Monday, January 12, 2015
Our Picks: Predicting the race for the 2015 Mountain West crown
The race for the 2014 Mountain West softball championship was the closest in conference history, coming down to the final inning of the final game on the final day of the final weekend of the regular season.
San Diego State needed to hang on at home for a win over Boise State to claim the 2014 title and prevent a three-way tie between the Aztecs, Fresno State and UNLV. If SDSU had lost that game on the season's final day, it would've been the Bulldogs celebrating and securing the Mountain West's automatic NCAA bid.
As things turned out, the Aztecs were the lone Mountain West team making the NCAA field of 64 a year ago. Fresno State, which entered the final weekend last season tied for first place, and with an RPI of 52, was left sitting home on Selection Sunday.
That could change this year. Thanks to the conference's top returning pitching staff, the Bulldogs appear in position to take the top spot this season, keeping in mind that they blew a golden opportunity in 2014 with a late meltdown. Trisha Ford's squad owned a comfortable 2-game lead over San Diego State in the conference standings -- and even held the tie-breaker over the Aztecs by virtue of a series win over SDSU -- with just four games left in the season.
But the Bulldogs went 1-3 in their final four games, including a pair of losses to seventh-place finisher Nevada, which allowed San Diego State to overtake them and win the crown. It was the Aztecs' third straight MW championship and seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament bid.
Will SDSU claim a fourth straight conference title in 2015? On the offensive side of the ball, the Aztecs seem loaded. However, the loss of Danielle O'Toole, the dominant southpaw who won MW Pitcher of the Year honors, makes the road to the championship much tougher. In a surprise move, O'Toole transferred to Arizona, leaving the Aztecs with some uncertainty in the circle entering this year.
As many as five teams seem like legitimate threats to win what has become the Mountain West's strongest overall women's sport. Six of the nine were ranked in the RPI Top 100 a majority of last season. Thanks to MW softball teams scheduling up and facing several traditional powerhouse programs, it appears as though the conference could receive multiple NCAA berths this May. At least that's the feeling as we sit here in January.
With that, here are our preseason picks* and projected order of finish* for 2015:
1. Fresno State
2. San Diego State
3. Colorado State
4. San Jose State
7. Boise State
8. Utah State
9. New Mexico
Preseason Pitcher of the Year -- Jill Compton, Fresno State
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year -- Devon Bridges, Boise State
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year -- Brenna Moss, Fresno State
Preseason Freshman of the Year -- Jenavee Peres, San Diego State
*Picks and Projected Order of Finish are by this blog only and are not official MW selections
1. Fresno State
The Bulldogs are the first MW team to enter a season with four different pitchers who've all won conference Player of the Week honors during their careers. Compton, an NFCA All-Pacific Region pick last year, headlines the group after going 20-9 with 160 strikeouts and a 2.16 ERA. Her eight shutouts, 52 strikeouts looking, and .221 opponents-against batting average all ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West. Among Compton's wins last season: shutouts over 14th-ranked Nebraska and in a no-hitter on the road at San Jose State. She is our preseason pick for Pitcher of the Year in the league.
Of the MW's top five pitchers in terms of ERA in conference games a year ago, only two return. And both are from Fresno State -- Compton and Harris, whose 2.43 ERA in conference games ranked fourth-best in the league. Harris also ranked in the top 10 of MW pitchers in six different categories, and among her victories was a 3-hit shutout of eventual MW champ San Diego State.
Kiley Shae Aldridge, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL, was outstanding in limited action coming back from the injury last season. The southpaw shut out 6th-ranked Washington last March on a 3-hitter, and expects to see more time in the circle this year. Rounding out the pitching staff: junior Taylor Langdon, who is 7-2 in 35 appearances the last two seasons. Langdon's four saves a year ago tied her for No. 1 in the Mountain West.
Offensively, five starters return, including the entire outfield, led by Brenna Moss, the reigning MW Defensive Player of the Year. The speedy NFCA All-Region pick could be in line for All-America honors as a senior. Just seven stolen bases shy of Fresno State's school record of 86, Moss led the 'Dogs in batting average (.376), hits (70), runs, steals, and doubles last season. She had multiple-hit games against the likes of Tennessee, Washington, Nebraska and NC State, and hit a scintillating .446 in MW games. Moss' 14 assists made her the toughest outfielder in the conference to score upon as she continually gunned runners down at the plate. And while she captured the MW top defensive player honor, she could've just as easily won the Offensive Player of the Year Award. In addition to that .446 average, she led the Mountain West in conference games in hits (41) and steals (22), and was third in runs scored (23).
Other top returnees: Infielder Whitney Smith (.317, six game-winning RBI hits), outfielders Kierra Willis (second-team All-MW, .346 in conference play) and Michelle Solomon (15 extra-base hits, 6 home runs, 34 RBI), and catcher Paige Gumz (.373 average in MW play, 25 hits in 24 games). Newcomers include power-hitting Hawai'i junior transfer Alyssa Villalpando (51 career starts, and a .524 slugging percentage that ranked second on the Wahine team last year) and Malia Rivers, a sophomore transfer who made 19 appearances at SEC power Georgia in 2014.
Key losses: Three starting infielders -- first baseman Stesha Brazil (.299, 12 HR, 44 RBI), shortstop Brooke Ortiz (.270), and third baseman Vonnie Martin (.266, 7 HR, 30 RBI) -- are gone. Veterans Kelly Megee (.348 OBP in 33 games as a junior) and Taylor Green are back and could see increased playing time. Several promising freshmen arrive, including infielders Vanessa Hernandez (.647 BA, 1.009 slugging %, 20-game hitting streak as a HS senior) and Katie Castellon (.525 BA, 31 RBI, 19 extra-base hits as a HS senior).
While it may be unfair to compare coaches, and everyone knew replacing legendary coach Margie Wright would be difficult, this fact is worth noting: Ford's teams have already missed the NCAA Tournament more times in the last two seasons than Wright's teams did in her 27 years at the helm of the program. For a program with such strong history and one of the country's largest softball fan bases, the pressure to win will increase even more if the Bulldogs miss out on a tourney berth again this year.
The schedule is typical Bulldogs' style: daunting and full of traditional powers. Defending national champion Florida, Pac-12 champ Oregon, Arizona, Baylor, Texas, Ohio State, Cal, Stanford, 2014 NCAA Super Regional team Minnesota, Rutgers, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Oklahoma State, Iowa and many more dot a challenging slate that can only improve the Bulldogs' RPI and NCAA chances.
2. San Diego State
The Aztecs add one of the more dynamic freshman players in the country and much is expected of catcher Jenavee Peres, who arrives at just the right time for San Diego State. The freshman from Garden Grove, Calif., was just named to the 17-member USA Women's Junior National Team, whose assistant coach is Fresno State's Ford.
Peres hit .556 in a high school career with 30 home runs and 118 RBI, finishing with a 1.120 slugging percentage and .620 on-base percentage. As a high school senior, Peres hit .623 (14 HR, 48 RBI) and will offset the loss of slugging 2013 Mountain West Player of the Year Patrice Jackson, among others. Peres is our preseason pick for Freshman of the Year in the league.
The truth is clear: the Aztecs would have been favorites to win the conference again this year if not for the departure of O'Toole. Her decision to leave the SDSU program and bolt for Arizona makes it even difficult to pick the Aztecs this high in the preseason. The loss is a devastating one that will impact the program. The question is how much.
Only two pitchers return and both are sophomores. Erica Romero, a highly-touted and heavily-recruited sophomore, could be SDSU's standout following a somewhat disappointing freshman campaign. With O'Toole as the team's clear star, Romero made 14 starts, going 6-4 with a 4.15 ERA. In conference play, Romero (3-1, 3.21 ERA) pitched 32.2 innings. She will be asked to do much more this season. If she can become the ace pitcher many projected, the Aztecs could reach an eighth straight NCAA Tournament.
O'Toole was a constant presence in the circle for SDSU a year ago, meaning Romero and sophomore Andi Smith (3-5, 3.04 ERA) should both see significantly more playing time this year. On nearly every occasion in 2014, when Romero and Smith faced trouble, O'Toole entered in relief. O'Toole pitched in a staggering 48 of SDSU's 59 games last season.
The belief here, though, is that the Aztecs won't go quietly in 2015 because it's tough to dethrone a champion. The big difference for coach Kathy Van Wyk is that her team may need to outscore opponents this year rather than rely on top pitching. And the Aztecs have quality bats returning.
First baseman Sydnee Cable, SDSU's leading hitter at .356 as a freshman, is back along with senior Hayley Miles, the MW's 2012 co-Player of the Year. Miles, after suffering an injury that sidelined her in 2013, returned in 2014 and had a solid season, hitting .283 with six HR. Monica Downey (.323 in 34 starts) returns as well, along with Lorena Bauer, who missed the 2014 season with an injury.
Bauer, one of the Aztecs' top power threats, has 41 HR in 153 games and earned All-America and All-Region honors in her last full season in 2013. Her return is key for an offense that loses three of its top four batting averages from a year ago. Texas Tech transfer Samanta Camello, who hit .311 as a freshman and .284 as a sophomore, could step in and become an everyday infield starter for San Diego State.
The wildcard in all of this appears to be UC Riverside transfer pitcher Ashley Ercolano. She went 10-14 with the Highlanders with a 5.17 ERA over 174 2/3 innings. She gives SDSU a third pitcher (and a fourth if you include Bauer, who has seen occasional time in the circle), but it's unclear whether the loss of O'Toole will be overcome.
We'll know a lot more about how well the Aztecs' pitching is holding up by the middle of March. With schedules often set in stone many months in advance, this one looks like it may have been designed with O'Toole in mind. Van Wyk's squad will face an impressive slate with numerous heavyweights. Among them: Florida, Oregon, Michigan, UCLA, Kentucky, Oklahoma, LSU, Baylor, Arizona and Texas A&M. Several of those games -- including games vs. the Gators, Ducks and Wildcats will come in San Diego, giving the Aztecs an advantage.
3. Colorado State
The Rams were in the thick of the conference race a year ago until the season's final day, and things are shaping up in similar fashion again in 2015. Colorado State roared out of the gates last year, winning 15 of its first 20 games for the second-best start in school history. The Rams faded late in the season, falling out of first place in the conference and dropping their final three series to the California trio of San Diego State, Fresno State and San Jose State.
The good news for this season? CSU returns its entire pitching staff, led by second-team All-MW selection Holly Reinke, now a junior. Reinke was a third-team NFCA All-Region pick as well after going 20-10 last season (2.49 ERA) with 109 strikeouts in 171.1 innings. Her 20 wins were the most by a Rams pitcher since 2010. Among her victories: a 1-0 road win over eventual Mountain West champion San Diego State.
Sophomore right-hander Larisa Petakoff is back after a freshman campaign that saw her make 20 appearances, including 12 starts. She went 7-4 with a 3.22 ERA, and picked up a win over Oregon State in non-conference action. Molly Randle, who went 5-3 in 13 starts, also returns to a Colorado State squad that adds a pair of freshmen to the pitching staff. Trinity Harrington is a 5-foot-11 pitcher who won a pair of 3A state titles at Greeley Valley, while 6-footer Logan Losh won two state HS titles in Colorado for Strasburg. Increased pitching depth is a big plus for the Rams this time around.
Another big factor that can't be discounted: After facing both Fresno State and San Diego State on the road a year ago, both the Bulldogs and Aztecs must go to Fort Collins this season to play the Rams. Colorado State will open Mountain West play in 2015 by hosting Fresno State, making that a crucial series for both right off the bat.
Sophomore second baseman Haley Hutton is back after an impressive freshman season that saw her start all 49 games and lead the Rams in hitting while batting from the leadoff spot. A second-team All-MW selection and second-team NFCA All-Region pick, Hutton hit .413 overall (third best in Rams history) and .406 in conference play with a .490 on-base percentage. She scored 52 runs, ranking 19th in the nation in that category.
Senior Danielle Wikre (.352 batting average, 9 HR, 38 RBI, team-best .672 slugging %) is back to anchor the infield. Other returnees include senior outfielder Shae Rodriguez (.264 BA, 13 extra-base hits, 33 RBI) and junior catcher Jaelyn Manzanares (.264 BA, 14 extra-base hits).
Coach Jen Fisher had nine CSU players start more than 40 games a year ago. Five of those nine are gone, including All-MW honoree Chelsea O'Connor (.323 BA, team-high 11 HR and 66 RBI), Ashlie Ortega, Chelsea Biglow and Alyssa Greckel. All hit over .300 in 2014 and were mainstays for the Rams, creating a bit of a void on offense. A host of newcomers dot the roster, all vying to fill the vacated spots.
Fisher has done a nice job elevating the Rams from a miserable 8-43 team in 2011 to a contender for the MW title. CSU is looking to take that next step forward and will rely on Reinke's arm to lead the way in 2015. The schedule is manageable but includes marquee games against Nebraska, Arizona State, Arizona, Minnesota, Texas and Texas Tech, among others.
4. San Jose State
The Spartans began last season on fire, winning their first seven games for the best start in school history. By mid-March though, San Jose State had suffered a pair of 5-game losing streaks en route to a tie for fifth place in the final conference standings.
Coach Peter Turner's squad accomplished a rare feat. They were the only team in the Mountain West not to be involved in a series sweep a year ago. The Spartans weren't swept by a single conference opponent, nor did they sweep a series themselves in 2014. Therein lies the rub. All four teams that finished above San Jose State in the final MW standings were able to sweep at least one conference opponent.
SJSU was inconsistent at times last season, and the problem was seldom the same. In certain games, the Spartans would disappear offensively (they were no-hit at home by Fresno State's Compton). At other times, their pitching was a concern. They gave up double-digit runs totals five times, and were the only MW team to be run-ruled by last-place finisher Utah State (16-8 loss in five innings).
Hitting for power was a concern a year ago and could be a problem again this time. The Spartans' 27 home runs ranked last among Mountain West teams, and their leading home run hitter from a year ago -- Jessica Garcia (10 HRs, which was twice as many as any other Spartans player) -- is gone. But that's not to say the cupboard is bare. In fact, SJSU returns its entire pitching staff and seven players who started the Spartans' final game of last season.
Pitching should be solid, though the team's 4.20 ERA in conference games must improve if the Spartans hope to challenge for the title. Senior Allison Lang (12-5, 3.03 ERA) headlines the group of returnees after having three complete-game shutouts a year ago. Katelyn Linford (9-12, 4.87 ERA) actually made the most number of starts in the circle for San Jose State a year ago, starting 22 games as a true freshman. Also back: Madison Fish (8-6, 4.84 ERA), who walked only 26 in 81 innings last season.
Second-team All-MW infielder Jessie Hufstetler could be in for a breakout season. The third-team NFCA All-Region selection set SJSU single-season records for batting average (.441) and on-base percentage (.550) a year ago with 33 walks. Right fielder Michelle Cox returns for her senior season after ranking No. 2 on the Spartans squad with a .342 batting average last season. Cox will enter the year with 53 stolen bases, good enough for third in SJSU history.
Other top returnees: Infielders Sharon-Renae Estrada (.311) and Alyssa Martinez (.300), and the Spartans' lone first team All-MW honoree last year -- junior utility player Erin Rodriguez. An Illinois State transfer, Rodriguez started just 11 non-conference games last season before starting all 24 MW contests. She ranked second on the Spartans' squad in Mountain West games by hitting .377.
The key for the Spartans will be pitching again. While Lang went 6-1 with a 2.83 ERA in conference play, none of the other SJSU pitchers finished with an ERA below 5.00 in Mountain West games. San Jose State wasn't handed the best schedule this time around either. The Spartans must play road series in three of the toughest venues in the MW against teams predicted to finish near the top of the conference: At Fresno State, at San Diego State and at UNLV.
Turner's non-conference slate should get San Jose State prepared, and it's a nice mix of games that look both tough as nails and more than manageable. Arizona, Arizona State, Michigan, Florida, Cal and Baylor are among the opponents. SJSU will host only 14 home games.
The Rebels return a pair of first team All-Mountain West selections this year in 2014 MW Offensive Player of the Year Garie Blando and senior outfielder Sam Juarez. And it doesn't appear that UNLV will face too many problems on the offensive end if it can find some help from an array of newcomers. The Rebels led the conference with a .318 overall batting average last season, but face a number of question marks this time around.
The concern: Pitching. And it's a big concern. Gone is 4-year starter Amanda Oliveto, who earned MW Pitcher of the Week honors at least one time all four seasons while she was with the Rebels. A 2013 All-MW selection, Oliveto's name was shockingly nowhere to be found on the all-conference teams a year ago. It was a glaring omission.
Oliveto was the key to UNLV's 2014 season and the Rebels would not have finished tied for second in the Mountain West without her. She pitched in 42 of the team's 54 games last year, starting 28 of them. In her UNLV career, she won 67 games, threw 4 no-hitters and pitched more than 825 innings. Last year, Oliveto pitched more than 200 frames and threw 20 of the team's 24 complete games, leading the squad with a 3.28 ERA. She was the only pitcher in the conference to post two wins over eventual champ San Diego State, further bringing into question her lack of recognition on the all-conference squad in 2014.
When Oliveto did not pitch last year, the Rebels were often in trouble. Morgan Ettinger returns as UNLV's top pitching threat this season after a freshman campaign that saw her go 10-9 with a 5.81 ERA. She pitched 113.1 innings and was the only Rebel aside from Oliveto to toss more than 50 innings last season. Junior Alex Petrolia (1-5, 6.95 ERA) is the only returning pitcher aside from Ettinger to toss more than six innings last season.
Pitching newcomers include freshmen Sydney Mundell and Janine Petmecky, both of whom played high school ball in California. If the Rebels can't find a suitable replacement for Oliveto, it may not matter how well this team can hit. But this team can hit!
Blando came on strong late in the season, hitting .412 overall and .469 in Mountain West games to rank second in the league among players who played in all 24 contests. Her 38 hits in MW games ranked third behind Fresno State's Moss, and she led the conference in runs scored with 27. Juarez hit .377 for the season and .398 in MW play (33 H, 15 RBI).
There are huge losses, especially in the outfield where a pair of 4-year starters are gone. Three-time All-MW and All-Region pick Stefany Valentino (196 career starts, .393 BA last season) and 3-time all-conference honoree Pauline Monreal (194 career starts, 14 HR and team-leading 60 RBI last season) have departed. Also gone: infielder, 4-year starter and 2-time All-MW selection Tayler Van Acker (.324 last season). In all, five players who started UNLV's final game a year ago have departed.
The Rebels lose starters in Valentino, Monreal, Van Acker and Jaexie Balilea, who combined for some amazing numbers last season: 189 hits, 113 RBI (nearly half of the team's total), 20 home runs, 69 walks (more than half of the team's total), 35 doubles and 106 runs. Finding replacements for those kinds of offensive numbers would be tough, but overcoming that and also trying to replace Oliveto's pitching may be too much to ask in one season.
Catcher Emily Haslinger (.310 BA with a team-high 15 HR) returns and should be in for a breakout campaign on a team whose roster is almost half filled with newcomers. A lot of new faces will see playing time but this could be a rebuilding year for UNLV, which faces a quality schedule but with the majority of its games at home. The Rebels will host four tourneys and 29 games.
The Wolf Pack started off strong in 2014, then practically fell off the map before bouncing back just in time to ruin Fresno State's season. With the Bulldogs needing to win only twice on the final weekend of play to capture at least a piece of their 20th league championship and 31st NCAA Tournament berth, it was the Pack who rose up to take the series and dash the Bulldogs' NCAA hopes.
In mid-March, Nevada was 18-9 overall and appeared ready to contend for the Mountain West championship. The Pack was then swept in a 3-game series conference opener at rival UNLV and things quickly fell apart. A 9-game losing streak followed when Nevada was swept in three straight Mountain West series.
With the title out of reach, coach Matt Meuchel's squad turned things around late. A 3-game road sweep at Utah State was followed by a 2-1 series win over Fresno State as Nevada won five of six to end the year with a winning overall record (27-25).
Right-handed pitcher Karlyn Jones was a big factor down the stretch, winning MW Pitcher of the Week honors late in the year and claiming second team all-conference honors as well. Her strikeout-to-walk ratio was a stunning one, with 104 Ks to just 8 walks in 118 innings pitched. With Jones now gone, the Pack will look to senior Megan Dortch (9-9, 3.66 ERA) and sophomore McKenna Isenberg (9-5, 3.12 ERA) as the team's top pitchers. Freshman Chase Redington rounds out a 3-member pitching staff that can't afford an injury of any kind.
Second baseman Karley Hopkins, who missed nearly all of the 2014 season, but is a big offensive threat, returns. Nevada returns its top two home run hitters in Amanda Weis (.344 BA, 12 HR) and second-team All-MW selection, shortstop Megan Sweet (.363 BA, 21 doubles, 8 HR). Sweet's 21 doubles were five more than any other player in the conference last year.
Junior infielder Jasmine Jenkins (.301 BA, 24 RBI), Danielle Wiltz (.298 BA, team-leading 5 triples), Nikki Orozco (.290 BA, 27 RBI), and senior catcher Ashley Butera (.263 BA, 10 doubles) all return for a veteran lineup with more than half the team comprised of upperclassmen.
The schedule for the Wolf Pack appears -- on paper at least -- to be the lightest in the conference, giving Nevada a decent chance to get off to a strong start to the season. Whether it prepares the Pack for what promises to be a rigorous Mountain West schedule is another story. What Nevada doesn't want to see is what happened last season: an impressive non-conference record (18-10) but few quality wins, and a 9-15 record in MW play.
7. Boise State
The only coach the Broncos program has ever known -- Erin Thorpe -- has departed to take over the head coaching position at UC Davis. Enter Cindy Ball, the former Pacific pitcher and Washington assistant coach, making her NCAA Division I coaching debut.
Ball inherits a program that has been on the brink of a Mountain West title and an NCAA berth in recent seasons, but one that has faded down the stretch each time it was on the verge of those accomplishments. Case in point: last season. Boise State was tied for first place entering the final weekend of conference play, and finished alone in fourth after being swept at San Diego State.
Pitching could be a major issue for the Broncos. Perhaps no player in the conference meant more to her team than pitcher Rebecca Patton meant to Boise State. And Patton is now gone after a year where she set a school record with 25 wins and a 3.04 ERA. Not only did she win All-MW honors, but Patton was the first Broncos pitcher to win NFCA All-Region honors (second team) as well.
How important was Patton to Boise State? Check out these numbers. She appeared in 43 of the Broncos' 52 games, starting 36 of those. She had 26 of Boise State's 27 complete games. It was a full five weeks into the season before a pitcher other than Patton won a game. Her 125 innings pitched in Mountain West play were the most of any pitcher in the conference. Patton was the pitcher of record in 19 of BSU's final 23 games, including the final eight in a row and she threw every pitch of the Broncos' final four games of the season.
Mackenzie McGill is the top returning pitcher. McGill went 5-4 with a 5.85 ERA and threw 75 innings last season. Much of Boise State's hopes will rely on the pitching arm of freshman Rachel Rodriguez from Fresno's Central High. She went 52-21 in her high school career, and the speed with which she adapts to NCAA Division I softball will likely play a big role in the Broncos' season.
Offensively, BSU returns a lot of power and also gains some back in the form of our preseason Offensive Player of the Year selection, Devon Bridges. After missing nearly all of last season with a back injury, Bridges returns to lead the way. The senior, who's won all-conference honors every year as a collegian, received a medical hardship after playing in 14 games last season and hitting .409.
Bridges was on the preseason USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year watch list two years ago and is that rare player who can hit for both power and average. In her last full season, she led the Broncos in batting average (.381), slugging percentage (.667), home runs (12), RBI (50) and total bases (112). She was second that season in hits (64), OBP (.451) and doubles (10). With pitching a big question mark, her power will be needed more than ever.
Three-time All-MW selection Tara Glover has departed, leaving Bridges' other key cog on offense as senior infielder Jordan Kreiger. A second-team all-conference pick as a junior, Kreiger hit .313 overall. Also back: senior catcher Hailey Torrez (.331 last season) and junior infielder Ashley Palmer (.324, 7 HR) who is known to come up big in clutch situations. Lindsey Nicholson (.279), Sarah Barnes (.250) and Makenna Weir (13 RBI last season) also return.
With Bridges back, Boise State has a chance to be very good. However, there are too many question marks at this point to predict there won't be an overall drop-off for the Broncos. The schedule gives us our first clue, since it's not dotted with as many powers as BSU has attempted to play in the past. With very little Division I pitching experience, it could be a tough season for Boise State unless McGill and Rodriguez have spectacular years. Rodriguez is one of the freshmen to watch in the conference.
8. Utah State
We debated picking the Aggies to finish as high as fifth or sixth this season, which could very well happen. Picking USU fifth would have certainly raised some eyebrows, but for those paying close attention, Utah State is a program on the rise and looks like it may be the most improved team in the conference heading into 2015.
Things in Logan weren't always this way. In fact, some have said it wasn't possible to win at Utah State in a sport where the Aggies are forced to play much of their schedule on the road due to cold and snowy weather. But coach Steve Johnson's first year at the helm of the Aggies last season brought us a glimpse of what's to come. And even a ninth place Mountain West finish couldn't disguise the fact this program is headed in the right direction.
There was a shutout road victory over eventual MW champion San Diego State. There was a shocking, 3-game sweep of Colorado State. There was an 8-game winning streak, one of the longest in years for the Aggies, and a win over rival Utah of the Pac-12. After winning a total of 11 games during the entire 2013 season, USU had surpassed that total by March 22 of last year. On top of that, there was the emergence of two key players, both of whom return in 2015.
Junior pitcher Noelle Johnson orchestrated that complete-game shutout in San Diego over the Aztecs last year on her way to a 16-win season with a 3.47 ERA. She had five shutouts on the year, but got dinged up midway through the 2014 campaign and was never the same down the stretch. And did we mention that Johnson is also one of the team's better hitters? She is. But with no pitching depth behind her, the Aggies were in trouble, losing their final 10 games of the season.
Why the optimism this time around? Because the Aggies now have the pitching depth they didn't enjoy last year. Transferring from Oregon State is right-handed sophomore Alleyah Armendariz, a heavily recruited player out of high school in the state of Washington. Among Armendariz's wins a year ago was a complete-game victory over eventual NCAA selection NC State. Freshman pitching newcomers Paige Mills and lefty Jordyn McCracken add even further depth.
On offense, Utah State returns the conference's Freshman of the Year honoree in 2014 -- infielder Victoria Saucedo (.408 in Mountain West games, with four home runs). She was the first Aggie in program history to earn the award, and later added to it with a third team NFCA All-Region honor. She had eight multiple-hit games in conference play, including a four-hit performance in a win over New Mexico. Overall, she hit .371 with 31 RBI and 65 hits, second-most ever by a USU freshman.
Six players who started the Aggies' final game a year ago will return in 2015, along with key contributor Paxton Provost (.304), who missed a good chunk of last season with an injury. Among those expected to factor into an improved 2015 season: senior outfielder Hailey Froton (.299, 9 HR, 41 RBI), senior Jolene Koons (.266, started all 55 games last season), and junior outfielder Sarah Chow (.266, 50 starts in 2014).
Utah State will play its first 25 games of the year on the road again, and the future looks as bright as it has in many years for Aggies softball. USU will face the likes of UCLA, Michigan State, Baylor, Hawaii and Long Beach State to ready itself for Mountain West play.
9. New Mexico
Now here is a team that appeared to be inching its way up in Mountain West softball. The Lobos, while struggling in the circle nearly all of last season, had seemingly found their way on the offensive side of the ball a year ago.
Freshman Willow Kalinen led the MW in batting average in conference-only games, batting a whopping .535. Junior outfielder Brandi Heimburg wasn't far behind, hitting .471 with 40 hits, a figure that ranked second in the conference behind Fresno State's Moss, who had 41. Both Kalinen and Heimburg earned first-team All-MW honors, signifying quite a feat for a team that went just 7-17 in conference play and 16-36 overall.
Combine those two with a second-team All-MW pick in catcher Naomi Tellez (.369 BA, tied for the team lead with 7 HR), and things were looking up in 2015 for New Mexico. And then everything changed.
Kalinen bolted for Central Florida, and Tellez departed for DePaul, taking a lot of UNM's high hopes for this season along with them. Their decisions to leave have made things decidedly more difficult for coach Erica Beach's team in 2015.
Tellez was one of just three Lobos to start all 52 games last season. In addition to being tied for the team lead in HRs, she was UNM's outright leader in doubles with 11. For a team that struggled mightily last season pitching-wise, losing two of their top hitters just adds more uncertainty.
Now let's concentrate on the positives. Heimburg is back, meaning four of the top seven Lobo hitters from last season return. Talented and speedy outfielder Mariah Rimmer (.308 BA 16 extra-base hits, 32 RBI) is back, along with sophomore Jasmine Casados, who turned into one of UNM's better power threats. Casados started all 52 games, hit .282 and was tied with Tellez for the team HR lead (7), while ranking second on the squad in doubles with nine.
New Mexico often had the hitting to hang with top teams in the conference a year ago and played some of its best games against the league's best. UNM defeated eventual conference champ San Diego State 8-6 and was one strike away from a second win over the Aztecs before falling. The Lobos also outscored Fresno State 11-9 in extra innings, and UNLV 11-10 in another wild one. In all, Beach's team knocked off each of the top three finishers in the conference.
And now on to pitching. Suffice it to say, pitching was often an adventure and there were blowout losses galore. UNM ranked last in the Mountain West in team ERA both overall (7.66) and in conference play (8.36). The pitchers who accounted for those marks all return in 2015, but must improve dramatically for the Lobos to move up in the MW standings.
Lefty Lauren Soles (6-8 record in 2014) saw her ERA nearly double from the previous season when she went 9-15 with a 3.23 ERA. Last season, she led the squad at 6.14. Carrie Sheehan went 5-10 with an ERA of exactly 7.00 as a junior last season. A worrisome sign: Sheehan's ERA has risen by a full point each year in college. As a freshman, she was at 5.07, followed by a 6.03 ERA in her sophomore campaign.
Lisa Rodrigues returns after going 4-9 (7.38 ERA), and Tess McPherson rounds out the group. New to the pitching staff: Krissy Fortner, who didn't play for the Lobos but attended UNM as a freshman last year. Only two freshmen are listed on the entire roster and both are catchers looking to replace Tellez.
To Beach and her assistant coaches' credit, New Mexico didn't ease up on the schedule much, despite entering the season with with so many question marks. UCLA, Rutgers, Wisconsin, Illinois, Houston, BYU, Memphis and others are on the slate. On the bright side, UNM finished its Fall season undefeated for the first time in Beach's tenure, perhaps signaling that there could be a silver lining in the 2015 season in Albuquerque.
Note: This preview does not take into account any newcomers that are not listed on team rosters, nor any injuries or players' absences that have not been publicly revealed as of January 12, 2015.
Posted by Blogger at 9:02 PM