Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Difference makers: 3 returnees who could lead their teams to a MW title

Another college softball season is on the horizon, and while a significant amount of talent returns in the Mountain West, three individual players stand out.

A lot can change between now and May, but these three could be the ones most likely to lead their teams to a conference championship.  They are the top returning hitter, top returning pitcher, and top returning two-way threat (both pitching and hitting) in the conference.

They are San Diego State senior catcher Jenavee Peres, Utah State sophomore pitcher Kellie White, and Fresno State senior pitcher-infielder Savannah McHellon.

They represent the only two players in the Mountain West to claim NFCA First Team All-Region honors a season ago (Peres and McHellon), and the only returning pitcher to earn First Team All-Conference honors (White). One of the three was selected as an NFCA Second Team All-American.

Headlining the trio is San Diego State's Peres, the 2017 MW Player of the Year and the league's top returning hitter.  A First Team All-West Region pick by the NFCA, Peres enters her senior season coming off the aforementioned All-American honors as well.

Peres is the fourth NFCA All-American in Aztecs history, but the first to ever be named higher than Third Team. Her .454 batting average last season set a new school record, and she ranked in the top 20 nationally of seven different offensive categories a season ago. Entering her senior campaign, Peres is SDSU's all-time record holder in batting average (.409), on-base percentage (.466), and slugging percentage (.743). She had 74 hits, including 16 home runs in 2017, while adding 60 RBI.

In conference play, Peres hit a staggering .538, with a .988 slugging percentage that included nine home runs among her 17 extra-base hits. Surprisingly -- even shockingly -- MW opponents rarely sought to walk her. Peres walked just seven times in conference play and was only the fifth-most walked player on her own team.  That number didn't even rank in the top 20 among all MW players. Peres' 79 total bases in league play was more than 20 ahead of the second-best total in that category.

Joining Peres as the only other Mountain West player to earn First Team All-Region honors in 2017 is Fresno State's McHellon, the conference's leading dual threat. Few players in the country can power their team in the pitching circle (and post two complete-game, non-conference wins over eventual NCAA Tournament teams in a 24-hour span, as McHellon did last season), while also leading their team in home runs and RBI for a full season.

McHellon was stunningly snubbed and overlooked by Mountain West coaches at the end of the 2017 season in all-conference awards.  Inexplicably left off both the First and Second All-MW teams, McHellon somehow wasn't recognized by her own conference, yet did enough to win First Team NFCA All-Pacific Region honors.  In conference games alone, McHellon ranked in the top 10 of four different offensive categories, ranking sixth in home runs (5), ninth in RBI (18), ninth in walks (11), and 10th in slugging percentage (.597).  During the heart of Mountain West play, from April 15 to May 11, she reached base safely in 11 straight games. Not good enough to even earn Second Team honors? Hmm.

In a year where Fresno State's Kamalani Dung won MW Pitcher of the Year honors, McHellon was the only Bulldog hurler to earn a Top 25 win, throwing a 3-hitter over then-No. 25 BYU, which went on to win the West Coast Conference title and NCAA Tournament bid. A night after dispatching of BYU last March, McHellon tossed a complete-game 5-hitter over Pac-12 power Oregon State. McHellon was the only pitcher in the Mountain West last season to post non-conference wins over eventual NCAA Tournament teams in consecutive starts. Despite 16 starts in the circle, her time at pitcher dwindled last season as head coach Linda Garza went almost exclusively with Dung down the stretch. With Dung gone this season, expect to see more of McHellon in the circle in 2018.

But, as dominant as she can be at times in the circle, McHellon may be even more of a threat at the plate with a powerful bat. She led Fresno State in home runs (10), RBI (44) and multi-RBI games (12), finishing fifth in the conference in HRs, sixth in RBI, seventh in walks (26). She hit .385 with runners in scoring position for the entire season and started 53 of 54 games, playing first base most often when not pitching.

And while the Mountain West has an overall lack of marquee returning pitchers this season, there's one name that stands out there in Utah State's White.  As a true freshman a season ago, she was a huge reason the Aggies enjoyed their most successful season in two decades.  She earned 18 of Utah State's 33 wins, had 17 complete games, and pitched USU's only two complete-game shutouts.

Opponents hit just .232 against White for the season, the third-best mark in the MW a year ago.  She finished with a 2.51 ERA overall (3.25 in conference play) and appeared in nearly all (19 of 23) of Utah State's Mountain West games in 2017. White picked up both wins in a doubleheader sweep of Fresno State in snowy Logan last season when game three of the series was canceled by weather. She came up big, throwing a complete-game 2-hitter in a 1-0 win in the opener, before throwing 3+ innings of 3-hit relief in the nightcap as USU rallied from a 4-run deficit to win.

Despite some late-season struggles, White's strong freshman season gives Utah State a lot of hope for the future. Her complete-game shutout of Fresno State last year was the first time since April 3, 2015, that the Bulldogs were shut out by a Mountain West opponent.

White is the only returning pitcher in the conference this season to have been named to either the First or Second All-MW squads in 2017.  While there will be many new faces in the circle around the MW this season, White will likely be asked to do much more in 2018 for the Aggies than last year. Gone for USU this time around is pitcher April Brown, a solid No. 2 starter who complemented White well last year. One of the strongest 1-2 pitching combos in the MW in 2017, Brown nearly matched White in starts (21 compared to 24) and strikeouts (87 vs. 93). It will be interesting to see how White progresses in 2018 now that she's the clear leader on the Utah State pitching staff.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

CSM has Bulldogs 33rd in preseason poll, labels them MW favorite

College Sports Madness has been unveiling its annual list of the top 44 softball teams in the country, and today comes team No. 33:  Fresno State. (Read the article here.)

CSM projects coach Linda Garza's Bulldogs to win the Mountain West title, ranking them No. 1 in the conference and as the nation's 33rd best team overall in its preseason rankings.

The Bulldogs return five starters from their 2017 squad, and nine players who saw action in the NCAA Tournament a season ago when Fresno State made its 33rd appearance in the last 36 years.  Overall, Garza's team has 13 returnees and adds 12 new faces, including key D-I transfers in NFCA second-team All-Region infielder Rachel Minogue, the Ohio Valley Conference leader in batting average last season at Eastern Kentucky; catcher Emily Brodner, who made 60 starts and appeared in 82 games for Big Ten power Illinois; and utility player Hayleigh Galvan, who appeared in 42 games as a freshman last season at Big 12 power Oklahoma State.

The 'Dogs return NFCA first-team All-Region and All-MW pitcher/DH Savannah McHellon, and All-MW outfielder Vanessa Hernandez, and add a pair of freshmen pitchers in right-hander Savannah Berkowitz and southpaw Dani East, who both could make strong impacts on what should be a deeper pitching staff than a season ago.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Analyzing and ranking the 2018 non-conference softball schedules

There's a wide variety among the non-conference softball schedules of Mountain West teams for 2018 again.  Some teams go for it and risk it all, some take a more middle-of-the-road approach, and some take the easy way out.

Here we rank the 2018 slates based on the information we currently know.  Once again, Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State lead the way. Those three teams are the only current Mountain West teams to reach the NCAA Tournament during the last eight seasons, and a big reason why is strength of schedule. New Mexico makes a dramatic scheduling improvement this season, and the conference overall has improved its scheduling in recent years. An evaluation of this year's schedules, ranked from strongest to weakest:

1.  Fresno State.  This comes as no surprise.  For more than three decades, the Bulldog softball program has operated under the mantra that you have to play the best in order to become the best.  Linda Garza operates in many of the same ways as legendary head coach Margie Wright, and it shows with this 2018 slate.  Last year, a strong strength of schedule was important in getting Garza's squad to the NCAA Tournament, where it earned an at-large bid. A total of 12 non-conference games come against power conference foes, including five straight to begin the season. The year starts off with a bang as the Bulldogs meet a pair of Pac-12 teams -- Women's College World Series entrant Oregon and Stanford -- both in nationally-televised games from Tempe. Defending Pac-12 champion Arizona, Southeastern Conference power LSU, 13-time NCAA champion UCLA, two games vs. 2017 NCAA Tournament selection and Big Ten power Illinois, traditional heavyweight Louisiana-Lafayette, in-state rival Cal, Notre Dame, Purdue, Wisconsin and others create a schedule that will have this team battle-tested by the time MW play rolls around.  The big question: By playing in three of the nation's most high-profile tourneys (the Kajikawa Classic at Arizona State, Mary Nutter Classic in Palm Springs, and Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton), has Fresno State over-scheduled?  Just playing these opponents won't be enough; Garza's team will need to beat at least a few to have a legitimate NCAA at-large shot if necessary.

2.  San Jose State.  The Spartans have upped the quality of their non-conference scheduling in recent years and it's paid off.  Last season, SJSU won its first Mountain West title and a first-ever game in the NCAA Tournament.  In large part, it came because the Spartans saw tough non-conference opponents.  Twelve teams from power conferences dot the 2018 Spartans' slate, headlined by Oregon, UCLA and a quintet of SEC powerhouses in LSU, Tennessee, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State.  Without a home field, it's a bit concerning that at least one non-conference home game (vs. Fairleigh Dickinson) is still listed on SJSU's schedule as being played at a site to be announced.  Like Fresno State, the Spartans face three teams who reached the WCWS a year ago, and it's the same three (UCLA, LSU and Oregon). 

3.  San Diego State. Again, little surprise here. The Aztecs always play a strong schedule, and -- on paper at least -- this looks tougher than last season when SDSU was passed over for an NCAA at-large bid. There are 11 non-conference games against teams from power conferences, and San Diego State faces four -- Georgia, Northwestern, Stanford and Nebraska -- on the opening weekend of the season. Two of those four finished with losing records a season ago, but should be improved.  UCLA, Minnesota, Kentucky and Central Florida all make trips to San Diego, giving the Aztecs a good shot at taking down a traditional power at home. Ohio State and Michigan State are also on the schedule, along with quality teams that often go under the radar like North Dakota State, Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State.

4.  New Mexico.  Finally, a surprise. No MW team has improved its non-conference scheduling more than the Lobos under new head coach Dr. Paula Congleton. Last season, New Mexico played only one non-conference game against a team from a power conference. And unfortunately, that weak slate had UNM unprepared for a Mountain West season in which the league ranked No. 6 overall in conference RPI, ahead of power conferences such as the Big Ten.  The Lobos finished last in the MW a season ago, and Erica Beach's contract wasn't renewed. This time around, UNM faces a dramatically improved non-conference schedule with nine games against 2017 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, and seven vs. teams from power conferences. New Mexico plays two games vs. defending Pac-12 champ Arizona, including one on the season's opening weekend when it also faces Oregon, Utah and Oklahoma State. For a team in rebuilding mode, Congleton deserves some major credit. Not many first-year coaches would take on such a demanding slate, but it will only help the Lobos in the long run. More coaches should follow her lead.

5.  Colorado State. The Rams face seven games against teams that reached the 2017 NCAA Tournament, including Pac-12 champ Arizona, and two against Wisconsin of the Big Ten. Games with power conference foes from the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 in Texas, Minnesota and Oregon State add to an overall competitive slate.  There are several under-the-radar opponents here, who will be tougher than they look. We're still hoping to see a year where the Rams travel to some more competitive tournaments like the Kajikawa, Mary Nutter or Judi Garman classics, though, to show their skills in a more high-profile event. As the only MW team to return its entire pitching staff intact from a year ago, it would've been intriguing to see CSU play a slightly stronger overall schedule.

6.  UNLV.  New head coach Kristie Fox has assembled a non-conference schedule where UNLV plays 16 of its first 26 contests in Las Vegas. Washington, Minnesota, DePaul, North Dakota State, New Mexico State and Creighton are among the opponents set to play at UNLV.  Syracuse, Houston, Princeton and an underrated Grand Canyon team are among those teams the Rebels will meet on the road or at neutral sites. Overall it's a slightly better than average slate, especially for a first-year head coach and a UNLV squad that looks to return to its glory days.

7.  Boise State.  The Broncos will face teams from the Southeastern Conference, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12, and are on the way up.  After being predicted to finish last in the Mountain West a year ago, Boise State was the biggest surprise, advancing to its first-ever postseason appearance with an NISC bid. And once there, BSU advanced to the Weber State regional final, and put an end to Utah State's season along the way, with a 10-2 (six innings) run-rule rout.  The 2018 season starts with a competitive weekend where Boise State will meet Tennessee, Northwestern, Stanford and Indiana right off the bat.  Iowa State, Hawai'i, Long Beach State, Kansas and North Dakota State are also on the schedule. Boise State's 2018 slate is indicative of how much Mountain West softball scheduling has improved over the years. Though we're ranking the Broncos' schedule as the league's seventh-best this season, it would've definitely been among the better ones in the league just a few seasons ago.

8.  Nevada.  For the Wolf Pack, the opening weekend of the 2018 season looks like its most competitive of the non-conference schedule.  In Puerto Vallarta that weekend, Nevada will face three games against 2017 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, with one against James Madison and two vs. Louisiana Tech. Also on that trip to Mexico: a pair of games against always-strong Long Beach State. WCWS entrant LSU and Florida International also dot the slate later in February, but overall this is one of the lighter schedules a Mountain West softball team will face this season. There is a lot of softness here. Four games against Utah Valley and three against Seattle are a good way to pile up the wins, but will they prepare a team for a rigorous conference schedule?  Hopefully this doesn't go the way of Nevada's 2016 season when the Pack soared to a 22-5 record against a soft non-league slate, yet didn't finish with a winning record in conference play.

9.  Utah State.  This is a disappointing non-conference schedule for a team expected to challenge for the Mountain West title. A season ago, USU was alone in first place, in command of the MW title race in May, and on the verge of an NCAA bid, only to fall apart at the end by losing seven of its final eight games. Would a stronger non-league slate have better prepared Utah State in the long run? Perhaps. This season, one has to wonder if the same thing could happen again. The high-profile opponents just aren't there. There are no SEC, Pac-12 or Big 12 opponents. The one Big Ten foe is Rutgers, which went 14-37 last season. Sure there are games with Cal State Fullerton, Pittsburgh, Hawai'i, and Florida International. But the lack of marquee opponents is shocking. There is the annual 2-game, home-and-away series with BYU on the docket, along with two games against 2017 NCAA Tournament qualifier Louisiana Tech (the surprise Conference USA tournament champion).

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.