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.