Wednesday, May 13, 2015

MW champion Fresno State plays NCAA opener Thursday

Mountain West champion Fresno State will open play in its 31st NCAA Tournament in 34 years tomorrow as the Bulldogs take on No. 24/25 North Dakota State at 2 pm Pacific time in the Eugene Regional.

When Bulldog leadoff hitter Brenna Moss steps into the batter's box, she will represent the first at-bat in the entire 2015 NCAA Tournament.  Fresno State, the designated visitor in its opening game with the Bison, will be in the only regional that runs Thursday thru Saturday.  The other 15 regionals, including the Los Angeles Regional involving Mountain West runner-up San Diego State, all will run Friday thru Sunday.

Currently riding the nation's third-longest winning streak (11 straight games) and the team's longest winning streak since 2008, Fresno State will look to win its 12th in a row tomorrow.  A victory would be the program's 90th all-time win in NCAA Tournament play.  The game will be the 151st NCAA game for the Bulldogs, who are tied with UCLA for most all-time tournament appearances with 31.

North Dakota State presents a formidable task for the Bulldogs, and the teams in many ways look like mirror images of each other -- with strong pitching and powerful offenses (NDSU .338 team batting average to Fresno State's .328 average).  The Bison will be playing their first game ever with a national ranking.  This week, NDSU vaulted into the major polls at No. 24 ( Softball) and No. 25 (NFCA).

The Bison were ranked once previously, but only at the end of the 2009 season. That year, North Dakota State upset nationally-ranked Oklahoma to win the NCAA Norman Regional and advance to Super Regional play where they lost to Arizona State.

The Bulldogs and Bison have met just once in history.  Fresno State won that meeting 1-0 on the opening weekend of the 2012 season as then-Bulldog pitcher Michelle Moses threw a shutout and also hit a solo, game-winning home run. Thursday's pitching matchup is nearly certain to pit Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton (28-10, 2.10 ERA, 235 strikeouts) vs. Summit League Pitcher of the Year Krista Menke (32-4, 2.05 ERA, 364 strikeouts).

Compton's ERA rose from 1.84 to 2.10 last weekend in a ballpark with NCAA minimum 190-foot fences down the line at UNLV.  Howe Field, home of the Eugene Regional, also has a short porch in both right and left with those same NCAA minimum distances.  On the plus side for the Bulldogs:  an offense that is on fire of late and one that pounded out 47 hits and scored 37 runs last week as the Rebels were swept at home for the first time in more than three years.

Thursday's second game, at 5 pm, matches No. 1-ranked and No. 2 overall NCAA seed Oregon (the Pac-12 champion) against West Coast Conference champion BYU.