Thursday, October 12, 2017

AT A GLANCE: A quick outlook on each Mountain West team's 2018 season

Fall Ball is either already underway or soon will be for all Mountain West softball teams, and we are less than four months from the first games of the 2018 season.  The league is coming off a monster year where it sent five teams to the postseason, had two teams pick up NCAA Tournament wins, and finished sixth overall in conference RPI to rank ahead of power conferences such as the Big Ten.

And while we're not quite ready to make predictions for how next season will play out, let's take a quick moment to check on where each team appears to be headed in 2018.

San Jose State - The Spartans won the 2017 Mountain West regular-season title and the league's automatic NCAA bid with a veteran group.  Whether SJSU rebuilds, or merely reloads, will rest largely on the pitching arms of three newcomers -- sophomore Desiree Severance and freshmen Morgan Orchard and Caroline Bowman.  Pitchers who accounted for 36 of last season's 37 wins are gone, and the guess is there will be growing pains for SJSU next season.  But you can never count out a Peter Turner-coached squad, and the Spartans won the MW title last year utilizing a nearby, local junior college as a makeshift "home" field.  They'll have to go that same route in 2018, again being without an on-campus softball facility.

Fresno State - The Bulldogs advanced to a 33rd NCAA Tournament appearance last season, and will have a dozen new faces in 2018. They'll be needed to offset the late departures of MW Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung and top hitter Morgan Howe.  Key transfers arrive from Oklahoma State, Illinois and Eastern Kentucky, where Rachel Minogue earned NFCA All-Region honors after leading the Ohio Valley Conference in batting average. First team NFCA All-Region pick Savannah McHellon and All-MW pick Vanessa Hernandez are back, and the 'Dogs return three pitchers and add two, including a lefty for the first time since 2015.  Unlike last year, the majority of this year's squad will consist of head coach Linda Garza's own recruits, and it seems possible that team chemistry will be improved over an up-and-down 2017 campaign.  Garza likes hard workers, and seems to have found that with some quality newcomers.

San Diego State - The Aztecs return catcher and 2017 MW Player of the Year Jenavee Peres, who had a breakout junior season a year ago.  San Diego State led the nation in team batting average at .356, but missed out on an NCAA Tournament berth for a second year in a row.  Of the 10 Aztecs players who hit over .300 a season ago, seven are back, signaling another offensive juggernaut of a team. A big loss comes in the pitching circle, where Erica Romero is gone after a staggering 156 career appearances, averaging 39 per season.  She led San Diego State in ERA each of the past three seasons and won 61 games, an average of more than 20 wins per season from her sophomore thru senior years.  The Aztecs will have a tricky 2018 league slate, facing both MW teams to make the NCAA Tournament a year ago, Fresno State and San Jose State, on the road.

Utah State - The Aggies are coming off their best season in 20 years, finishing 33-18 and advancing to the postseason with an NISC bid.  But coach Steve Johnson's squad didn't end the season the way it wanted a year ago.  In command of the MW race down the stretch and controlling its own destiny, USU lost its final five games of the regular season, and won just once in its final eight contests.  That disappointment could propel the Aggies to a stronger 2018, but the team will have to overcome a big loss of power.  Players who accounted for 30 of the team's 44 home runs are gone, but the key ingredient in the circle returns in right-hander Kellie White.  As a freshman, White dazzled with a 2.51 ERA and 18-7 record to earn All-MW honors.  She is the lone Aggies pitcher who won a game last season to return this year, though. Johnson's done a great job in a short time at Utah State, and should be considered a coach on the rise nationally.

Colorado State - The Rams are the only team in the conference to return its entire pitching staff from a season ago.  CSU went 28-22 overall last year, but just 9-15 in a highly competitive Mountain West. Senior first baseman Hannah McCorkhill and junior catcher Amber Nelson are back, and bring some big bats.  The two combined for 24 home runs a season ago (12 each).  Offensively though, Colorado State will have to improve if it hopes to contend with the three California schools who've dominated the league in recent years.  In league play, the Rams hit just .257 as a team in 2017, and CSU suffers a big loss with the departure of all-everything player Haley Hutton.  One of the best to ever wear a Colorado State uniform, the Rams' leadoff hitter was the runaway team leader in batting average (.377), hits, runs, triples and stolen bases in MW play last season.  In 2018, CSU returns just four players who hit better than .250 in conference play, so increased offensive production is key.

Nevada - The Wolf Pack went 13-11 in conference play and finished a solid 30-25 season.  Of five Nevada hitters above .300 last season, four return this year.  The offense should be solid, led by Jennifer Purcell, who was injured during the majority of the 2017 campaign.  In the circle, the loss of McKenna Isenberg is significant.  She made 81 starts in her 4-year career, and picked up career highs in wins (19), strikeouts (181), complete games (19), and appearances (32) in 2017.  Kali Sargent (9-10, 4.20) is the only returning pitcher with an ERA under 5.90 last season.  Help arrives in the form of freshman pitcher Julia Jensen, the Nevada Gatorade State Player of the Year twice in her high school career.  Jensen posted a string of eye-popping numbers throughout high school and is a player to watch in the Mountain West in 2018.

Boise State - The Broncos had one of the greatest turnarounds in the country in 2017, and few could have predicted Boise State would grab 33 wins and reach the postseason a year ago.  But coach Cindy Ball's squad did just that, earning an NISC appearance, putting an end to Utah State's season in an elimination game, and advancing to the Weber State regional final before falling.  A lot of the key ingredients from that team are back.  Pitcher Christina Washington is the biggest loss, and her team-best 29 pitching starts, 16 wins, and 11 complete games must be replaced.  BSU returns a pair of 7-game winners in pitchers Kelsey Broadus and Paige Reimann, and adds Fresno-area freshman pitcher Gianna Mancha (Central HS), one of the best in the CIF Central Section.  Boise State returns four of its top seven hitters from 2017, including All-MW pick Rebekah Cervantes, the team leader in RBI, doubles, hits and batting average.

New Mexico - Coach Erica Beach is gone, and new head coach Dr. Paula Congleton has taken over a Lobos program that has been down for a couple of years.  New Mexico lost its final 11 games of the 2017 season and won only six of 24 conference games.  The Lobos have yet to release their 2018 roster so any information is based on what we think we know, rather than what we do know.  And with any new coach's arrival, sometimes the roster looks different than we'd expect.  Slated to return: leading home run hitter Chelsea Johnson, who had a solid junior campaign last year with 10 doubles, seven HRs and a .369 average to earn second team All-MW honors.  Krissy Fortner (5-6, 3.60) is the only returning UNM pitcher to have an ERA under 5.00 last season.  Congleton added a pair of JC hitters during the summer, but there's not a lot of information coming out of Albuquerque right now.  Megan Betsa, the former Michigan All-American pitcher, has joined Congleton's staff.

UNLV - New head coach Kristie Fox, the former Arizona star, has taken over for the Rebels after head coach Lisa Dodd decided to take the head coaching job at Santa Clara.  Pitcher Morgan Ettinger's departure leaves a void after 135 career appearances, 81 starts and 40 wins for UNLV.  Pitching-wise, the Rebels will have a 6-member staff that includes Breana Burke (4-4, 2.86 last season).  UNLV was power deficient in 2017, and Fox knows that's an area where the Rebels must improve.  Senior Alyssa Navarro returns, and is the lone returnee to have hit more than four home runs last season (she hit eight).  Janine Petmecky (team-best 29 RBI and 55 hits) is a player to build around, and Fox will have a new-look Rebels squad, with nearly half the squad made up of newcomers.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Offseason news: 2018 rosters beginning to take shape in the Mountain West

Photo credits:  Fresno State, Cal-Hi Sports

Classes for the 2017-18 calendar year have started at all Mountain West schools, and rosters for 2018 MW teams are beginning to be posted.

A lot of changes have taken place on various rosters around the conference, with new coaching arrivals at UNLV and New Mexico at the forefront.

Fresno State, tied with UCLA at a national-record 33 NCAA Tournament appearances all-time, and coming off a third straight trip to the postseason, has seen some major changes.  Gone from the Bulldogs are 2017 Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung, along with first-team All-MW outfielder Morgan Howe.  Both were set to be juniors in 2018.  Also gone:  twin sisters Maddi and Kindra Hackbarth, who just completed their freshman seasons.  The Hackbarths and Howe are now at Arizona State, where they are reunited with former Bulldog head coach Trisha Ford, who recruited all three out of high school.  Dung is now at Cal.

Rachel Minogue
But the Bulldogs fortified their roster for 2018 with a slew of newcomers, including some major talents and NCAA Division I transfers.  Fresno State head coach Linda Garza will add a key player in NFCA second-team All-Region selection Rachel Minogue of Eastern Kentucky.  Minogue, a 2-time All-Ohio Valley Conference pick, led the OVC in batting average (.415), had an on-base percentage of .490, and slugged .585.  She prepped at one of the country's premier high schools in perennial power Santiago HS of Corona, Calif.

The 'Dogs also picked up transfers from a pair of power conference schools that both reached the NCAA Tournament in 2016:  Oklahoma State of the Big 12, and Illinois of the Big Ten.  Former high school All-American Hayleigh Galvan joins Fresno State after playing in 43 games for the Cowgirls last season, while catcher Emily Brodner arrives after two seasons with the Fighting Illini, where she made 60 starts.  A pair of big bats on the Bulldog roster in 2018 arrive in the form of two JC All-Americans, Dolly Stevens (Antelope Valley) and Jade Nua (Citrus).  Stevens led all JC teams in California with 24 home runs and ranked second with 68 RBI last year.  Nua ranked No. 1 in the state with an astonishing .725 on-base percentage and 1.235 slugging percentage that included 16 home runs, 30 extra-base hits and a state-best 42 walks.

Savannah Berkowitz
Pitching-wise, Fresno State got a late steal by snagging Paradise HS right-hander Savannah Berkowitz (18-3, 0.82 ERA, 184 strikeouts in 119 innings as a senior).  Her area's Female Athlete of the Year, Berkowitz appeared headed to Cal before making the late switch to join the Bulldogs.  Also joining Garza's squad: southpaw pitcher Dani East (Van Nuys, CA), who was recruited by the likes of Florida and Georgia.  Fresno State will return three pitchers in senior Savannah McHellon, who crafted wins over NCAA Tournament teams BYU and Oregon State last season; Sarah Santana, who pitched sparingly but shined with a 0.00 ERA and 1-0 record; and sophomore Samantha Mejia, who could be in for a breakout 2018 campaign.

Giving the Bulldogs some strong hope is this fact:  Mejia, in 18 appearances as a true freshman, finished with a 4.22 ERA and was often at her best against the team's strongest opponents, much like Dung in her freshman year.  As a frosh in 2016, Dung also made 18 appearances, and finished with an ERA of 4.41 that improved drastically last season.  Could another year under the tutelage of Fresno State's outstanding pitching coach Jodie Cox pave the way for Mejia to replace Dung so quickly?  Time will tell.  Mejia pitched a complete game as a freshman against national power Washington, and held then-No. 20 Michigan scoreless with five strikeouts in four innings of relief in an NCAA Tournament elimination game.

Fresno State's 2018 roster can be found here.  Meanwhile, defending Mountain West champion San Jose State, which won its first NCAA Tournament game in school history in 2017, has unveiled its roster.  The Spartans will have the largest roster of any MW team in recent memory, with 30 players making up the squad.

Desiree Severance
Coach Peter Turner will look to find replacements for a pitching staff that returns only one player who threw a pitch for SJSU in 2017, Kacie Gresenz.  The sophomore went 1-5 with a 6.05 ERA as a freshman so the Spartans will obviously need some major help to offset the losses of All-MW pitchers Katelyn Linford and Colette Riggs, along with Emily Rogers.

San Jose State's roster, which can be found here, includes a key pitching transfer from Drexel in sophomore Desiree Severance, who prepped at San Jose's Archbishop Mitty.  A 3-time CIF section title winner in high school, Severance will be joined by freshmen Morgan Orchard and Caroline Bowman.

Also with their rosters for 2018 now available:  Utah State, Nevada, San Diego State, UNLV, and Boise State.  At this point, we are still waiting on 2018 rosters for both New Mexico and Colorado State.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Offseason news: Dung's departure leaves massive void at Fresno State

This has been anything but a quiet offseason in the world of Mountain West softball.

It literally began less than 24 hours after the regular season ended, when New Mexico announced it would not renew the contract of head coach Erica Beach in May.  Then, UNLV head coach Lisa Dodd made the unexpected move of resigning to take the head coaching position at Santa Clara, historically one of the worst softball programs on the west coast.

But that news paled in comparison to the real story of the summer:  the defections at Fresno State, which has now seen several departures of key players.  And the news got even worse for the Bulldogs over the weekend when reigning Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung announced via Instagram that she was leaving Fresno State.  (Edited to note:  Dung announced Saturday, July 29, that she will transfer to Cal.  Her arrival will give the Bears a potent 1-2 pitching punch, along with Zoe Conley.  Both will be juniors in 2018.)

Dung's 2017 season was close to legendary, a word that carries some weight for a program with as much history as Fresno State.  Dung all but carried the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament on her back (or right arm, if you will) with a terrific stretch drive that not only catapulted her team into the postseason, but also garnered her the conference's top pitching honor.

Dung's Instagram post
The Mountain West leader in wins, ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts, Dung was the main reason Fresno State was even in postseason contention after the team stumbled its way to a horrific few weeks in April, going 2-9 at one point.  It was historically bad and marked the fewest wins in an 11-game stretch in program history.

But from that point, first-year head coach Linda Garza went exclusively with Dung in the circle.  The right-hander tossed every single pitch for the Bulldogs for 11 straight games from April through May, and started all three NCAA Tournament games.  At one point, Dung tossed six complete games in 10 days, and won them all, earning back-to-back MW Pitcher of the Week honors.  She finished 14th in the nation in wins with 26, 17th in the country in shutouts with 9, 24th in the nation in strikeouts with 218, and made 38 of her team's starts, tossing 31 complete games.

Dung pitched her first career no-hitter in 2017 with a win over Florida Gulf Coast, and earned NFCA All-Region third team honors, a major feat considering the pitching talent in the NFCA's Pacific Region that also includes the Pac-12.  She earned Fresno State's first shutout win in NCAA Tournament play (with a 2-hitter over Montana) since Michelle Moses shut out Nebraska 1-0 in 2011.

Heading into the offseason, Garza's biggest challenge appeared to be finding a solid No. 2 pitcher to give Dung some necessary back-up in the circle.  With Dung's departure, Fresno State faces a daunting task, as she won every conference game for Fresno State except one last year.  Over the season's final 52 days (March 30 to May 20), Dung was the team's only pitcher to win a game.  And the news gets worse.

Not only did the Bulldogs' best pitcher choose to leave Fresno State, but so did its top hitter from 2017.  Starting outfielder Morgan Howe, who earned first team All-MW and second team NFCA All-Region honors, joined two other Bulldog players -- twin sisters Maddi and Kindra Hackbarth, who were freshmen in 2017 -- in leaving for Arizona State.  There, the three will be reunited with former Fresno State head coach Trisha Ford, who will enter her second season at the helm of the Sun Devils in 2018.

Howe led Fresno State in batting average (.418), on-base percentage (.494), slugging percentage (.621), hits (64), total bases (95), and multi-hit games (19).  She finished tied for second on the team in RBI (40) and fourth in home runs (6).  Maddi Hackbarth started 20 games early in 2017, and Kindra Hackbarth appeared in 44 games, often as a defensive replacement in right field.  The Hackbarth sisters, who both have three years of eligibility remaining, were both high school All-Americans and national Top 100 recruits, as rated by Flo Softball.

Also leaving Fresno State for Arizona State is former Bulldog great Jill Compton, who won back-to-back MW Pitcher of the Year honors in 2015 and 2016.  Compton, fresh off a second season with the National Pro Fastpitch's Texas Charge, will join Ford and the Sun Devils as a graduate assistant coach.  She was a student assistant with the Bulldog softball team this past season.

We asked in April, amid the Bulldogs' losing streak, what was wrong with Fresno State this past season.  Amid all of the departures this offseason, it's become clear that team chemistry was an issue.  In some respects, Garza deserves credit for managing it effectively enough to reach the postseason.  But one has to wonder what would prompt so many key players (including its talented core) to leave all at once from a program that has established itself over the years as one of the best in the country.

Garza spent much of June and July finding late recruits to replace all of the departed players, and Fresno State will have at least 10 new faces in 2018.  Included in that group:  left-handed pitcher Dani East (who was also recruited by Florida and Georgia), some big bats from the JC ranks, and three key transfers, including a pair from power conference schools in 2017 NCAA Tournament qualifiers Oklahoma State and Illinois.  The Bulldogs expect major noise from first team All-Ohio Valley Conference and second team NFCA All-Region infielder Rachel Minogue of Eastern Kentucky.  Minogue led the OVC in batting average (.415) in 2017, with 73 hits (a total that would have even topped all Fresno State batters last season), including 18 doubles.  Minogue ranked in the top 10 of 11 OVC offensive categories, and she struck out just nine times in 176 at-bats last year, making her one of the country's most difficult players to strike out.

Even with incoming offensive talent, the loss of Dung, in particular, will be difficult for the Bulldogs to overcome.  A fifth active Fresno State player also left the program this offseason, as pitcher Kira McKechnie, who appeared in just three games the past two years, transferred to UTEP.

Meanwhile, at UNLV, Dodd's departure came in late June after five seasons.  She went 121-147 as the Rebels' head coach, and UNLV went 8-16 in conference play this year.  Last week, the Rebels announced the hiring of former Arizona All-American softball player Kristie Fox as their new head coach.  Fox spent the past five seasons at Texas-Arlington, going 134-137 with the Mavericks, but improving a program that was struggling mightily when she arrived.

New Mexico announced in June that it hired Dr. Paula Congleton to replace Beach.  A former All-American softball player with the Lobos, Congleton has more than 20 years of head coaching experience, with the last 19 seasons coming at Santa Barbara City College.  Her Vaqueros posted 30 wins, second-most in program history, in 2016.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Poor umpiring has threatened to ruin the game of college softball

Officiating and umpiring in the sport of college softball has been iffy over the years, and getting worse.  As more and more games are televised, the missed calls have become very noticeable.

But never has the sport seen worse officiating than this season, and especially in the NCAA Tournament and College World Series.  Television replays have shown multiple missed calls throughout this year's tourney, and in important, game-changing and season-defining ways.

From squeezed strike zones where perfect pitches are called balls, to obvious missed calls at home plate, and arbitrary obstruction and running out of the baseline calls, this season has been nothing but an embarrassment for the sport of college softball.  Unless things change suddenly, the sport could be ruined forever as botched calls destroy the game.

It's time for the use of video replay to become a part of the game.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

NCAA regionals: Bulldog bats silent vs. Michigan; SJSU loses twice

It's fitting that the ESPN cameras Saturday night spent a lot of time focusing on Fresno State fans eating giant donuts at Husky Stadium in the NCAA Seattle Regional.

The Bulldogs were putting up giant donuts, er, zeroes, of their own on the scoreboard.  Fresno State was no match for the second straight night against Michigan All-American pitcher Megan Betsa, the nation's leader in strikeouts.  She became the first player in the country this season to cross the 400-strikeout barrier during Saturday's game.

Fresno State kept swinging and missing, and missing, and missing some more, as Betsa no-hit the Bulldogs and eliminated them from NCAA Tournament play.  After allowing a 1-out double in the first inning of Friday night's regional opener against Fresno State, Betsa threw 13 2/3 consecutive hitless innings versus the Bulldogs.  It included a staggering 26 strikeouts.

A night after striking out 13 Fresno State batters, Betsa struck out 13 more Saturday in a 4-0 win for the nation's 18th-ranked Wolverines.  Not only did no Bulldog get a hit in the game, few even made contact, as Vanessa Hernandez was the lone player not to strike out.  Betsa's mastery was most evident against the heart of the Fresno State lineup for the second game in a row.  The Bulldogs' three thru five hitters in the lineup (Morgan Howe, Lindsey Willmon and Savannah McHellon) combined to strike out 17 times in 18 at-bats against her in the two games.  Willmon and McHellon struck out in all 12 of their combined at-bats against Betsa in the NCAA Tournament.

Howe was the only one of those three to make contact in the game, fouling out to third base in the bottom of the seventh.

Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung finally ran out of gas after a remarkable run.  Dung started her 12th consecutive game, including her second of the day, and third in less than 24 hours.  After throwing every pitch of her team's last 11 games, the sophomore was finally lifted in the fourth inning after a leadoff walk and her team down 4-0.  Freshman Samantha Mejia went the rest of the way, holding Michigan scoreless and potentially setting the stage for her 2018 season.

Coach Linda Garza's offseason mission is clear:  find some additional pitchers who can take some of the pressure off Dung.  The Bulldogs' woefully thin pitching staff was exposed this season; and even with the Mountain West's top pitcher, Fresno State's odds of advancing deep in the postseason weren't great when Dung was the only option in the circle.  Over the Bulldogs' final 25 games of the season -- a span that began in late March -- Dung was the only pitcher on Garza's squad to win a game.

In the end, the Bulldogs were a disappointment by normal Fresno State softball standards, despite reaching a 33rd NCAA tourney.  Garza's team finished just a half-game ahead of the worst conference record in school history, and set or tied some dubious records along the way.  The 'Dogs tied the school's single-game record for errors (8) versus Idaho State, had the longest losing streak in conference play (4) ever for a Bulldog softball team, and suffered the worst 11-game stretch in school history, going 2-9 at one point in April.  After being picked to win the MW title in the preseason coaches poll, Fresno State finished tied for third, tying its lowest conference finish in school history.  It comes with a caveat:  most schools would love to have a 3rd place finish represent their worst-ever league mark, so it's all relative.

After that rough April, the Bulldogs were playing their best ball of the season in May and finished the year winning 9 of their final 12 games.

In the other Mountain West-involved NCAA game Saturday night, San Jose State was shut out 1-0 by Cal State Fullerton in an elimination game.  Katelyn Linford, who entered in relief of starter Colette Riggs, gave up three hits in the seventh inning as the Titans broke the tie and held on for the win.  SJSU was run-ruled 10-2 by UCLA earlier in the day, and ended the season by going 1-4 in its final five games.

For the Spartans, the 2017 season has to be considered an overwhelming success.  Not only did San Jose State win its first Mountain West regular-season title, but it did it while essentially playing every game on the road.  No longer with a home stadium to play in, SJSU played and practiced at a mishmash of facilities, hosting most of its "home" games at a local junior college field.  SJSU won its season series 2-1 at Fresno State, and dashed Utah State's title hopes in a major way, derailing the then-first place Aggies' NCAA Tournament dreams with a season-ending, 3-game sweep.

Dung shuts out Big Sky champ Montana, keeps Fresno State alive in NCAAs

Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung tossed her ninth shutout of the season and Fresno State steamrolled Montana 7-0 in the NCAA Seattle Regional Saturday.

Dung allowed just two hits and struck out eight as the Bulldogs advanced to a regional semifinal rematch with No. 18/20 Michigan later tonight.  Kierra Willis had a pair of hits, including an RBI double off the wall in left-center, and finished with two RBI.

The Bulldogs had four extra-base hits against Montana's ace pitcher Michaela Hood, who entered the game 18-6 overall and one week removed from winning Big Sky MVP honors in that conference's postseason tournament.  Morgan Howe had a triple and RBI, while Vanessa Hernandez added an RBI double, and freshman Miranda Rohleder continued a strong postseason performance with a double for the second straight game.

Dung has thrown every Bulldog pitch for 11 consecutive games.

UCLA run-rules San Jose State, sending Spartans to loser's bracket

UCLA pounded out 13 hits and put 10 runs on the board in a 10-2 (six innings) rout of San Jose State Saturday in the NCAA Tournament.  SJSU starter Colette Riggs took the loss, and SJSU used a trio of pitchers in the defeat.  The Spartans meet the winner of Cal State Fullerton-Lehigh later tonight in an elimination game.

Friday, May 19, 2017

San Jose State wins, Fresno State loses in NCAA openers

San Jose State won its first NCAA Tournament game in the history of its softball program Friday, while Fresno State continued a string of first-round NCAA losses.  And defense played key roles in both games.

The Spartans shut out Cal State Fullerton 3-0 behind Katelyn Linford's 3-hitter.  The Bulldogs got a strong pitching outing from Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung but fell 3-1 to Big Ten runner-up Michigan, which is ranked 18th and 20th in the two major polls this week.

SJSU's Brittany Abacherli hit a solo home run for the only earned run in that game.  A 2-out Titans error later allowed a pair of unearned runs.  The Spartans had been 0-6 all-time in NCAA action before Friday's win over a Fullerton team that was No. 49 in the RPI this week, yet somehow received a No. 2 regional seed, the same as 18th-ranked Michigan.

Wolverines All-American pitcher Megan Betsa was dominant in a 13-strikeout game where she allowed just one hit.  Betsa, the nation's leader in strikeouts with 389 this season, shut down the heart of the Bulldogs' lineup.  Fresno State's No. 3 thru 5 hitters (Morgan Howe, Lindsey Willmon and Savannah McHellon) combined to go 0-for-9 with nine strikeouts.

Trailing 1-0 in the fifth, the Bulldogs tied it when pinch hitter Dominique Jackson fouled out to right, and Kierra Willis (who walked and advanced on an error) raced home from third.  Michigan took the lead for good in the bottom of the inning after some lackluster fielding, and failure to cover first base on a bunt resulted in plays that were recorded as hits on the stat sheet.

Dung took the loss, just her second in her last 11 starts, and was charged with four hits.

San Jose State snapped a 2-game losing streak, while Fullerton has lost three of four.  Michigan won for the 10th time in its last 11 games, while the Bulldogs suffered just their second loss in their last 10 contests.

Fresno State has lost three straight NCAA openers and has won its opening game in the NCAA Tournament just one time in the past eight seasons, a drought of epic proportion for the one-time national power.  The Bulldogs have lost seven of their past eight NCAA softball games overall, as well.  Since Fresno State defeated Nebraska 1-0 in its opening game of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, it has not defeated a single team in NCAA Tournament play that entered with a winning overall record.  The Bulldogs' lone NCAA win since that victory in 2011 was last season's 8-5 victory over a Cal State Bakersfield team that finished the year just 16-34 overall.

Fresno State meets Montana, a team making its first-ever NCAA appearance, in an elimination game Saturday at 4:30 pm.

San Jose State meets UCLA in a winner's bracket game in Los Angeles at 2 pm Saturday.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Wading into the question of why Fresno State got an NCAA bid & SDSU didn't

The most common question (er, complaint or flat-out nasty tweet) we got Sunday evening following the NCAA Softball Selection Show revolved around this:  Why did Fresno State get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament when San Diego State did not?

Aztecs fans are clamoring to know, and we're ready to explain it.  Of course, no one will ever know for sure what goes into the selection committee's way of thinking, but we have some educated guesses.  First of all, the snub of San Diego State (and yes, it was a snub) was nothing compared to what the committee did to Minnesota when it decided not to give the Gophers a top 16 national seed.  But did SDSU deserve a bid to the Field of 64?  That answer is probably yes.

Most likely, the Aztecs and Fresno State were together on the at-large board at the end when the committee was adding its final teams to the field.  Let's be clear:  While San Diego State probably deserved a bid, it didn't deserve a bid over Fresno State.  Now the Aztecs may have deserved a bid over the other teams towards the end of the bubble such as Oregon State and Wisconsin, but the Bulldogs compared favorably to all of those final bubble teams when you look inside the RPI at the actual numbers contained in the final Nitty Gritty report the NCAA uses.

Some SDSU fans are saying the Aztecs' 15-9 record and second-place MW finish meant they should be taken ahead of Fresno State, which finished with a 14-9 league mark.  The Bulldogs' record, however, comes with an asterisk because weather cost them a game.  Fresno State's final game of its series with Utah State was snowed out, meaning the Bulldogs weren't given a chance to finish second.  So there's that.

But here's where the numbers are clearly in the Bulldogs' favor:  In a head-to-head series between Fresno State and San Diego State, the Bulldogs won two of three meetings.  That series took place in San Diego, which is key.  Not only did Fresno State win its series with SDSU for a third straight season, the 'Dogs did it on the road.  The committee's decision could have been as simple as that:  SDSU lost that series and lost it at home.

When checking the RPI, things are even more clear.

Fresno State finished with a 6-8 record vs. teams in the RPI top 50.  SDSU's record vs. top 50 RPI teams was a dismal 3-9.

Against teams ranked 26 thru 50th in the final RPI, Fresno State was 5-2, giving the Bulldogs' the strongest mark in that category among all of the final teams on the bubble.  San Diego State was the opposite, going 2-5 vs. teams ranked 26th thru 50th in the RPI.

The Bulldogs won 16 games vs. the RPI top 100, compared to 12 for San Diego State (a difference of four).  Fresno State won 26 games vs. the RPI top 150, compared to 21 for SDSU (a difference of five).  In non-conference play, the Bulldogs won 20 games, while the Aztecs won 16.

Both Fresno State and San Diego State played strong schedules.  Neither played a slew of cupcakes and padded their slates with easy wins.  But even in this category, Fresno State fared better.  The Bulldogs played just five non-conference games against teams outside the RPI top 150 and went a perfect 5-0.  San Diego State, meanwhile, played eight non-conference games vs. teams outside the RPI top 150.  The Aztecs went 7-1, losing in Long Beach to a Harvard team that finished 172nd in the RPI.

By virtually every measure, Fresno State ranked higher, except in overall RPI where SDSU finished 42nd and the Bulldogs were 47th.  And that says a lot about what an imperfect science the RPI is.  The numbers defy logic when the Bulldogs rank higher in almost every category. The selection committee did the right thing by actually delving into the information contained inside the RPI rather than taking an arbitrary number at face value.

Again, while San Diego State most likely deserved one of the final spots in the tournament field, it didn't deserve a bid at the expense of the Bulldogs.  Whether it deserved a bid over a team like Oregon State, though, is another story.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fresno State earns at-large NCAA bid; MW sends record 5 to postseason

It wasn't until they'd revealed well over half of this year's NCAA Tournament field, but Fresno State learned its fate Sunday evening during the NCAA Softball Selection Show, and it was great news.

The Bulldogs have advanced to their 33rd all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and will open up in what ESPN2 is billing as its featured opening-round game on national television.  Fresno State will face Michigan in a battle of former NCAA champions on ESPN2 Friday night at 6 pm Pacific time from Seattle.  The other teams in the Bulldogs' region:  host Washington and Montana, the Big Sky champion.

MW regular-season champion San Jose State was placed in the UCLA regional and will take on Cal State Fullerton, the Big West champion, Friday on ESPN3.  Also in that regional: the host Bruins and Lehigh.  SJSU will be making its fourth appearance in the NCAA Tournament and just its second since 1992.  The Spartans are winless (0-6) in NCAA softball games all-time.

Fresno State has won 92 games in postseason history.

San Diego State, which entered last week with the highest RPI in the conference at No. 40 (ahead of No. 47 Fresno State and No. 51 San Jose State), was snubbed and did not receive a bid.  SDSU also did not advance to the first-year National Invitational Softball Championship.

While it's unknown what the committee was looking for, it's a good bet that Fresno State's head-to-head wins in San Diego against the Aztecs played a major part in the Bulldogs getting in over SDSU.  The Bulldogs also had more Top 50, Top 100 and Top 150 RPI wins than the Aztecs, and finished with a stronger record in their final 10 games.  All are key components of NCAA selection criteria.

Earning NISC bids were Nevada, Utah State and Boise State.  The Broncos and Aggies will play in Ogden, Utah, at the Weber State 4-team regional.  Nevada heads to Stockton and the Pacific regional.  Despite calling itself a 48-team NIT of sorts, the NISC ended up inviting just 26 teams, and has regionals of varied sizes.  It's odd to say the least.  The NISC released a sample 48-team bracket earlier this month that included an 8-team championship round.  Sunday, it released a bracket that shows a 6-team championship round.

But all eyes around the conference -- and many around the nation, in fact -- were on the Bulldogs, who were considered a bubble team by virtually everyone heading into Selection Sunday.  Fresno State bolstered its case with an impressive late-season run, winning eight of its final nine games.  Two of the Bulldogs' wins during that stretch came when they rallied when down to their final out of the game.

No finish was more dramatic than the one that ended their regular season Saturday.  Trailing 2-1 at Colorado State with two outs in the seventh, sophomore outfielder Vanessa Hernandez smashed her second grand slam of the season to power Fresno State from behind.  It was a swing of the bat that likely carried the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament.

Much more to follow in the coming days.  The entire NCAA Tournament bracket can be found here.

Our blog picks for MW Player, Pitcher, Freshman & Coach of the Year

It's that time again where we select our mostly meaningless but well thought-out selections for Mountain West Softball Blog Player, Pitcher, Freshman and Coach of the Year.

No, they aren't official awards and they carry with them nothing more than a virtual trophy, but they offer a glimpse into what was -- clearly -- the strongest season in conference softball history.  The Mountain West is the No. 6 ranked conference, of 32, in the RPI, according to the latest NCAA statistics.

Our Player of the Year is San Diego State junior catcher Jenavee Peres.
(Others considered:  Fresno State's Morgan Howe.)

Peres is our clear choice for MW Player of the Year.  Her dominance was evident in both non-conference and conference play and she led the Mountain West in a host of categories both overall and in league games only.

Peres ranked No. 1 in the MW in overall batting average (.454), hits (74), home runs (16), slugging percentage (.840), runs (56) and total bases (137), while tying for the league lead in RBI with 60 overall.  In conference play, her numbers excelled, and she led the MW with a staggering .585 on-base percentage.  Peres finished with a .538 batting average and MW-best 43 hits, 52 runs, 79 total bases and .988 slugging percentage in league play.  She finished tied for the conference lead in home runs with nine.

Simply put, Peres had one of the strongest seasons in Mountain West softball history.

Our Pitcher of the Year is Fresno State sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung.
(Others considered:  San Jose State's Katelyn Linford.)

A stunning, late-season run of success makes Dung our overwhelming choice as MW Pitcher of the Year.  The sophomore ace is practically the sole reason Fresno State remained in contention for a third straight conference championship until the season's final weekend.  Rarely has one pitcher kept a quality team afloat, but Dung did just that, throwing every pitch of the Bulldogs' final nine games of the year when the team went 8-1.

Dung ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West in a host of categories, both overall and in league games only.  She led the MW overall in wins (25), ERA (2.17), strikeouts (202), shutouts (8), innings (238), appearances (41), and starts (35).  In conference play, she was even better, lowering her ERA to a MW-best 2.04 with a league-leading 13 wins and 99 strikeouts.  Dung held foes to a .216 batting average.

Most impressive:  Dung continued to be at her best even when opposing batters were seeing her for a ninth or 10th at-bat in a single series over three days.  And here's a stunning fact: Dung's ERA in conference play (2.04) is nearly a full point and a half better than Jill Compton's ERA (3.51) a year ago in league play, when Compton won her second straight MW Pitcher of the Year honor.

Our Freshman of the Year is Utah State freshman pitcher Kellie White.
(Others considered:  San Jose State's Cassidy Clark and San Diego State's Shelby Thompson.)

No award was tougher to decide than this one because there were several solid choices.  But our pick goes to White, who was instrumental in putting Utah State in position to contend for its first Mountain West championship in softball.

While other freshmen considered were everyday players with strong seasons at the plate, White's nine pitching wins made her a difference-maker.  She finished with the third-most wins among MW pitchers in conference play and finished with a 3.25 ERA.  She threw 90.1 innings, third-most among conference pitchers in league action, and added a save.  If not for some difficult outings in her final two starts of the year, Utah State may have won the MW title.  And it was a surprise that the Aggies were still in the title conversation in May.

Our Coach of the Year is Boise State's Cindy Ball.
(Others considered: Utah State's Steve Johnson and San Jose State's Peter Turner.)

Cindy Ball's name should be mentioned when people talk about possible National Coach of the Year candidates.  Let's be honest:  Boise State was not a good team in 2016.  The Broncos bungled their way to a disastrous 14-38 season and finished last in the Mountain West standings.  What a difference a year makes.

Ball turned things around quickly, transforming Boise State into a 30-game winner and earning the Broncos' first postseason bid in softball program history.  After improving its RPI from 218 a season ago to 92 as of last week, BSU has already accepted a bid to the Women's National Invitational Softball Championship (NISC).  Boise State finished the regular season 30-18 overall, more than doubling its 2016 wins total.

In conference play, the Broncos finished .500 (12-12) in the strongest season for the Mountain West ever in the sport.  Ball's team played spoiler as well.  BSU defeated San Diego State 6-4, Fresno State 2-1 in nine innings, and Utah State 6-4, winning one game in each of those important series.  They proved to be the difference in San Jose State winning the MW title.  The Aztecs, Bulldogs and Aggies all finished one game behind SJSU in the loss column in the final conference standings.

Boise State's team ERA improved drastically, dropping nearly in half under Ball's leadership this season.  The Broncos had a team ERA of 6.96 a year ago, but saw that stat fall to 3.58 this season.  For a team that plays in a ballpark where the ball tends to fly out, it's an even more impressive number.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Dramatic Hernandez grand slam gives Fresno State strong NCAA momentum

Fresno State is the hottest team in the Mountain West Conference, and one of the hottest teams in the nation heading into NCAA Selection Sunday, winning eight of its final nine games.

The Bulldogs won an important road series in Fort Collins Saturday with another dramatic finish.  Against the Rams, who had won five straight games entering play Friday, Fresno State won for the second day in a row, and dealt Colorado State a gut-wrenching close to the 2017 regular season.

Down to its final out, and with the bases loaded, sophomore outfielder Vanessa Hernandez came up with the biggest hit of her Fresno State career so far.  Hernandez belted a Bridgette Hutton pitch over the fence in left-center for a grand slam, sending Fresno State to a 5-2 win.

Hernandez had an impressive outing, reaching base in all four plate appearances, going 3-for-3 with a walk and driving in four.  Fresno State had stranded nine base runners in the first six innings, including five runners in scoring position, before Hernandez's home run.

Kamalani Dung won her 25th game of the season and solidified one of the most remarkable seasons in Fresno State pitching history.  Dung has thrown every pitch for the Bulldogs since their April 23rd game against San Jose State and has gone 8-1 in nine consecutive starts in the circle.  She ends the season as the MW leader in conference wins (13), overall wins (25) and ERA.

Dung also became the first pitcher in the conference to surpass 200 strikeouts this season on Saturday.

Fresno State's NCAA at-large case is bolstered by a win over Top 25 BYU, along with wins over Big West champion Cal State Fullerton and two head-to-head wins over Oregon State of the Pac-12, among others.  The Bulldogs won eight of their last nine games this season during a torrid stretch, and have won 26 games vs. the RPI Top 150.  Compare that with a team like Missouri, a virtual lock because of its SEC affiliation.  Missouri had 15 wins over the RPI Top 150 heading into the SEC tournament.

Elsewhere, San Jose State was stunned for the second day in a row, falling 4-2 at UNLV.  Morgan Ettinger, who lost despite throwing a 1-hitter against the Spartans Thursday, was victorious Saturday.  Ettinger scattered five hits in the win, her first in more than two months.  SJSU will enter the NCAA tournament on a down note, having lost two of three games to the Rebels.  UNLV had just one Mountain West series win this season until taking the series from the Spartans.

New Mexico finished last in the conference, losing its final 11 games.  Boise State used a Makenzie Sullivan home run to beat the Lobos 4-1.  The Broncos, predicted to finish last in the preseason poll of MW coaches, had a big improvement from last season and finished with 30 wins in the regular season this time around.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Spartans get run-ruled, but win MW anyway; Dung wins her 24th game for 'Dogs

San Jose State will go down in Mountain West softball history as the first team to get run-ruled on the day it won a conference title.

The Spartans were humbled in a 9-1 (five innings) loss to a UNLV team that entered the day tied for last place in the conference.  But, when that game was in the opening innings, SJSU already knew it had won the MW title and the automatic NCAA bid that came along with it.  The Spartans were declared champions after Nevada knocked off San Diego State in Reno 5-4 in eight innings.  That game ended while UNLV and SJSU were in progress.

UNLV pitcher Breana Burke scattered seven hits and the Rebels pounded out 13 in the run-rule win.  Spartans starting pitcher Colette Riggs allowed nine runs on 11 hits in 4 1/3 innings and took the loss.  It was a balanced effort as all nine Rebels starters had hits in the contest.  SJSU captured its first MW title and just the second softball conference championship in program history.

Elsewhere, Fresno State sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung continued her dominance, making an eighth consecutive start for the Bulldogs and picking up her Mountain West-leading 24th win overall.  Dung also leads the league in ERA and wins in conference play now, with 12.  Sophomore Morgan Howe (2-run shot) and senior Lindsey Willmon (solo shot) hit homers, and Howe finished with three of the Bulldogs' nine hits.

A win by Fresno State on Saturday would continue one of the school's most impressive streaks, as it would enable the 'Dogs to finish in the top three in its conference standings for 40 consecutive years.  In a program that began in 1978, Fresno State has never finished lower than third in any conference in which it has been affiliated.  A win Saturday guarantees the Bulldogs at least third place.  Wins by both Fresno State and Nevada would give the 'Dogs a tie for second in the final standings.

In Albuquerque on Friday, Boise State beat New Mexico 5-0 as the reeling Lobos lost their 10th straight game and guaranteed themselves a last-place finish in the final MW standings.  The Broncos, meanwhile, can finish at .500 in conference play with a win Saturday, and grab a 30th win on the year.  Boise State, along with Nevada and Utah State, received notice of a bid to the inaugural Women's National Invitational Softball Championship.  The NISC's full 48-team field will be announced Sunday.

While Fresno State and San Diego State both have at-large NCAA Tournament hopes, each is likely to receive an NISC bid if the NCAA does not come calling.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

SJSU reduces magic number to 1; top pitching outings go to waste

San Jose State reduced its magic number to winning the 2017 Mountain West softball title to one Thursday, and a pair of strong pitching outings resulted in losses for Fresno State and UNLV.

The Spartans were held to one hit -- a single -- in their game against UNLV pitcher Morgan Ettinger, but managed to win anyway.  San Jose State prevailed 1-0 in a game where it was out-hit 7 to 1.  Ettinger didn't allow a hit until one out in the sixth.

In that fateful sixth inning, Cassidy Clark singled after Ettinger issued a pair of walks, and SJSU's only hit of the contest resulted in the game's lone run.  Spartans pitcher Katelyn Linford gave up seven hits but earned the shutout.  With the victory, San Jose State moved to 16-6 in conference play, two games ahead of San Diego State.

One more SJSU win or one SDSU loss over the next two days will give the Mountain West's automatic NCAA bid to the Spartans.

San Diego State edged Nevada 11-9 in a slugfest where a key, 2-out error in the top of the seventh gave the Aztecs two runs on the play.  They proved to be the difference.

Another strong pitching outing from Fresno State sophomore Kamalani Dung went to waste, as the Bulldogs were eliminated from MW title consideration.  Dung, who's won league Pitcher of the Week honors each of the last two weeks, matched a season-high with 10 strikeouts and tossed a complete-game 4-hitter but it wasn't enough.

The Bulldogs suffered a 5-3 setback at Colorado State.  Bridgette Hutton gave up six hits, and Fresno State was unable to take advantage of six walks.  Sophomore Dominique Jackson had a 2-run, 2-out, pinch-hit double.

Elsewhere, Boise State cruised to an 8-0 win in Albuquerque over a New Mexico Lobos team that has now lost nine straight games, the longest losing streak by a MW team this season.

Sources also told the Mountain West Softball Blog Thursday that Fresno State is not expected to be named one of eight regional hosts in the 48-team National Invitational Softball Championship, which debuts this season.  Softball's version of the NIT will have its field released Sunday after the announcement of the 64-team NCAA Tournament field.  With an RPI of 47 entering the week and home attendance that ranks in the top 15 in the country, Fresno State was considered a prime candidate to be named an NISC regional host if the Bulldogs do not earn an NCAA at-large bid.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

San Jose State, Fresno State complete sweeps; 3 teams remain alive for title

Five teams rode into Sunday's Mountain West softball action with hopes of winning a conference championship.  After play ended Sunday afternoon, only three teams remained standing.

San Jose State and Fresno State completed impressive 3-game sweeps of Utah State and New Mexico, respectively, to stay in the race for the Mountain West title.  The Spartans and Bulldogs remain alive, along with San Diego State, which completed a sweep of UNLV a day earlier.

San Jose State beat Utah State 6-1, while Fresno State beat New Mexico 3-1.

Meanwhile, Utah State and Nevada were both eliminated from title contention with losses.  The Pack suffered a 7-5 (eight innings) setback at Boise State.  But the biggest story of the weekend had to be Utah State's late-season collapse.

The Aggies had what seemed like an almost insurmountable lead over the rest of the conference for the past month, before fading.  Utah State had won all seven of its conference series until being swept by San Jose State this weekend in three games where the Aggies' offense could do little.  USU was the first MW team to complete the conference portion of its schedule, and the Aggies ended up going 0-4 in their final four league contests, and 4-6 in their final 10.

Utah State's troubles came at the exact time San Jose State, Fresno State and San Diego State were surging towards the finish line.  Those three California teams, collectively, have won a stunning 18 in a row heading into the final weekend of the regular season.

Fresno State continued a strong late-season push with a sixth consecutive win Sunday as sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung had yet another stellar weekend.  The reigning Mountain West Pitcher of the Week won her sixth game in 10 days, and is now 7-0 in her last seven starts in conference play.  Dung tossed a 4-hitter for the second day in a row and finished the weekend with a 3-0 record, 19 strikeouts, 1 earned run allowed (0.36 ERA), and just three extra-base hits allowed in 19 innings.  She leads the MW in wins overall (23), wins in conference play (11 of the Bulldogs' 12), and -- probably most importantly -- ERA.  Dung's ERA is an impressive 1.82 after Sunday's win.

Junior Savannah McHellon delivered her team-leading 10th home run of the season for the Bulldogs and had two RBI.  Malia Rivers and Morgan Howe had a pair of hits, and Kierra Willis moved into a tie for third-place in school history with her 19th career triple.  UNM's lone run came following a Fresno State error, as the Bulldogs outscored the Lobos 18-2 in the series.

San Jose State's win came on a weekend where the Spartans outscored the Aggies 15-2 over the final 19 innings of that series.  In going 0-4 in its final four MW games of the season, Utah State was outscored 30-10.

Katelyn Linford limited USU to five hits, and SJSU had 11 against a trio of Aggies pitchers.  Casey Watt had three hits and a pair of RBI, and Madison Aurin had two hits and three RBI to lead the way for the Spartans.

San Jose State is 15-6 in conference play, while San Diego State is 13-8 and Fresno State 12-8 with three games remaining.  Next week, all three title contenders are on the road, with SJSU at UNLV, Fresno State at Colorado State, and SDSU traveling to Nevada.  The Spartans, Bulldogs and Aztecs all finished the season with 3-3 records against each other.  San Jose State won its series with Fresno State, Fresno State won its series with San Diego State, and San Diego State won its series with San Jose State.

In Boise, a wild seventh inning saw both Nevada and Boise State rally with two outs.  First, it was the Pack who scored three runs when down to their final out, taking a 5-4 lead.  Then, Boise State responded with a 2-out rally of its own to send the game to extra innings.  In the bottom of the eighth, senior Izzy Serrano -- on Senior Day -- hit a 2-run homer to right for the 7-5, walk-off win.  The Broncos won the series two games to one, and eliminated Nevada from the title chase in the process.

In non-conference play, Colorado State completed a 4-0 weekend at home with a pair of 1-run victories.  The Rams edged Texas Tech 4-3 and South Dakota 1-0.  Bridgette Hutton scattered six hits in the nightcap.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Spartans, Bulldogs, Aztecs remain hot, pick up series wins

There was a point a few weeks ago when all three California teams in the Mountain West -- Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State -- were under .500 in conference play.  But now, those three teams are the hottest in the conference down the stretch.

All three won on Saturday.  Combined, they've won 16 straight games, as SJSU now has a 7-game winning streak, while Fresno State has won five in a row and SDSU four straight.

The three are all still alive for the Mountain West regular-season title with one week to go.  San Jose State beat a suddenly reeling Utah State team 2-1 Saturday to move two games up in the loss column.  USU has dropped five of its last nine MW games, including three in a row, and has its longest losing streak of the 2017 season at exactly the wrong time.

San Jose State, meanwhile, has won 11 of its last 12 contests.  Colette Riggs earned the win, her fifth in MW play, Saturday.  Utah State's April Brown took the loss.

Fresno State kept its slim title hopes alive with a 10-1 (five innings) run-rule rout of New Mexico.  Kamalani Dung continued her torrid pitching streak, tossing a 4-hitter, winning her sixth consecutive start in MW play.  Dung has won five games in the last nine days, and now leads the league in wins (22), wins in MW play (10), ERA in MW play (1.96) and -- for the first time this season -- strikeouts (178).

The Bulldogs smacked three home runs in a single inning Saturday, as Vanessa Hernandez, Morgan Howe and Lindsey Willmon all hit round-trippers.  Hernandez, Willmon and Malia Rivers had two hits each.

San Diego State and Nevada both kept their very slim title hopes alive Saturday, with the Aztecs sweeping a pair (9-1 and 8-6) from UNLV, while the Wolf Pack won 9-1 at Boise State.  SDSU and Nevada face off in a 3-game series beginning Thursday, guaranteeing that one will be eliminated from the title chase in five days.

In non-conference action, Colorado State improved to 25-20 with a pair of wins.  The Rams beat Texas Tech 10-2 in five innings, before shutting out South Dakota 6-0.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Spartans overtake Aggies; Fresno State's Dung earns MW-best 8th shutout

San Jose State scored the game's final seven runs Friday, knocking off Utah State 7-3 in game one of a 3-game series in Santa Clara.  The Aggies moved in front 3-0 early against Spartans starter Katelyn Linford, who settled down after a rocky first couple of innings.  Meanwhile, SJSU was getting clutch hit after clutch hit against Utah State freshman pitcher Kellie White, who has struggled in back-to-back starts.

The Spartans strung together a series of 2-out hits every inning from the third through the sixth on Friday, scoring seven unanswered against White.  In her last two outings, White has allowed 15 earned runs on 15 hits in just seven innings.  After giving up eight earned runs in two innings Sunday in a 15-5 loss to San Diego State, the Spartans got to White for seven runs (all earned) on 10 hits in 5+ innings Friday.

Casey Watt and Madison Aurin had three hits apiece, and White walked five.  Linford allowed six hits in the complete-game win.

Utah State, which held a commanding 3 1/2 game lead in the Mountain West standings in mid-April, has gone 4-4 in its last eight league contests to fall out of first place.  By percentage points, SJSU leads USU .684 to .667 heading into the final two games of the series.

Two-time defending Mountain West champion Fresno State kept its slim title hopes alive as pitcher Kamalani Dung continued her dominance.  Dung tossed her MW-leading eighth shutout of the season and second in six days with a complete-game 3-hitter as the Bulldogs beat New Mexico 5-0.

Fresno State also kept alive one of the more impressive streaks in college softball.  The Bulldogs clinched their 36th consecutive 30-win season, and are now 30-20 overall.  This is also the third straight season that first-year Bulldog head coach Linda Garza has won 30 or more games.  Garza led UC Riverside to the first two 30-win seasons in Highlander softball history in 2015 and 2016.

In 15 of her 30 starts this season, Dung has allowed three or fewer hits. Tonight marked her 21st start of the year where she allowed two or fewer runs, and she lowered her league-best ERA in conference play to a paltry 1.99.  Only 14 pitchers in the nation had more than eight shutouts this season entering this week's action.

Dung's total of eight shutouts this season is three more than the entire Bulldog pitching staff threw last year during a record-setting season where it finished 22-1 in league play and 42-12 overall. Her eight shutouts also tied the highest number of shutouts in a season by former Bulldog pitching star (and MW Pitcher of the Year) Jill Compton, who had eight in both her sophomore and junior seasons.

The Bulldogs are 2 1/2 games behind San Jose State with five to play, and now just a half-game behind Nevada and San Diego State, which face off next weekend.  Nevada suffered an 8-5 loss at Boise State, leaving no margin for error the rest of the way.  SDSU, meanwhile, edged UNLV 5-3 in San Diego as the Aztecs kept their slim title hopes intact.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The title-clinching scenarios for the 5 remaining contenders are wild

There are five teams still in contention for the Mountain West title.

Only Utah State and San Jose State control their own destiny at this point, and the Aggies can clinch the title and the automatic NCAA bid that comes along with it by sweeping next weekend's 3-game series at San Jose State.  But a SJSU sweep next weekend will not assure the Spartans of a conference championship.  Confused yet?

If the Aggies do not sweep the 3-game set at San Jose State, there are numerous other scenarios in which the Spartans or Fresno State, Nevada or San Diego State can all clinch the crown.

Only Utah State will complete its Mountain West schedule next weekend.  The other eight teams in the MW will still play 3-game conference series the following weekend.  And unless USU sweeps San Jose State, the title still may be up for grabs on the final weekend of the season.

That's due, in large part, to the snowed out game between Fresno State and Utah State, which could cause fits among the title contenders, throwing the regular-season Mountain West title into chaos where the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament is decided by percentage points.

If Utah State, for example, takes two of three at San Jose State next week, the Aggies could still end up finishing in second place in the final standings if Nevada sweeps its final two opponents.  Such a scenario would leave USU at 16-7 in conference, while the Wolf Pack would finish 17-7 by virtue of playing a full 24-game Mountain West schedule.

Even a 3-game sweep by San Jose State next week over Utah State would not guarantee the Spartans the outright Mountain West title.  SJSU still would have a 3-game series to finish the season at UNLV.  Losses in Las Vegas could still mean four other teams could finish atop the league.

Two-time defending Mountain West champion Fresno State is still mathematically alive for the conference title after a stunning, 3-run, 2-out rally in the seventh inning carried the Bulldogs to a 4-3 win at UNLV and a 3-game series sweep Sunday.

The Bulldogs would need the following scenario in order to claim their third straight MW championship:  Fresno State must sweep New Mexico and Colorado State to end the regular season, AND have Nevada lose at least twice in its final six games (at Boise State, and home vs. San Diego State), AND have San Diego State lose at least once in its final six games (home vs. UNLV, and at Nevada), AND have San Jose State sweep its home series vs. Utah State, but get swept at UNLV.  A far-fetched scenario?  Perhaps.  An impossible scenario?  Not at all.

The Bulldogs and Aztecs face the longest odds to win the conference championship, but the important thing is both teams are still alive.  We'll know much more by this time next week when either San Jose State or Utah State is guaranteed to have at least eight conference losses.

5 teams remain alive in the hunt for a MW title entering May

Another weekend is in the books, and five teams -- Fresno State, Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State, and Utah State -- remain alive in the race for the regular-season Mountain West title.

Three of those teams -- the Bulldogs, Wolf Pack and Spartans -- posted 3-game sweeps this weekend, with SJSU and Fresno State picking up sweeps on the road.  Utah State, meanwhile, has seen its once healthy 3-game lead in the conference standings, dwindle to just one.  The Aggies took two of three at home against San Diego State this weekend, but suffered their worst conference loss of the season in their final home game of 2017.

San Diego State hit two grand slams in a 15-5 (five innings) rout of Utah State in Logan in the home finale for the Aggies.  SDSU jumped all over USU freshman pitcher Kellie White in a nightmarish 6-run first inning that decided the game.  Shelby Thompson hit a grand slam in the first against White, and the Aztecs added another in the fourth as Jenavee Peres hit a grand slam against reliever April Brown.  It was Peres' conference-leading 14th home run of the year.  Freshman Marissa Moreno allowed five runs in the win.

San Jose State completed a 3-game sweep in Albuquerque by taking two from New Mexico Sunday.  A 10-1 Spartans win in game one of the doubleheader was followed by a 7-2 victory in the nightcap.  SJSU moved to 12-6 in league play, tied with Utah State in the loss column, and setting up a big series next weekend in California. San Jose State must win the series to remain alive for the MW regular-season title, while Utah State can clinch the league championship outright with a 3-game road sweep.

Fresno State kept its slim title hopes alive with a dramatic, come-from-behind win Sunday in Las Vegas to sweep the important road series over UNLV.  The Bulldogs had their best weekend in conference play this season behind the arm of sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung, who tossed all 320 pitches this weekend for Fresno State.  Dung went 3-0, allowing just four extra-base hits in 23 innings of work.

Savannah McHellon hit her team-leading ninth homer of the season for the Bulldogs, who rallied in the seventh inning.  Trailing 3-1, sophomore Vanessa Hernandez led off the seventh with a double against UNLV pitcher Morgan Ettinger.  A pinch-hit walk by sophomore Dominique Jackson put the tying run aboard.  With two outs, freshman Miranda Rohleder laced a game-tying, 2-run double, and sophomore Morgan Howe followed with an RBI single to plate the eventual game-winning run.

Dung won her 20th game of the season.

In Reno, tough-luck Colorado State suffered a third straight late-game loss.  Nevada scored twice in the bottom of the seventh to complete a 3-game sweep of the Rams in a 5-4 win.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

With softball's version of an NIT in place, 112 teams to make postseason

With the sport of college softball bringing back an NIT of sorts -- in this case, the National Invitational Softball Championship -- 112 teams will make the postseason in NCAA Division I softball this season.

The new NISC, a 48-team event in partnership with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association and Triple Crown Sports, will have its field unveiled Sunday, May 14, just hours after the 64-team NCAA Tournament field is announced.

The Mountain West, which has had a record seven of its nine teams ranked in the RPI Top 100 this season, appears well-positioned for multiple bids in the NISC.  San Diego State, Fresno State, Utah State and San Jose State all rank among the nation's top 65 teams in the latest RPI, while Colorado State comes in at No. 78.  Ironically, Fort Collins is the home of NISC co-founder Triple Crown Sports.

Both Fresno State and San Diego State, if they fall short of NCAA bids, should receive consideration as host sites for the NISC, which will have eight 6-team regionals.  Fresno State, in particular, seems like a natural choice for a host and can create the championship atmosphere the NISC says it wants to create.  The Bulldogs drew more than 4,100 fans last weekend to a home 3-game series against San Jose State, and have a history of putting on quality postseason softball tournaments.

For more on the NISC, go here.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Remaining series for MW title contenders

Depending on their schedules, Mountain West teams have either two or three conference series remaining.  Here are the remaining series for the top four MW title contenders:

Utah State - home vs. San Diego St. (April 28-30), at San Jose St. (May 5-7)

San Diego St. - at Utah St. (April 28-30), home vs. UNLV (May 5-7), at Nevada (May 11-13)

San Jose St. - at New Mexico (April 28-30), home vs. Utah St. (May 5-7), at UNLV (May 11-13)

Nevada - home vs. Colorado St. (April 28-30), at Boise St. (May 5-7), home vs. San Diego St. (May 11-13)

Bulldogs implode again with 6 more errors, fall to 6-8 in league play

Fresno State's self-destructive season continued Sunday, as the Bulldogs committed six errors, leading to five unearned runs that played a decisive role in a 9-3 loss at home to San Jose State.

The Spartans ended up winning the series two games to one, maintaining a second-place tie in conference play, while the Bulldogs dropped to sixth in the Mountain West standings.  No Fresno State team has ever finished lower than third in conference play since the school began sponsoring the sport of softball in 1978.

Fresno State's woes in the final games of MW series continued.  The Bulldogs are now 0-6 in their last six Mountain West series finales, and have not won on Sunday in conference play in nearly a full year.  Their last MW win on a Sunday came May 8, 2016.

At just 26-20 overall, coach Linda Garza's team -- once ranked as high as 21st in the nation in the USA Today/NFCA poll earlier this season, has lost six of its last seven conference games, and won just two of its past 11 overall.  Fresno State must go 8-1 in its final nine games this season to avoid owning the worst conference record for a Bulldog softball team in school history.  Also in jeopardy: the Bulldogs' streak of 35 consecutive seasons with 30 or more wins.

Garza chose to start ace pitcher Kamalani Dung in only one of the three games in the series.  And that was on Friday, in an 8-2 Bulldog rout.  Garza started freshman Samantha Mejia Saturday, in Mejia's first start in seven weeks.  Savannah McHellon started today's game and took the loss. Fresno State is winless in April in games where a pitcher other than Dung has gotten the start in the circle, and the last win by a Bulldog pitcher other than Dung was March 29 in a non-conference game against Pacific.

San Jose State coach Peter Turner had his ace Katelyn Linford in the circle a third day in a row, as Linford became the pitcher of record in all three games in the series.  She lost Friday's game against Dung, but was the winning pitcher both Saturday and today.  Linford leads the Mountain West with 19 wins.

SJSU's series win over Fresno State may represent a changing of the guard in what has been a series long dominated by the Bulldogs through the Margie Wright era.  The Spartans were 0-26 in the first 26 series between the two schools, but have won two of the past three -- both in Fresno.  San Jose State has never won a series between the schools in San Jose, and has won just 15 of 103 games between the schools all-time, even after this weekend.

Elsewhere Sunday, Utah State edged New Mexico 5-2 in Logan to win that series two games to one.  The Aggies, at 12-5 in conference play, remained two games ahead of both San Jose State and San Diego State, but just one game ahead in the all-important loss column.  With the Mountain West title now guaranteed to be decided with teams playing an uneven number of games in conference play, the loss column becomes of utmost importance.  USU hosts San Diego State next weekend before closing MW play at San Jose State the following week.

Colorado State won 5-0 and salvaged game three in its series at home versus UNLV Sunday, and SDSU beat last-place Boise State for the second day in a row to claim that road series.  The Aztecs prevailed 10-6.  Nevada lost its second straight road game at Kansas Sunday, falling in a 13-5 (six innings) run-rule affair.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Everyone keeps asking: "What's wrong with Fresno State this season?"

Emails, private messages and direct messages have been coming to us for weeks now, all asking the same question:  "What's wrong with Fresno State this season?"

The Bulldogs, who were ranked as high as 17th in the nation last season and in the conversation to become an NCAA regional host and No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, have struggled mightily in 2017.

Despite being selected the preseason favorite by conference coaches to win the Mountain West championship in 2017, Fresno State currently finds itself in sixth place in the league standings midway through MW play.  The Bulldogs are under .500 in conference play this late in a season for the first time in program history, regardless of the conference in which Fresno State has competed.

First-year head coach Linda Garza's team has lost four straight Mountain West games -- again, a program first in conference play -- and has just one win in its last seven games overall.  At a school like Fresno State, whose longest losing streak ever in the sport of softball is five in a row, these are trying times.

How bad is it?  The Bulldogs must go at least 9-3 in their final 12 conference games in order to avoid the distinction of having the worst league record ever for a program that began playing softball in 1978.  Nearly a quarter century ago, the 1993 Fresno State softball team finished 14-10 (.583) in WAC play, for both the worst conference record and worst finish (3rd place) in school history.

No Bulldog softball team has ever finished with a losing record in conference play, nor lower than third place in the final conference standings of any league in which Fresno State competed.  Both of those streaks are in jeopardy this year, unless things turn around quickly.

The Bulldogs were a nationally-ranked Top 25 team less than two months ago, holding down the No. 21 spot in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll for the week ending February 20, 2017.  Fresno State was still receiving votes in the national polls less than a month ago, but is now 3-7 in its last 10 games.

So what happened?  First, things would have looked a lot different for the Bulldogs if pitcher Giselle Juarez, a top 50 national recruit by Flo Softball and two-time Arizona high school player of the year finalist, had been at the school instead of going to Arizona State along with former head coach Trisha Ford.  Juarez signed a National Letter of Intent with Fresno State in November 2015, but opted to go with Ford to ASU and has made 11 starts as a true freshman this season  and leads the nationally-ranked Sun Devils pitching staff in strikeouts.

Savannah McHellon
It was a crushing blow to the Bulldogs' program.

Garza went out and got heralded JC transfer Savannah McHellon, a pitcher who can hit, to provide some much needed back-up in the circle.  One wonders how bad things might have been at Fresno State this season, if not for the late addition of McHellon, who's been not only a reliable No. 2 starter (15 starts, including wins over the likes of BYU and Oregon State), but also the team leader in both home runs (8) and RBI (35).

The oddity in the Bulldogs' struggles is this:  Heading into the 2017 season, pitching was thought to be Fresno State's main weakness after losing 2-time MW Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton.  But, in fact, pitching has turned out to be the Bulldogs' strong suit, largely due to right-hander Kamalani Dung.  The sophomore from the state of Hawai'i has been sensational in 2017, with six shutouts and an ERA shockingly nearly a full point better than Compton's last season, and nearly 1 1/2 points better in conference play than the eventual MW Pitcher of the Year.

Dung's 16-10 overall record looks pedestrian compared to Compton's 25-6 mark a season ago, but Dung's ERA in MW play is 2.07 this year.  In winning the league's top pitching honor a season ago, Compton's ERA in conference play was 3.51.

In fact, as a pitching staff, Fresno State has lowered its team ERA in both conference play and overall
Kamalani Dung
this season. So again, what happened?

Offense and defense happened.  Or, lack of it.  With the exception of the opening weekend of the 2017 season, when the Bulldogs committed just one error in five games at the Kajikawa Classic in February, defense has been an issue.  Already in 2017, Fresno State has allowed nine more unearned runs than it did all of last season, which included four NCAA postseason games as well.

In Mountain West games this year, defense has been the difference between most of the Bulldogs' wins and losses.  Fresno State has given up 17 unearned runs thus far in conference play.  The Bulldogs' opponents have allowed 1 unearned run.  A 17-to-1 differential in unearned runs speaks volumes.  Easy fly balls to the outfield have been dropped, and routine infield grounders booted game after game.

Defensive issues play a big part in trying to explain this stunning stat:  Fresno State has a losing conference record, even though its team ERA is 2.86, compared to its opponents' 5.56 ERA.  There's no way that should happen.

But along with shaky defense, maybe even more surprising is the Bulldogs' lack of offense.  Heading into 2017, Fresno State looked -- on paper, at least -- like an offensive juggernaut.  Most of its big bats from a spectacular 2016 season were back, including three of the team's top four home run hitters, a 2017 preseason All-American (Lindsey Willmon) by College Sports Madness, and 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Kierra Willis.

But the Bulldogs' run production has taken a massive nosedive.  After scoring 347 runs last year, that number is 230 this season.  In Mountain West play, that dropoff has been even more shocking.  Fresno State scored 200 runs in MW play last season, but only 59 this year.  After hitting 44 doubles and 31 home runs in MW play last year, the 'Dogs are down to only 12 doubles and 12 home runs this season.  The team batting average in league play has dropped 74 points, while its slugging percentage has fallen from .592 to .483.

After having 254 hits in Mountain West play last season as a team, the Bulldogs have just 89 midway through conference play in 2017.  Willmon, who batted .459 in MW play as a junior, has seen her batting average drop more than 200 points this year, to.242.  Dominique Jackson, who started 44 games and hit 11 home runs as a true freshman under Ford last year, has not started a game this season and has just nine total at-bats in 2017.

NCAA Strength of Schedule
Still, Garza should be commended for not trying to take the easy way out like some of her coaching colleagues who pad their non-conference schedules with easy wins.  Fresno State, once again, played the toughest schedule in the Mountain West.  In the NCAA's "toughest schedule" release of games played thru March 19, the Bulldogs had played the nation's 28th strongest slate.  No other MW team ranked in the top 50 at that time.  Three teams in the conference ranked outside the top 250, signifying very weak non-league schedules.

And that's not to say Fresno State won't pick up the pieces and go on a long winning streak and ultimately reach the NCAA Tournament this season.  The Bulldogs are more than capable, but things will have to turn around quickly.  And despite all the problems that many consider a "free-fall," the 'Dogs sit just two games back of first-place Utah State in the loss column in MW play.  It all starts with a home series against rival San Jose State beginning Friday at Margie Wright Diamond, and it's a series Fresno State must win to have a realistic shot at claiming a third straight Mountain West championship.