Thursday, February 19, 2015

Weekend outlook: Prestigious Palm Springs tourney on tap

The prestigious, 35-team Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs takes place this week and promises to give four Mountain West teams a stiff test with marquee opponents.  San Diego State and Fresno State both have daunting slates, combining to face eight teams either ranked or receiving votes in the two major Top 25 polls.

Also in Palm Springs, UNLV will play one ranked foe, while Nevada will face another receiving votes.  In all, the tournament features seven former NCAA champions in Arizona, Cal, Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and UCLA.  Those seven teams have won 26 of the 33 all-time NCAA softball championships.

And while the Aztecs, Bulldogs, Rebels and Wolf Pack are in Palm Springs, two Mountain West teams -- Boise State and Colorado State -- will be in Tempe at the Diamond Devil Invitational.  The Broncos will play the hosts once and Minnesota twice.

New Mexico will be in tournament action in Houston, while Utah State will be in Riverside and San Jose State close to home in Santa Clara.

San Diego State (7-2) - The Aztecs will get a jump start on all other Mountain West teams, opening the week Thursday afternoon with a pair of games.  Today, they'll face No. 3/4 Oklahoma (9-1), followed by No. 14/15 LSU (10-0).  The Sooners announced Wednesday that star senior infielder Georgia Casey (.346, 29 career home runs and 121 RBI) will be out a minimum of two months with an injury.  LSU will be playing its first games outside of Baton Rouge after opening the season with 10 straight home games.  Friday, SDSU faces reeling Nebraska (4-6), which went 0-5 last weekend but is still receiving Top 25 votes after beginning the season ranked 18th.  The Huskers were run-ruled twice last week and have already lost to the likes of Western Kentucky and New Mexico State.  NMSU scored 16 runs against Nebraska, the most a Huskers softball team had ever allowed in a single game.  Saturday, the Aztecs face a No. 9/11 Kentucky (6-2) team that is coming off a shocking 9-8 loss to Kennesaw State in its last game.  SDSU will conclude the tournament Sunday against Stanford (8-4), which is receiving votes in both polls.  This tourney could be an interesting test for the arm of pitcher Erica Romero.  She pitched 26 of the Aztecs' 28 innings last weekend and has thrown a conference-high 49 innings so far.  No other Aztecs hurler has thrown more than five innings.

Fresno State (7-3) - The Bulldogs begin play in Palm Springs Friday with two games, meeting the 25th-ranked Longhorns of Texas (7-3), followed by the Buckeyes of Ohio State (7-1), who are receiving votes in both polls.  Texas already owns a road win over Arizona State, in addition to victories over Northwestern and fellow MW member Colorado State twice.  Fresno State has defeated the Longhorns twice previously in this Palm Springs tournament, the last time coming in 2011.  Last year, the Bulldogs beat the Buckeyes as well.  Saturday, Trisha Ford goes against her alma mater, Stanford (8-4), for the first time since becoming the Bulldogs' head coach.  Stanford sits just on the outside of the Top 25 rankings, receiving enough votes to rank 26th in the ESPN/USA Softball poll.  Sunday at 2 p.m., Fresno State meets the Big 12's Oklahoma State Cowgirls, who arrive with a deceiving 2-5 record.  Four of Oklahoma State's five losses are to ranked opponents, including three to unbeaten and 10th-ranked Arizona in Tucson.  Two of those defeats were by one run to ranked foes (4-3 in 8 innings at Arizona and 5-4 on the road in Mobile against 23rd-ranked South Alabama).  Fresno State wraps up the tourney late Sunday afternoon against Loyola Marymount (3-5), a team that was run-ruled by San Jose State last weekend.

UNLV (5-4) - The Rebels will meet Ohio State (7-1) just before the Buckeyes meet Fresno State on Friday.  Also that day, UNLV takes on a Notre Dame (5-4) team that has been up and down its first two weekends.  The Fighting Irish have a win over UCLA and losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton.  Notre Dame enters the week on a 3-game losing streak.  The Rebels will meet Maryland (6-4) Saturday, and conclude the weekend Sunday with a pair of games against Big West foes. UNLV takes on UC Santa Barbara (3-7) and Cal Poly (5-5).  UCSB has lost four in a row, including a surprising 14-6 (5 innings) loss at home to St. Mary's in its last game.  The Mustangs' .500 record is deceiving because of a strong schedule that has already included powers such as Alabama, Oregon, Cal and Stanford.  Sophomore Sierra Hyland of Cal Poly is one of the country's most underrated pitchers.

Nevada (3-7) - The Wolf Pack open the Mary Nutter Classic Friday against Utah, giving them back to back games against the Utes.  Nevada closed last weekend's tournament play at the Wilson/DeMarini Desert Classic in Las Vegas with a loss to Utah (7-4).  The Utes are 2-0 versus the Mountain West, having run-ruled UNLV three days ago.  Maryland (6-4) is also on tap for the Pack in a late Friday game scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. start.  Saturday, Nevada meets Oregon State (8-3) for the second time this season.  The Beavers beat the Pack 4-2 on opening weekend.  Sunday, the Pack plays a pair of games, facing off against Syracuse (4-6) and Cal State Fullerton (7-3).  The Orange have really struggled, losing four games (twice each) last weekend to Akron and Jacksonville.  A national power not too long ago, Syracuse has also lost already this season to Samford and Miami of Ohio.  Nevada's biggest win of the year came against Fullerton last weekend in a 6-5 victory.  We'll see if the Pack can pull out a win over the Titans on consecutive weekends.

Boise State (4-6) - At the Diamond Devil Invitational in Tempe, the Broncos have a chance to make some noise, especially with two games against No. 14/15 Minnesota (8-1).  The Golden Gophers have a clear ace in reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Sara Groenewegen (0.72 ERA), who is a tough assignment for any opposing team.  The likelihood of her starting both games against Boise State, however, is slim and gives the Broncos a decent shot at an upset in the other game.  Minnesota's other two pitchers have allowed 17 runs and 26 hits in 23 innings this season.  Boise State will take on Arizona State Friday on the Sun Devils' home field.  Giving the Broncos hope:  This is not the same ASU team as in years past.  Arizona State began last season 18-0 at home and went 40-4 at home in 2013.  This season, ASU has already lost four home games in the first two weeks of play, including upsets at the hands of USD and Cal State Northridge.  Boise State's two other games this weekend come against New Mexico State (5-5) and Indiana State (2-2).  The Aggies have allowed 76 runs this season, including a stunning 35 in one day in home losses to Kansas and Bradley.  This past Saturday, the Jaykawks beat New Mexico State 25-12 and the Braves beat them in a 10-8 game in Las Cruces a couple of hours later.

Colorado State (4-6) - The Rams go to the same Diamond Devil Invitational as Boise State, but don't have as challenging a schedule.  Instead of meeting nationally-ranked Minnesota twice, Colorado State will get two games against Indiana State (2-2).  The Sycamores' wins have come by a combined four runs over Belmont and Ball State.  Indiana State's two losses:  By a total of 17 runs to Lipscomb and Georgetown.  CSU will have single games against New Mexico State (5-5), Arizona State (8-4) and Minnesota (8-1).  On the season's first weekend, the Rams suffered an 8-2 loss to the Aggies and would like some revenge here.

San Jose State (8-3) - In what looks like the lightest weekend schedule of the season for the Spartans, San Jose State competes at the Bronco Classic in Santa Clara.  SJSU won't meet the host Broncos and will play just four games.  Friday, the Spartans face Idaho State (3-7) and Illinois-Chicago (3-2).  The Bengals have played a demanding schedule with four of the seven losses coming against Louisiana-Lafayette and UCLA, but they've mostly lost to the teams they should've lost to, and won the games they should've won.  Advantage: Spartans.  The Flames, meanwhile, haven't played a game in 12 days and could be rusty when they open this tourney versus San Jose State.  After meeting UIC a second time on Saturday, the Spartans will face Seattle (4-6) on Sunday.  San Jose State has already run-ruled the Redhawks this season, and Seattle has lost to Mountain West teams New Mexico and Boise State as well in the first two weeks of the year.

New Mexico (4-6) - The Lobos head to the Hilton Houston Plaza Classic in Texas and will face the host Houston Cougars Thursday at 6:30 pm MT.  The game was originally slated for Saturday, but was moved up due to possible rain in the forecast for this weekend.  No team in this tournament field enters with a winning record.  In a season that is only two weeks old, Houston (6-8) has already played 14 games, the most of any team in the nation.  Four of the Cougars' eight losses are to nationally-ranked teams.  Improved UNM owns a win over Indiana of the Big Ten, and the Lobos will get another shot at a Big Ten win or two with a pair against Illinois here.  The Fighting Illini (3-7) have struggled, losing to the likes of Winthrop, Louisiana Tech and Murray State.  UNM will play twice against the Islanders of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, who are still looking for their first win of the season.  Corpus Christi (0-10-1) has just one player hitting over .260 on the year.  New Mexico has the very real chance of leaving this tournament with a 3-2 or 4-1 record this weekend.

Utah State (1-8) - It's off to Southern California and the Amy S. Harrison Classic in Riverside for Utah State this weekend.  The Aggies will open against Michigan State (7-3), which has a nice win over a Tulsa team that is receiving votes in the national polls.  The Spartans also have a head-scratching loss or two, falling against Florida Atlantic twice and losing to Akron.  Utah State will play Michigan State and the tournament host, UC Riverside (6-4), twice.  The Highlanders are a particularly interesting team.  Picked to finish last in the Big West in the preseason, UCR has been powered by the arm of pitching newcomer Chelsea Ponce (5 wins, 0.65 ERA).  She has already posted two wins over two of the best teams in the Mountain West -- Fresno State and San Jose State.  Ponce was on the hook for the loss against the Bulldogs before UCR rallied for three runs with one out in the seventh inning, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 win.  Against the Spartans, Ponce shut down the high-powered SJSU offense as Riverside rolled to a 6-1 win.  She has allowed just four earned runs in 43.1 innings, and two of UCR's four losses came in extra innings with the international tiebreak rule in effect when unearned runs scored in 1-0 losses.  Here's the rub:  UCR is not nearly the same team when she doesn't pitch.  It seems doubtful the Aggies will see her in both games, giving them a good chance for a win.  Also in this tourney, an up and down USD Toreros team.  USD has a marquee win at Arizona State, but has also been run-ruled in a 10-2 loss to Fresno State, and lost to New Mexico, first-year Division I program Montana, and Cal State Bakersfield.