthy Johnson shut out eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State 1-0 on the road in what would be the Aggies' biggest win in years.  After getting dinged up, Johnson and Utah State were never the same, dropping 14 of their final 15 games following a 3-0 start to the MW season.  How do you remedy a short-handed pitching staff?  You find a transfer with Pac-12 pitching experience, of course.  While that's often easier said than done, Utah State coach Steve Johnson accomplished it by getting Oregon State transfer Alleyah Armendariz, who will arrive as a sophomore.  Armendariz, a right-hander who was listed as 5'8" on Oregon State's official roster but is suddenly listed as 6' tall by Utah State's web site, started four games for the Beavers as a freshman and went 2-1.  She appeared in 10 games overall and picked up an impressive victory over NC State in her collegiate debut, when she struck out five.  Armendariz made five appearances in Pac-12 play, and her 6.00 ERA actually led all Oregon State pitchers in conference games.  Combined with a pair of additional pitching newcomers, the Aggies -- on paper at least -- appear to be the most improved team in the conference heading into 2015.

4.  San Diego State adds Big West pitcher and Big 12 transfer.  The abrupt departure of O'Toole prompted the Aztecs to look quickly for a replacement.  Arriving from UC Riverside is transfer pitcher Ashley Ercolano, who spent two years with the Highlanders and often saw action against Mountain West teams.  She went 4-3 as a sophomore (5.25 ERA), striking out 28 and walking 35 in 64 innings of action.  As a freshman, Ercolano went 6-11 and struck out 36 in 110.2 innings.  Ercolano picked up a win versus Utah State a year ago in a wild 11-10 game.  She is 0-3 all-time against Fresno State, suffering 8-1 and 5-0 losses last year (lasting only a combined 2.2 innings in those two games), and falling 7-3 against the Bulldogs as a freshman.  Ercolano also lost to New Mexico last season, allowing four earned runs in 5.2 innings of a game that was won by the Lobos 11-10.  During her freshman season, Ercolano twice pitched against the same Aztecs program for whom she now plays.  She faced only two batters versus Kathy Van Wyk's team in a 9-1, run-rule loss, and then got a no-decision in a game the Highlanders won 6-5 against the Aztecs.  In relief of winning pitcher Sophie Slagle, Ercolano allowed eight hits and five runs versus SDSU in four innings.  The losing pitcher that day was then-Aztecs senior Rebecca Arbino, who went on to capture Mountain West Pitcher of the Year honors.  With its pitching staff losing O'Toole, the Aztecs may need to outscore opponents to win. Help could come in the form of Texas Tech junior transfer Samantha Camello, who could provide an immediate impact. She started all 54 games a year ago with the Red Raiders (.284 BA, 19 RBI), after batting .311 as a freshman and starting all 56 games that season.  Camello, whose older sister (Jessica) was an Aztec softball player from 2008-11, had a multi-hit game against Colorado State in 2013.  She will add to a potent Aztecs offense that could be the best in the Mountain West this season.  Will it be enough to offset the loss of O'Toole?  We'll see soon enough.  The season begins February 5.

5.  Cindy Ball takes over as head coach at Boise State.  Erin Thorpe, the only head coach in Broncos softball history, resigned in July to take over the reins at UC Davis.  On August 29, Boise State announced the hiring of Ball, who is in her first head coaching position at an NCAA Division I school.  The former softball star at Pacific went 33-9 as a junior pitcher for the Tigers and led UOP to a school-record 50 wins that season.  Following her graduation from Pacific, she coached at her alma mater until 2006, when she took over head coaching duties at Modesto (CA) Junior College.  She went 25-22 that season.  The following year, she began a 3-year stint as the head coach at Cosumnes River College, going 111-44 and taking her team to the California JC Final Four one season.  Most recently, Ball held 2-year assistant coaching positions at Washington and Cal State Northridge.  She inherits a Boise State program that will rely on a young pitching staff and some heavy hitters on offense, including outstanding all-conference first baseman Devon Bridges, who was limited to just 13 games a year ago with a back injury.  Bridges has been granted a fifth year of eligibility and will be a key to Ball's first season at the helm of the Broncos.