Saturday, May 14, 2016

UNLV snaps Fresno State's 32-game league winning streak on Senior Day

That sound you heard Saturday afternoon?  It was the 17th-ranked Fresno State softball team coming back to Earth.

After a stunning run of 23 straight wins overall -- the longest winning streak in the nation -- and 32 straight in conference play, the Bulldogs fell 10-7 to UNLV on Senior Day at Margie Wright Diamond.  For the second day in a row, Fresno State came out of the gates less than sharp, and for the first time in nearly two months, the Bulldogs paid the price in the loss column.

The loss to a Rebels team that entered on a 7-game losing streak, in eighth place in the Mountain West standings and 154th in the RPI has the potential to be a devastating one for the Bulldogs, who appeared to have momentum on their side in the race to host an NCAA regional.

NCAA Tournament bids will be announced Sunday at 7 pm on ESPNU.  And while Fresno State could still host a regional on the basis of the strongest season ever for a Mountain West softball team, it's far from a sure thing.  Given the history of the NCAA Selection Committee in softball, they often take the easy way out.  Such a scenario again this season could leave the Bulldogs headed to UCLA where they could potentially be stacked against the host Bruins, and, say, Big West champion Cal State Fullerton and WAC champion Cal State Bakersfield.

We'll see soon enough.

It probably wasn't much consolation to the Fresno State team that it finished with the best record and most wins ever by a Mountain West softball team.  The Bulldogs went 22-1 in conference play and are now 41-10-1 entering NCAA Tournament play next week.

After committing four errors last night, the Bulldogs added two more today, and they were costly.  Starting pitcher Jill Compton, who entered the day 15-0 in MW play and leading the league in ERA in conference games, struggled in a contest that began immediately after a prolonged, 20-minute on-field, emotional pregame ceremony where the Bulldogs honored her and the other seven Fresno State seniors.

It's the sixth time in the last eight years the Bulldogs have lost on Senior Day at home.

And Compton got behind 3-0 in the top of the first inning, walking a batter, hitting another, and giving up a key, 2-out, 2-run single to freshman Madison Rogers, who had 10 hits all year entering the final day of the season.

Fresno State would respond with five straight runs to take a 5-3 lead over UNLV.  Senior Whitney Smith hit an RBI single in the second to score Lindsey Willmon, who was hit by a pitch to lead off the frame.  In the third, the Bulldogs scored four runs on three hits.  Kierra Willis walked and Alyssa Villalpando singled before Paige Gumz reached on a Rebels error, which also scored a run.  Willmon plated another run with a sacrifice fly before Morgan Howe hit an RBI single and Vanessa Hernandez added an RBI triple.

So the Bulldogs would carry the 2-run lead to the fourth and things looked rosy, right?  After all, Fresno State was 25-0 this season when leading after three innings.  The Rebels, however, had other ideas.

UNLV answered right back with four runs to regain the lead, aided by two critical Bulldog infield errors and a bit of luck.  A hard-hit bouncer wiggled off Smith at shortstop and a comebacker to Compton bounced off her lower leg and caromed into an area between shortstop and third base for the Rebels' first two hits of the frame.  Following two Fresno State errors that enabled UNLV to tie it, Chrissi Olmaza hit a pinch-hit, 2-out, 2-run single to right and it was 7-5 in favor of the Rebels just like that.

After Rebels starting pitcher Morgan Ettinger got the Bulldogs to go down quietly in the bottom of the fourth, Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford replaced Compton with freshman Kamalani Dung in the circle.  It was a move that raised an eyebrow or two as Compton, in likely her final home game as a Fresno State pitcher, was pulled despite an unbeaten record at Margie Wright Diamond over the past 412 days.

Dung tossed a scoreless fifth before giving up a solo home run to UNLV's Brooke Stover in the sixth.  That would make it an 8-5 Rebels lead.  In the bottom of the sixth, Fresno State rallied as Howe singled and later scored on 2-run blast to left by Smith.  With the score now 8-7, the Bulldogs left the tying run on base in the form of Malia Rivers, who singled but was stranded.

Ford went to Taylor Langdon for the top of the seventh inning, but the Bulldog senior pitcher allowed a pair of costly insurance runs for the Rebels with two outs.  Francesca Foti hit an RBI single through the right side of the infield, and Alyssa Cordova followed with a triple that made it 10-7.

After two quick outs to begin the bottom of the seventh, Willmon doubled off Ettinger to give the Bulldogs some hope.  As Howe stepped to the plate and saw pitches well out of the strike zone,  Ford sent the Bulldogs' home run co-leader -- Dominique Jackson -- to the on-deck circle.  With Jackson standing in the on-deck circle representing the tying run in the bottom of the seventh, Howe pulled a head-scratcher of an at-bat, grounding out to end the game on a 3-0 pitch.

As the Mountain West champion Bulldogs stood there stunned, it was UNLV screaming, jumping for joy, and pouring out of the dugout and across the field for a celebration that mirrored a Women's College World Series win.  The Rebels finished the season next-to-last in the MW standings, a half-game behind seventh-place New Mexico and two games ahead of Boise State.  Fresno State claimed the conference crown by six games in the loss column ahead of second-place San Jose State.  It is the widest margin in the final standings ever for a Mountain West softball champion over the second-place team.

The Bulldogs will learn their NCAA Tournament fate when pairings are released Sunday evening.  Fresno State finished one game short of tying the school mark for most consecutive conference wins -- 33, set when the program was part of the WAC in 1999 and 2000.

Fresno State was presented its Mountain West championship trophy at the conclusion of the game.

Elsewhere ... Nevada, Utah State and San Diego State all finished in a 3-way tie for third place in the Mountain West standings by virtue of Saturday's results.  Nevada defeated the Aggies in Logan 4-3 to capture that series, while San Diego State beat Boise State to win that series two games to one.  San Jose State's 3-game sweep of New Mexico meant the Lobos finished seventh.