Sunday, January 3, 2016

Predictions: Our picks for the 2016 MW softball race

With the start of the 2016 season just five weeks from Thursday, it's time for our preseason predictions in the Mountain West softball race.

No surprise here.  Perennial powers Fresno State and San Diego State look strong and sit atop our preseason forecast.  Both look like NCAA Tournament-bound teams once again, and the Mountain West looks as deep as it has in several years.  The Bulldogs return one of the best and most experienced pitching staffs in the entire country, while the Aztecs could be the most balanced team in the conference.

It wouldn't be a surprise to see Fresno State ranked in the national Top 25 polls or San Diego State to be receiving Top 25 votes to begin the season.

New Mexico looks to continue a resurgence that began last year when the Lobos opened many eyes with a fourth-place conference finish after being predicted last by MW coaches.  San Jose State returns a lot of talent but also needs to replace a lot if it wants to improve on last year's third-place finish.

And with that, here are our 2016 blog picks for individual honors:

Preseason Pitcher of the Year - Jill Compton, senior, Fresno State
Compton has progressed from a good pitcher as a freshman, to very good as a sophomore, to great last season when she was named Mountain West Pitcher of the Year and earned NFCA First Team All-Pacific Region honors.  The other pitcher with whom Compton shared that honor?  None other than Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and someone who led her team to the NCAA championship game.  That's some fine company to keep, and it shows just how good Compton was a year ago.  The MW leader in ERA and strikeouts, Compton won 28 games a year ago, threw her third career no-hitter (a perfect game over the Big Ten's Iowa Hawkeyes), and set a record by becoming the first player in conference history to win Mountain West Pitcher of the Week honors four consecutive weeks during one stretch.  A 9-time MW Pitcher of the Week honoree and 3-time First Team All-MW selection, Compton flirted with the all-time league best ERA in conference play a year ago, and enters this season topping the Mountain West with 63 wins and 546 strikeouts. She's a difference maker.  Given her progression, and increased maturity and poise in the circle, it's a good bet that Compton is set for an outstanding senior season.

Preseason Field Player of the Year - Jenavee Peres, soph., San Diego State
Just a sophomore, Peres began her freshman season with the Aztecs in 2015 a bit slower than expected after entering the year with a lot of hype generated from an outstanding high school and travel ball career.  However, once she got going in 2015, Peres turned in a strong season on her way to earning conference Freshman of the Year honors.  In conference play, she turned things up a notch as SDSU set seven offensive single-season team records.  It appears as though she will be stronger this season with the freshman jitters long gone.  Now invited to compete this week at the USA Softball Women's National Team selection camp, even bigger things are expected of Peres in 2016.  The catcher helped her USA Junior National team win the gold medal last summer at the world championships and led them to a fifth-place finish at the World Cup of Softball X.  Peres hit nine home runs, 11 doubles, and had 48 RBI as a freshman for the Aztecs, on her way to a .347 batting average.  She earned NFCA Second Team All-West Region honors during a year where she had a .575 slugging percentage and .411 on-base percentage.

Preseason Defensive Player of the Year - Paige Gumz, senior, Fresno State
Last season, Gumz was honored as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year with another outstanding season behind the plate as the Bulldogs' catcher.  There's reason to believe she can be even better this time around.  Gumz has started all 162 games during her Fresno State career and is a big reason why the Bulldogs' pitching staff has found such success over the last three seasons.  With a staggering fielding percentage of .997, Gumz committed just one error a year ago in 321 chances to lead the Mountain West's top team in overall fielding percentage.  She's thrown out 20 base runners attempting to steal, and never had more than two errors in a single season despite starting every game the Bulldogs have played the last three years.

Preseason Freshman Pitcher of the Year - Brooke Bolinger, Nevada
A 2-time CIF All-Southern Section Division II first team pick, Bolinger's arrival gives the Wolf Pack some hope.  Nevada has struggled in conference play for several years, primarily because it has been forced to win slugfests and hasn't had consistent pitching.  Could Bolinger be the remedy?  Coach Matt Meuchel certainly hopes so.  The transition from high school to college, particularly in the pitching circle, can be difficult, but it's hard to deny the numbers Bolinger put up in high school.  During her senior year at Yucaipa High, all she did was compile a 31-3 record with an amazing 0.26 ERA and 306 strikeouts in 211+ innings in leading her team to the D-II championship.  The title-clinching win came against Mission Viejo, which entered the game unbeaten (30-0) behind Arizona-bound pitcher Taylor McQuillin.  Over the last 18 games of her senior year, her ERA dropped to a mere 0.07.  Those are truly stunning numbers, especially in a section that includes some of the nation's top high school players.  Given Nevada's soft non-conference schedule, it would surprise no one if Bolinger made some big noise very early in her Wolf Pack career.

Preseason Freshman Field Player of the Year - Dominique Jackson, Fresno State
A 2-time CIF Northern Section Player of the Year and First Team All-State pick, Jackson gives the Bulldogs a new look on offense.  A true power hitter, Jackson possesses a big bat to complement an already-potent Fresno State team.  A second team high school All-American, she hit 30 home runs in high school, has already been featured in Sports Illustrated, and owns CIF section single-season records in home runs and RBI, as well as a conference record in stolen bases.  And we got a glimpse in her first-ever appearance in a Bulldog uniform during Fall Ball that she could be something special.  In October, she delivered the game-tying, RBI double in the fifth inning of Fresno State's game versus 3-time NPF champion USSSA Pride.  And it came against 4-time All-American and 2014 NCAA Most Outstanding Player Hannah Rogers, the former standout for NCAA champion Florida.  Fresno State, which used four different pitchers in that 1-run contest, gave USSSA Pride its closest game on the Pride's Fall tour that included stops at Arizona State, among others.

And now, our predictions for conference finish:

1.  Fresno State
2.  San Diego State
3.  New Mexico
4.  San Jose State
5.  UNLV
6.  Nevada
7.  Utah State
8.  Colorado State
9.  Boise State

1.  Fresno State (40-16, 20-4 a year ago)
The Bulldogs advanced to their nation-best 31st NCAA Tournament appearance last season and appear poised to do so again.  Pitching depth is the biggest reason why.  Fresno State has won 101 games over the last three seasons, and this year the Bulldogs return a veteran pitching staff that has accounted for 99 of those 101 victories.  Headlining that list is the aforementioned Compton, the reigning Mountain West Pitcher of the Year and 3-time First Team All-MW pick.  Compton was dominant a year ago, topping the league with a 1.66 ERA, opposing batting average (.204) and strikeouts (242).  Making Compton better are the pitchers surrounding her, giving coach Trisha Ford a lot of options.  Returning are 2-time All-MW Second Team honoree Hannah Harris (27 career wins and an ERA of 1.76 to rank No. 2 in the conference behind only Compton a year ago), and Taylor Langdon (10-3 record with 111 innings pitched, mostly in relief).  Langdon walked just two batters in 2015 and came on strong down the stretch, holding opponents to a .262 batting average and earning the final out of the Bulldogs' MW title-clinching win at UNLV.  Two freshman pitchers arrive in all-state honorees Kira McKechnie of California and Kamalani Dung of Hawai'i.  The experienced Bulldogs return eight players who started NCAA regional games a year ago.  Fresno State hit .325 as a team in 2015 and returns eight of the top 10 batting averages.  A league-high six players who earned either All-MW or All-Region honors last season are back, including infielder Malia Rivers (.371, 72 hits), outfielder Kierra Willis (.364, 24 extra-base hits, including a team-high 8 HR), infielder Whitney Smith (104 career hits) and NFCA Second Team All-Pacific Region infielder Alyssa Villalpando (.361).  Ford picked up two big additions in the form of transfers Claire Stucker (Mississippi State) and Lindsey Willmon (Hawai'i), both of whom should see significant action.  Willmon hit 15 home runs and started 95 games in two seasons with the Rainbow Wahine and was a Big West Player of the Week honoree during her time at UH.  She could be a difference maker.  The Bulldogs must replace two starters and they are big losses in outfielders Brenna Moss and Michelle Solomon, both 4-year starters and all-conference picks.  Replacing the hitting and speed of Moss should be Ford's biggest challenge.  Bria Kennedy, who enjoyed a breakout season last year by hitting .286 with career highs in every offensive category in 47 starts, is back, along with Chase LeeHong, who emerged as a starter midway through her freshman season in 2015.  LeeHong started the final 39 games of the year and hit .245 with a strong .992 fielding percentage at first base.  Fresno State set a Mountain West record with 20 conference victories a year ago, finishing the season 20-4 in league play and winning 10 straight league games (11 straight overall) to end the year.  With a wealth of deep pitching and strong bats, and newcomers like Jackson, Willmon, Stucker, Dung and McKechnie joining a freshman class that includes Morgan Howe and Kaitlyn Jennings, the Bulldogs appear primed to have one of their best seasons in years.  On paper at least, this year's team could be the one that finally gets Fresno State to Super Regionals and perhaps back to Oklahoma City for the 13th time in school history.

2.  San Diego State (38-20, 18-6 a year ago)
Junior Erica Romero was the nation's leader in pitching victories a season ago, picking up 36 wins after winning six games as a freshman.  She pitched, pitched, and pitched some more as a sophomore.  No team in the country relied more on one pitcher than San Diego State, which sent Romero to the circle a stunning 56 times in 58 games.  We're going to say it again:  56 appearances in 58 games.  And it was mostly out of necessity, because on the few occasions Romero wasn't pitching, life in the circle was an adventure for the Aztecs.  The team ERA of 3.89 was very high by SDSU standards, as Romero tossed 318 2/3 of the Aztecs' 387 innings.  Three other San Diego State pitchers combined to go 2-3 with ERAs of 5.74, 7.12 and 9.41.  Opponents hit .303 against SDSU for the entire season, a shockingly robust number for an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.  Romero's durability was impressive though and earned her All-MW honors for the first time.  But San Diego State had to rely on out-hitting and out-scoring opposing teams.  And they did it quite often with a team that hit .310 overall.  The problem:  Much of that hitting is gone, including the only two Aztecs to hit over .350 a year ago -- MW Player of the Year Lorena Bauer (.415, 73 hits, including a league-best 19 home runs and 35 hits for extra bases) and All-MW pick Kayla Jordan, who led the team in doubles (18) and hits (79), while batting .414.  Add in the departures of former All-American Hayley Miles and Kayla Bufardeci, and more than half of SDSU's home run, double, and RBI totals from a year ago are gone.  That's a big void.  Last year alone, those four combined for 400 total bases, 38 home runs, 153 RBI and 45 doubles.  The aforementioned Peres returns as the key cog in the offense, along with Leia Ruiz (.308) and Taylor Stewart, who hit .329 in 29 starts.  Sydnee Cable (.291, seven home runs) returns, along with Sam Camello, who batted .244 in her first year with San Diego State after transferring from Texas Tech.  Speaking of transfers, SDSU has two pitchers who left other schools in the hope of giving Romero some help in the circle.  Alex Formby arrives from Virginia, where she made 19 starts as a freshman, but went just 3-14 with a 7.30 ERA.  After sitting out a year, Ashley Ercolano joins the Aztecs from UC Riverside and will be a junior.  Ercolano appeared in 54 games in two seasons with the Highlanders, going 10-14 with an ERA over 5.00.  Ercolano has some pop in her bat, hitting 12 home runs in two combined seasons at UCR.  Freshman pitcher Juliana McDonald could also see playing time, but expect to see a lot of Romero once again.

3.  New Mexico (29-25, 13-11 a year ago)
After being predicted to finish last in the conference a year ago, New Mexico and coach Erica Beach surprised a lot of people with a team that finished fourth.  Along the way, UNM picked up a road win at San Diego State and put an end to San Jose State's NCAA chances with a shocking, run-rule rout of the Spartans.  New Mexico's pitching was vastly improved a year ago compared to the 2014 season, and the good news for UNM is that much of the talent returns.  Pitchers Krissy Fortner and Lauren Soles, who combined to win 19 of the team's 29 games a year ago, return after ranking first and second on the team in ERA.  Seven of the top nine players in terms of batting average return as well, including Jasmine Casados (.386) and second team All-MW pick Mariah Rimmer (.378), both of whom stepped up big a year ago and were important factors in the Lobos' improvement.  Eight freshmen join the club, along with a new set of assistant coaches.  The most intriguing name for those who follow college softball is new UNM assistant Shelby Pendley, the former Oklahoma star who won a national title while with the Sooners.  New Mexico surprised many a year ago when it went into the season with low expectations.  Now let's see how the Lobos respond when the expectations are higher than they've been in years.  On paper, this team looks solid.

4.  San Jose State (37-19, 17-7 a year ago)
The Spartans finished third a year ago, but a late season losing streak kept the squad from reaching the NCAA Tournament.  Everything seemed to be going the Spartans' way in April.  They became the first MW team to take a 3-game series from Fresno State at Margie Wright Diamond, winning two of three.  Then, they got a pair of wins at San Diego State to take that series as well.  In fact, they nearly swept the Aztecs in that series before falling in extra innings in the finale.  In control of their own destiny, with the conference title seemingly theirs in late April, and -- most importantly -- holding the tiebreaker over both Fresno State and San Diego State, things ended with a thud.  Coach Peter Turner's Spartans were run-ruled at UNLV, then stunned at home by Santa Clara in a non-conference game, before losing a third straight against Nevada, also at home.  A shocking 14-0, run-rule loss at New Mexico on the final weekend of the regular season ended SJSU's title hopes.  The Spartans would end the year with a MW record .350 team batting average, but no postseason.  This could be a rebuilding year in San Jose.  The Spartans lost their top two pitchers (Allison Lang and Madison Fish), who accounted for 22 of the team's 24 complete games and 29 of its 37 wins. No returning pitcher has an ERA below 6.00, so Turner went the international route and picked up Australian Chantelle Ladner, who competed with her country's junior national team.  She could be the key to the Spartans' season.  Top returnees include First Team All-MW picks Jessica Madrid (.439, 79 hits) and Jessie Hufstetler (.435, 11 home runs, 69 RBI).  A lot will be asked of their bats to offset the losses of Michelle Cox (.419, 78 hits), Nicole Schultz (.359), and Sharon-Renae Estrada (.348, nine HR).  Hufstetler and Madrid are two players to build around, but it's difficult to see this year's team matching last season's record unless Ladner has a spectacular season.  Few teams in the conference lost as much combined pitching and hitting.  After a 37-win season last year, it's very hard to see the team matching it in 2016.

5.  UNLV (25-30, 11-13 a year ago)
Last year, the Rebels started out strong, picking up marquee non-conference wins against the likes of Louisville, DePaul, Houston and Northwestern.  From there, it was mostly downhill.  After going unbeaten to win their own Rebel Classic in early March, UNLV lost its next seven in a row and 10 of 11.  Giving the Rebs hope this year is the return of senior Garie Blando, the league's Player of the Year two years ago and a key to UNLV's offense.  Blando led the team in virtually every offensive category a year ago, batting .389, with 15 home runs, 16 doubles and 70 hits to grab First Team All-MW honors.  Catcher Emily Haslinger, a second-team pick who hit nine homers a season ago to rank second on the Rebels squad, is back after hitting .310.  Francesca Foti (.301) and Alyssa Cordova (39 RBI) also return to give UNLV a quality nucleus from which to build.  In the circle, Kwyn Cooper (9-4, 4.32 ERA) and Morgan Ettinger (10-11, 4.69 ERA) are back, along with Janine Petmecky (3-10), who had some struggles as a freshman last season.  Head coach Lisa Dodd hired former San Diego State pitcher Rebecca Arbino as an assistant so it will be interesting to see if the Rebels' stats improve in the circle.  Two prominent names are missing from the UNLV roster:  Fahren Glackin, who hit .333 in 44 starts last season, and Merina Ili (.318, 29 RBI, 41 starts last year), had solid freshman campaigns but are no longer listed on Rebels' current online roster.  Five new freshmen will compete for playing time.

6.  Nevada (16-37, 6-18 a year ago)
There is a real temptation to pick Nevada higher.  So much of the Wolf Pack season depends on the pitching of incoming freshman Bolinger, as outlined above.  She enters college with extremely high expectations and is our choice for Freshman Pitcher of the Year in the Mountain West.  Can she be the ace Nevada has longed for?  Can she propel the Pack to a winning record?  Or will pitching at elevation in a smallish, often-windy park be her undoing?  A lot of good pitchers have gone into Reno and had trouble.  The guess here is that she will be as good as advertised.  The Wolf Pack have struggled in a major way of late and haven't had a winning conference record in years.  If Bolinger can consistently deliver in the circle, Nevada may not need much offense to win games.  And the Pack has plenty returning, led by all-conference selection Megan Sweet.  A year ago, Sweet hit .405 with a team-best 10 home runs and 48 RBI.  Always solid Jasmine Jenkins (.307) returns as well, along with Alyssa Mendez, another .300 hitter in 2015.  The only real losses for Nevada are fairly big ones, though:  pitcher Megan Dortch (34 pitching appearances and a team-best .276 opponents against average last season) and Karley Hopkins, the school's all-time hits leader who batted .357 in 2015.  Despite winning just six conference games a year ago, Nevada beat every team in the league with the exception of the two who made the NCAA Tournament.  The addition of Bolinger gives the Pack better odds to win more games this time around, bu the non-conference schedule worries us.  It's easy to see Nevada coming out of the gates strong against a weak non-league slate, only to slide backwards once it gets into the meat of a Mountain West slate.

7.  Utah State (19-36, 11-13 a year ago)
The 2015 season couldn't have started out much worse for the Aggies, who opened the year losing their first seven games.  By the time Utah State reached a 1-12 record, coach Steve Johnson's team had lost 22 of its last 23 games dating back to the previous season.  Things eventually got on track, including a surprising upset of eventual conference champion Fresno State in Logan. Ironically, that game changed both team's stretch runs.  Fresno State wouldn't lose again during the regular season, winning 11 straight after that loss.  Utah State, meanwhile, ended up losing 11 in a row before breaking the streak against Boise State on the final weekend of the year.  As has been the case for the past two seasons, this team will go as far as Noelle Johnson takes them.  She's the definite key to the pitching staff, and one of the team's best hitters as well, earning First Team All-MW honors last year.  When she's been dinged up in past seasons, there's really no way of sugar-coating it:  the team has basically fallen apart.  Johnson earned 16 of the team's 19 wins last season, leading the team in ERA (4.04), with no other pitcher coming close.  She also ranked third in batting average and second in home runs.  Utah State needs her in the lineup to win but now has a 6-member pitching staff just in case, including a pair of JC transfers.  Besieged by injuries over the past couple of seasons, USU returns its leading hitter from last year (Sarah Chow, .413) and slugger Alleyah Armendariz (team-best 12 HR), and adds Hawai'i transfer infielder Sarina Jaramillo (.290 with the Wahine).  The Aggies lost a talented trio of starters in Hailey Froton (.361), Jolene Koons and Nicole Arata.

8.  Colorado State (27-29, 8-16 a year ago)
The Rams received a bitter lesson involving scheduling a year ago.  The lesson:  It may not be wise to play a soft schedule entering conference play.  Colorado State was riding high (or so it seemed) with an 11-game winning streak in mid-March, but it was compiled against a weak slate of opponents.  Three weeks later, the Rams had already suffered a pair of 3-game sweeps at the hands of Mountain West opponents, including losing three in a row to Utah State.  After going 19-13 in non-conference play, the Rams finished only 8-16 in the league.  And that came a year after CSU was near the top of the Mountain West standings and still alive for the conference title in the month of May.  Colorado State could be looking at another lower-division finish this time around.  The team's top two pitchers in terms of ERA last season are gone.  One was expected, but one was not.  Molly Randle (5-2 with a 2.50 ERA before a season-ending injury) was a senior. The big blow came when talented Trinity Harrington decided to transfer to Texas A&M.  Coach Jen Fisher often lauded Harrington's poise in the circle during a strong freshman campaign where she threw four complete-game shutouts, including one on the road against the heavy bats of San Jose State.  Harrington ranked second on the team in both wins and ERA (3.10).  All is not bleak, though. CSU returns senior Holly Reinke, who struggled as a junior (12-19, 5.23 ERA) after a strong sophomore season.  And another talented Hutton lands in Fort Collins in the form of pitcher Bridgette Hutton, who had a stellar prep career in Colorado.  She joins All-MW sister Haley Hutton, who had a team-best .363 batting average last season.  CSU loses some of its heaviest hitters in Shae Rodriguez (No. 2 on the team with a .324 average and tied for the team lead with 12 doubles) and Danielle Wikre (team-high 9 home runs).  Logan Losh (4-1, 3.69 ERA) returns along with Savannah Clark, who had a strong freshman season (.318 batting average, 12 doubles).  With so many pitching questions, it's hard to see Colorado State improving this season.

9.  Boise State (12-42, 4-20 a year ago)
Things didn't go as planned for the Broncos in their first year under head coach Cindy Ball.  Boise State had the fewest wins in program history, failing to hold late leads numerous times in close games. This year, there is really no place to go but up.   Pitcher Rachel Rodriguez, who arrived last season as a promising freshman pitcher full of top high school accolades, is no longer on the roster.  Rodriguez was the pitcher of record in 25 games last season, going 5-20 in 38 appearances, which tied for the team lead.  Nicole Wilson (3-12, 4.85 ERA) and Mackenzie McGill (3-8, 9.26 ERA) are the lone returning pitchers, and Ball has added four new hurlers, including three transfers.  How well they perform will dictate Boise State's fortunes.  The only new freshman pitcher is Shawna Burke, who arrives with quality credentials, including all-state honors in Oregon.  Devon Bridges, perhaps the best player the Boise State softball program has ever known, departs after a spectacular career.  Even in a down year for the Broncos, Bridges hit a team-best .359 and led the team in home runs, total bases, RBI, hits and several other categories.  She will be hard to replace.  The Broncos return five players who started 30 or more games a season ago, but with unproven pitching, it's tough to pick Boise State to finish much higher this season.

Note:  This preview does not take into account any possible injuries or changes in rosters that may occur after this date.