Wednesday, January 21, 2015

30 non-conference games (and 1 or 2 more) you won't want to miss


Every season brings us marquee softball games that you simply can not miss.  With Mountain West teams continuing to "schedule up," the 2015 season offers us a bunch of great matchups you'll want to see.

Here is our list of 30 (and 1 or 2 more) non-conference games that we've already got our eyes on for the 2015 season.

1.  Arizona at San Diego State, March 18
The 8-time NCAA champion Wildcats visit San Diego for a game that could bring high drama.  With pitcher Danielle O'Toole having transferred from San Diego State to Arizona this past summer, it could create one of the more interesting environments we'll see all season.  Add to that the fact UA will likely come in highly ranked, and motivation will be on the Aztecs' side.  O'Toole was last season's MW Pitcher of the Year, while winning 31 games for San Diego State.  Her off-season transfer to the Wildcats caused shock waves around the conference and the country.

2.  Oregon State at Fresno State, February 28
It's not every day that a school retires the jersey of a former player.  Even more rare is when that school's former player arrives as the head coach of the opposing team.  Fresno State will retire the jersey of one of the sport's all-time greats -- former Olympian and All-American Bulldog center fielder Laura Berg, the current head coach at Oregon State, immediately before the teams take the field at Margie Wright Diamond.

3.  Florida at San Diego State, March 1
This game is a big "get" for the Aztecs.  The chance to host the defending national champions on your home field gives you a great opportunity for a monster win.  This one is a Sunday morning game to conclude the San Diego Classic I, co-hosted by San Diego State and USD.  It also comes on the heels of a late Saturday game between the host Aztecs and Oregon.

4.  Fresno State vs. Florida and Oregon, March 7
While San Diego State hosts the defending NCAA champion Gators and defending Pac-12 champion Ducks on consecutive days, the task is much trickier for Fresno State.  The Bulldogs face a daunting slate with back-to-back, neutral-site games on a single day vs. the nation's preseason No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams.  At the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton on this Saturday, Fresno State meets powerful Florida at noon, followed by the powerhouse Ducks at 5 p.m.  After this difficult day, things don't ease up at all.  The Bulldogs meet No. 10 Baylor and No. 14 Arizona the following day on the toughest weekend of the season for a MW team.

5.  Boise State vs. Minnesota and at Arizona State, February 20
It's a pair of 2014 NCAA Tournament qualifiers on the same Friday at this tourney in Tempe.  Minnesota, which will see several Mountain West teams this year, presents a formidable enough challenge on its own.  But after the game with the Golden Gophers, the Broncos will have to face the host Sun Devils.  This appears to be the most challenging day of the non-conference season for Boise State.

6.  Washington at UNLV, February 7
On the first Saturday of the regular season, the Rebels host preseason No. 11 Washington during the Sportco Kick Off Classic.  Opening weekends can always be tricky, and the Rebels have a decent chance to pull off a surprise in Las Vegas.  The Huskies were shut out by Fresno State's Kiley Shae Aldridge a year ago in a tourney in Fullerton.  Can UNLV pick up the Mountain West's second win in two years over Washington?

7.  San Jose State at Arizona, February 14
As part of the Hillenbrand Invitational in Tucson, the Spartans face the host Wildcats.  Allison Lang of San Jose State was the winning pitcher a year ago with a complete-game shutout of San Diego State and O'Toole.  It would create an interesting matchup if those two battle it out again, but with O'Toole starting for the Wildcats this time, provided O'Toole is not forced to sit out this season per NCAA rules.  It still wasn't clear at the time of this post whether she'd been released by SDSU, making her eligible for 2015.

8.  Colorado State vs. Nebraska, February 6
The Rams open the season in Las Cruces, N.M., with a great chance for a marquee win against Nebraska, the nation's 18th-ranked team in the NFCA preseason poll.  The Huskers are a revamped bunch in 2015 after losing their top pitcher and much of their hitting power from last season.  This is practically a best-case scenario for CSU in which to face Nebraska -- on opening day at a neutral site.

9.  Minnesota at Fresno State, March 14
An NCAA Super Regional qualifier a year ago, and the preseason No. 15 ranked team in the NFCA/USA Today poll, the Golden Gophers face the host Bulldogs in the Fresno State Classic.  Minnesota is one of two Big Ten teams to play at Margie Wright Diamond this season, and the Bulldogs have a chance to pick up a key, non-conference win at home.

10.  Nevada vs. Oregon, February 8
Nevada faces just one team that showed up in the preseason NFCA/USA Today Top 25 poll this year, and that game comes on opening weekend.  Sunday in Tempe at the Kajikawa Classic, Nevada goes up against preseason No. 2 Oregon.  With only a few chances for eye-popping wins in their 2015 non-conference schedule, the Pack could help themselves immensely with an upset victory here.

11.  San Diego State vs. Kentucky, February 21
At the Cathedral City Classic near Palm Springs, the Aztecs get a chance for a big win against the Wildcats of the Southeastern Conference.  Kentucky enters the season ranked 6th in the NFCA/USA Today poll, its highest preseason ranking in school history.

12.  Utah State vs. UCLA, February 14
The Aggies are one of three Mountain West teams to face the nationally-ranked Bruins at the Wilson/DeMarini Desert Classic in Las Vegas on the season's second weekend.  Utah State, New Mexico and Boise State will all meet the traditional powerhouse in a 72-hour span.  UCLA enters the season with a No. 7 preseason ranking.

13.  San Jose State vs. Baylor, March 14
At the San Diego Classic II, co-hosted by San Diego State and USD, the Spartans will meet 10th-ranked Baylor on Saturday.  The Bears will provide a formidable test for San Jose State, which will open Mountain West play just six days later.

14.  San Diego State vs. Oklahoma and LSU, February 19
On day one of the prestigious Cathedral City Classic near Palm Springs, the Aztecs have a big opportunity against two of the nation's premier programs.  Powerful Oklahoma is up first, and the Sooners enter the season ranked 4th in the NFCA/USA Today poll.  Immediately after that game, it's Southeastern Conference power LSU.  This is San Diego State's only day in Palm Springs where it will play multiple games.  From Friday through Sunday, SDSU plays just once a day.

15.  Minnesota at UNLV, February 8
The Rebels host Big Ten tournament champion Minnesota on the season's first Sunday to conclude the Sportco Kick Off Classic.

16.  Colorado State at Arizona State, February 20
Week three of the season takes the Rams to Tempe, where they'll face tournament host Arizona State.  The Sun Devils, normally close to unbeatable at home, were shocked a year ago in NCAA regional play.  This game could provide an early benchmark to tell us exactly how good the Rams are going to be in 2015.

17.  Fresno State vs. Stanford, February 21
At the Cathedral City Classic near Palm Springs, this one presents an interesting challenge for Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford.  For the first time as the Bulldogs coach, Ford will go against the school where she was an assistant for nine seasons prior to landing the job in Fresno.

18.  New Mexico State at New Mexico, March 24
One of the more spirited rivalries around takes place in Albuquerque when UNM hosts the Aggies of the Western Athletic Conference.  New Mexico State won the WAC's regular-season crown last year before falling in the conference tourney and being denied an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.  The Lobos would love nothing more than to knock off their fiercest rival.  This series took an odd turn last year with both teams winning on the other's home field.

19. BYU at Utah State, March 31
In-state bragging rights are on the line in Logan when the Cougars from Provo make the 125-mile trek north to face coach Steve Johnson's Aggies.  After picking up a win over rival Utah of the Pac-12 a season ago, Utah State will aim for this win over BYU.  The Cougars have moved from conference to conference to conference to conference over the last four seasons, winning titles in the Mountain West, WAC, PCSC and West Coast since 2011.

20.  Boise State vs. Nebraska, March 13
At the Easton Tournament hosted by Cal State Fullerton, the Broncos meet preseason No. 18 Nebraska.  The Huskers fell in Fullerton to another Mountain West team (Fresno State) a year ago in non-conference play, losing in a shutout to Bulldogs pitcher Jill Compton on the Titans' field.

21.  San Jose State vs. Michigan, March 6
The Wolverines of the Big Ten are on the slate for the Spartans in early March at the Judi Garman Classic at Cal State Fullerton.  Michigan enters the year ranked 8th in the NFCA/USA Today rankings following a season where the Wolverines upset Arizona State in regional play before falling to Florida State in Super Regional action.

22.  California at Fresno State, February 15
It's always a big game when Cal plays the Bulldogs in Fresno.  One of the most storied -- and sometimes controversial -- series in Fresno State softball history, these two always seem to be involved in close games.  Two years ago, then-freshman pitcher Jill Compton took a no-hitter into the seventh inning against the then 6th-ranked Bears, only to lose 1-0.  Fresno State has won 63 games all-time in the 108-game series with Cal.  No team outside the Pac-12 has more victories over the Bears.

23.  Colorado State at Texas, February 15
At the Texas Classic in Austin, the Rams will go up against the host Longhorns on consecutive days.  This is game two between the teams, and it takes place at 10 a.m. local time on getaway Sunday.  Also in this tourney, CSU will meet preseason Missouri Valley Conference favorite Wichita State.

24.  Stanford at San Jose State, April 7
South Bay rivals meet in San Jose when the Cardinal and first-year head coach Rachel Hanson come calling.  There was a time when this matchup would only take place on Stanford's home field, but this one takes place in San Jose, where last season's game between the two was rained out.  SJSU has won just once in the last 13 years against Stanford.  That victory came in the 2012 season, a 2-1 win by the Spartans at home.

25.  Nevada vs. BYU, February 26
It's not so much the opponent but the location that makes this one exciting.  Nevada becomes the first Mountain West team to play a regular-season game outside the United States when the Wolf Pack participate in the TCS Jewel Classic in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  Also in this tourney:  Northern Colorado and Southern Illinois.

26.  San Diego State at Cal State Fullerton, March 8
In the final game of the Judi Garman Classic on the Titans' home field, the Aztecs meet the tournament hosts.  Cal State Fullerton picked up two votes in the preseason NFCA/USA Today coaches poll and could be the favorite to win the Big West this year.

27.  DePaul at UNLV, February 27
The Rebels host four tournaments this season, giving them a slew of home games against quality opponents.  Come on, who doesn't want to see their team travel to Las Vegas?  The Blue Demons, No. 25 in the preseason NFCA rankings, seem to show up in Vegas every season.  Last year, UNLV knocked off DePaul 6-1.  Can the Rebs do it again?

28.  New Mexico vs. BYU, February 6
To kick off the 2015 season, the Lobos return to the place where things started out well for them in 2012 -- the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe.  In 2012, New Mexico started the year off with a bang, going a combined 9-1 at the Kajikawa and Cathedral City classics, two of the most prestigious and demanding in-season tournaments.  That was enough to propel coach Erica Beach's squad into the national Top 25 rankings.  New Mexico would love to do it again, and gets its chance with an opening day game against the Cougars.

29.  Montana at Boise State, March 7
On the home opening weekend for the Broncos in early March, Boise State's SpringHill Suites tournament field includes the Griz, who make their NCAA Division I debut as a softball program.  Montana, which also plays at the Fresno State Classic the following week, starts fresh with a program led by coach Jamie Pinkerton, formerly of Tulsa and Arkansas.

30.  UNLV at California, April 11
The Rebels will go on the road for a 3-game series in Berkeley against Cal during the middle of conference seasons for both.  This one involves a Saturday doubleheader, followed by a Sunday single game.  While it may be a bit risky to schedule three road games of this caliber while in the heat of a conference race, it comes with a possible reward too -- RPI points.