Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Bulldogs sweep weekly MW awards, join Rams in getting Top 25 votes

Fresno State swept the first weekly Mountain West Pitcher and Player of the Week honors that were announced Tuesday.  Freshman pitcher Dani East and senior designated player Savannah McHellon picked up the awards after the Bulldogs beat three teams from power conferences over the weekend at the Kajikawa Classic.

East leads the Mountain West in wins with three, while McHellon led the Bulldogs in batting average at the tourney in Tempe by batting .417.  East threw a complete-game shutout over Stanford of the Pac-12 in a 2-0 Bulldog win Saturday, then started and picked up a win over the Big Ten's Purdue Boilermakers Sunday.  Later Sunday, she entered in relief of Tiffany Kennedy-Cummings, who was outstanding herself, in Fresno State's 5-4 win over Notre Dame.

East escaped a seventh inning, bases-loaded, no outs jam against the Fighting Irish of the ACC in a game that was tied 4-4.  A strikeout, pop up and lineout kept Notre Dame at bay, and Fresno State won it in the bottom of the inning on a walk-off home run to right by Katie Castellon, handing East the victory.

The left-hander became the first Mountain West freshman pitcher in 12 years to win conference Pitcher of the Week honors during her debut week as a collegian.  In the 19-year history of MW softball, the only previous pitcher to win the award to begin her freshman season was UNLV's Christie Robinson, who earned the honor February 14, 2006.

McHellon had a .533 on-base percentage and .917 slugging percentage, reaching base in all five games this past weekend.  Fresno State was the only MW team to face five different teams from power conferences on the opening weekend of the season, including two Top 10 teams (No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona).  McHellon hit key homers in both games Sunday, launching a 3-run shot in the first inning as Fresno State went in front of Purdue 3-0, and a solo shot later against Notre Dame that pulled the Bulldogs within a run as they rallied for the victory.

Also Tuesday, Fresno State saw its vote total rise in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 coaches poll and the team remained in the "receiving votes" category for a second straight week.  Meanwhile, Colorado State moved into the "receiving votes" category in the ESPN.com/USA Softball rankings with one vote.  CSU went 4-0 at the Texas Classic where it defeated the host Longhorns and Wisconsin, and twice beat Incarnate Word.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Fresno State blasts 7 home runs in Sunday sweep of Notre Dame & Purdue

Notre Dame started its ace pitcher, Alexis Holloway, in the circle Sunday against Fresno State.  And when Holloway was staked to an early 4-0 lead, things looked bleak for the Bulldogs.  After all, she isn't just your average, everyday pitcher.  Holloway was arguably the nation's most high-profile recruit in 2017, winning numerous National Player of the Year awards and being named the No. 1 high school pitcher in the country by Flo Softball.

The list of Holloway's awards includes being named Gatorade Indiana State High School Player of the Year, USA Today's 2017 National High School Player of the Year, Flo Softball National High School Player of the Year, Flo Softball No. 1 ranked pitcher in its 2017 Hot 100 Players list, National High School Coaches Association National High School Player of the Year and many more. She led her club team to the PGF 18U National Championship, going 4-0 with an 0.37 ERA, and went 53-3 with 735 strikeouts and a 0.26 ERA in high school.

But on a day when Fresno State wouldn't be denied, the Bulldogs chased Holloway from the game and hit home runs in each of the final three innings.  It was Katie Castellon's one-out, seventh inning solo home run to right that gave Fresno State the walk-off, 5-4 win in dramatic fashion.  It was a contest that felt like an NCAA Tournament game.

This May, it just might be that.  Notre Dame and Fresno State both entered the weekend receiving Top 25 votes in the major polls.  The Fighting Irish are receiving enough votes to rank 27th in the preseason ESPN/USA Softball poll, and were 3-1 heading into Sunday's action, with their lone loss being to nationally-ranked Arizona State.

By the third inning, both starting pitchers - Holloway and Fresno State sophomore Samantha Mejia - were gone, and the Bulldogs had cut Notre Dame's lead in half at 4-2.  The Bulldogs got on the board with a 2-run single by Miranda Rohleder off Holloway.

Junior college transfer Tiffany Kennedy-Cummings came on for the Bulldogs in relief of Mejia, and delivered an impressive and gutsy outing.  She entered in the second inning and didn't allow a run the rest of the way.  Kennedy-Cummings struck out nine Notre Dame batters a day after striking out two Arizona hitters in an inning of relief against the nation's 7th-ranked Wildcats.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs' offense continued to hit the long ball.  After hitting four home runs in a 13-4, run-rule win over Purdue earlier Sunday morning, the Bulldogs saw Savannah McHellon blast her second home run of the day in the fifth inning against the Fighting Irish to make it a 4-3 deficit.  An inning later, catcher Hayleigh Galvan tied the game on her first home run as a Bulldog.

Then came the fateful seventh inning, filled with drama.  Kennedy-Cummings ran into trouble as Notre Dame loaded the bases with no outs.  Bulldog head coach Linda Garza called on freshman left-hander Danielle East in a pressure-packed situation, and East delivered again.

A day after shutting out Stanford, and a mere two hours after grabbing the W in Fresno State's victory over Purdue earlier in the day, East shut the door on Notre Dame in stunning fashion.  With the bases juiced and no outs, East picked up an immediate strikeout, followed by an infield pop-up, and a line drive out that frustrated the Irish and ignited deafening cheers from her teammates and the Bulldog fans in attendance.

Feeding off the performances of Kennedy-Cummings and East, the Bulldog offense went to work again. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Castellon launched her game-winning home run as screaming Fresno State players poured out of the dugout in celebration.

While East earned the win by throwing just nine pitches to escape the seventh inning jam, Kennedy-Cummings tossed more than 100 in keeping Notre Dame off the scoreboard over the game's final 5+ innings and giving the 'Dogs a chance to win.

Earlier in the day, sophomore third baseman Schuylar Broussard had five RBI in the 13-4 (six innings) rout of Purdue.  After hitting a 2-run single earlier in the game, Broussard's 3-run home run in the sixth invoked the run rule.  Broussard, McHellon, Castellon and Rachel Minogue all hit balls out of the park.  Minogue, Broussard and McHellon all hit 3-run shots.  East got the win and Mejia went the final two innings.

Also Sunday, Boise State lost a 9-1 (five innings) run-rule game to Stanford as Cardinal ace Maddy Dwyer went the distance.  San Jose State's Caroline Bowman allowed only five hits in an 11-0 win over UTEP.  San Diego State finished a very surprising 1-5 weekend by losing to UC Davis 3-2 in nine innings. New Mexico lost twice in run-rule fashion against No. 3 Oregon (14-1 in five innings) and No. 7 Arizona (8-0 in a 5-inning no-hitter).  Utah State fell 11-5 to Rutgers, and UNLV picked up a 3-0 win over Southern Utah.  Colorado State's game with Wisconsin was canceled by weather.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Fresno State freshman shuts out Stanford; Colorado State beats Texas

A Fresno State freshman pitcher threw a complete-game shutout over a Pac-12 opponent, and Colorado State beat Texas in Austin to highlight Saturday softball action around the Mountain West.

In a nationally-televised game on the Pac-12 Network, Fresno State freshman pitcher Danielle East tossed a complete-game gem as the Bulldogs defeated Stanford 2-0 in eight innings at Farrington Stadium in Tempe at the Kajikawa Classic.

And in Austin, it was Colorado State junior pitcher Bridgette Hutton taking care of Texas in a 6-2 win that moved the Rams' record to 4-0.

Fresno State's East picked up her first career win in a memorable way in a game where she was pitted against Stanford freshman ace Maddy Dwyer, one of the nation's top recruits as a 3-time All-CIF state first team selection and 4-time, first team All-CIF Southern Section.  In her first collegiate start on Thursday, Dwyer pitched a complete-game shutout in a 4-0 Stanford win over preseason Mountain West favorite San Diego State.

But East outdueled Dwyer and the Cardinal Saturday and became the first Fresno State freshman to throw a complete-game shutout over a Pac-12 team in 12 years.  Robin Mackin was Fresno State's last true freshman pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout against a Pac-12 team (also Stanford, in a 2006 NCAA Tournament game on May 20 of that year).

East did not allow an extra-base hit or a walk in a dominant performance that went to extra innings.  Fresno State had several chances in regulation, including having a runner thrown out at the plate.  In the eighth, with the international tiebreak (ITB) rule in effect, junior Vanessa Hernandez launched a 2-run home run over the fence in left to lead off the frame.

Hernandez's shot was all East would need.  In the bottom of the inning, after Stanford's runner was placed on second base via the ITB rule, a comebacker glanced off East's glove for an infield single, putting runners at first and third for the Cardinal with no outs.  The poised freshman worked out of the jam beautifully by inducing an infield popup, a shallow outfield fly ball, and a flyout to left to end the game.

Fresno State had seven hits against Dwyer, who entered the game with an ERA of 1.00 and the aforementioned shutout win over San Diego State.  Katie Castellon had two hits.

In Colorado State's win over Texas, Hutton allowed a hit in the first and four more hits in the second inning (leading to a pair of Longhorn runs) before settling down and holding UT at bay the rest of the way.  In a 3-2 game in the seventh inning, Hannah McCorkhill blasted a 3-run home run for the final margin.

The Rams' 4-0 start, which includes two wins over Incarnate Word and a victory over Wisconsin, is their best since 2014. McCorkhill's shot came against Texas pitcher Brooke Bolinger, who won first team All-MW honors as a freshman for Nevada before transferring.

We'll update later with the rest of Saturday's Mountain West action.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

It was nothing short of a disastrous opening day for San Diego State

There are bad opening days and then there are downright disastrous opening days.  Nearly everything that could've gone wrong did go wrong for preseason Mountain West favorite San Diego State Thursday.

Anointed the preseason favorite just three days earlier by the conference's coaches in their annual preseason poll, the Aztecs lost twice Thursday, looking nothing like a team that led the nation in batting average last season, and bearing little resemblance to a team chosen to win the league title.

SDSU was dismantled in a 23-2 loss in five innings to Georgia Thursday morning, and later in the evening lost 4-0 to Stanford.  The Aztecs' high-powered offense was held to just one hit against the Bulldogs before being shut out by the Cardinal.

Ironically, Georgia and Stanford both looked average in their other games Thursday, with UGA falling 8-3 to Oregon, and the Cardinal suffering a 10-1, run-rule loss to BYU.

But the biggest issue of the day:  the names missing from San Diego State's lineup.  Reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Jenavee Peres and first team All-MW pick Zaria Meshack, both seniors who hit over .400 to lead SDSU last season, did not play.  When Peres' name did not appear as a returning starter on the Aztecs' pregame notes, it raised an instant red flag.

Later in the day, a report surfaced that Peres - one of 50 players named to the USA Softball National Player of the Year Watch List just last week - would miss the 2018 season.  If true, it presents a potentially devastating blow to SDSU's title chances.  And Meshack did not play Thursday in either game, but there was no word as to why.

San Diego State, which slugged its way through a record-setting offensive season last year, did not have an extra-base hit in either game Thursday.  The Aztecs broke up Georgia's combined bid for a no-hitter in the fifth inning with a single, its lone hit in the contest.  SDSU managed six hits - all singles - against Stanford but could not produce a run against a Cardinal team that's struggled in the Pac-12 of late.  Stanford did, however, send highly-regarded and heavily recruited freshman pitcher Maddy Dwyer to the circle. Dwyer's first shutout came in her first-ever collegiate start, and she's forecast to be the Cardinal ace in 2018.

Georgia scored 12 runs in the first inning of the opener as Aztecs starting pitcher Alex Formby finished the day with an unsightly 46.20 ERA. The senior Formby, who also came on in relief against Stanford, allowed 11 earned runs in 1 2/3 innings Thursday. Sophomore Marissa Moreno, who started and took the loss against the Cardinal, gave up 16 hits and 14 runs (all earned) in 7 1/3 innings on the day.  Of the 30 hits SDSU gave up, 10 were for extra bases, including four home runs.

It's safe to say the Aztecs will see far better days this season than they did Thursday.  This is San Diego State's first 0-2 start to a season since 2000, and just the second 0-2 start in the last 26 years for the Aztecs.

Elsewhere, pitching concerns for everyone in the conference became evident.  San Jose State, which had a game canceled against Missouri due to travel problems for the Tigers, picked up a wild, 16-12 win over South Dakota.

Desiree Severance earned the win in relief for SJSU as the Spartans came from seven runs down in the fifth inning.  With a completely revamped and almost entirely new pitching staff at defending MW champ SJSU, it may be a concern to allow 12 runs against a team like South Dakota.

The Coyotes, who managed only five hits in an 11-3 loss to Boise State earlier in the day, had five home runs against Spartan pitchers.  South Dakota was leading SJSU 10-3 in the fifth and on the verge of a run-rule win before the Spartans rallied.  A seventh inning grand slam by Kaelin Amrein was the difference and snapped a 12-all tie.

In Boise State's victory over the Coyotes, Paige Reimann earned the win in relief.  BSU later would fall to 12th-ranked Tennessee 8-1 in a game where freshman pitcher Gianna Mancha started and took the loss.

Nevada split a pair Thursday, beating Louisiana Tech 8-3 before falling 8-7 in a back and forth game to James Madison.  Kali Sargent earned the win, while Rachel Rodriguez took the loss.  Nevada was up 3-0 on the Dukes, who made a national splash in recent seasons.  JMU entered the game ranked 23rd in preseason polls, but is a far cry from the team it appeared to be a month ago.  The Dukes lost All-American pitcher Megan Good to a season-ending injury that was announced in late January.  She won 35 games a season ago.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mountain West coaches select San Diego State as preseason favorite

The Mountain West coaches have spoken, and they predict San Diego State will win its first conference softball title since 2014.  That also was the last year the Aztecs were predicted to win the MW championship by league coaches.

After being predicted to win the MW title for each of the past three seasons, Fresno State finds itself predicted third, behind defending MW champion San Jose State.  The Bulldogs match their all-time conference- and school-record low with that third-place prediction.  In its long and storied softball history, Fresno State has never finished below third place in the final regular-season standings of any conference in which it's been a member.

MW coaches continued a tradition that has now extended to seven seasons in a row.  San Diego State and Fresno State are the only teams in the conference to be predicted to win the MW title by league coaches in the last seven years.  This is the Bulldogs' sixth year in the Mountain West, and since their arrival, they've evenly split the conference title forecast, with Fresno State predicted to win three times (2015, 2016, 2017) and San Diego State three (2013, 2014, 2018).

It's been five years since Fresno State was predicted to finish this low.  The Bulldogs were also predicted to finish third in 2013, their inaugural year in the Mountain West when then-first year head coach Trisha Ford inherited a squad with an entirely new pitching staff consisting only of freshmen.

San Jose State's predicted second-place finish is its highest placing ever in the MW preseason coaches poll.  The Spartans were predicted to finish third last year by conference coaches, but proved them wrong by capturing their first MW softball title with a 16-8 record.

Just like last season, Utah State, Nevada and Colorado State are predicted to finish fourth, fifth and sixth.  That's the same placing for all three in last year's preseason coaches poll.

Boise State is predicted seventh, while UNLV and New Mexico -- two teams who finished eighth and ninth last season and enter this year with new coaches -- are predicted eighth and ninth again.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Aztecs, Bulldogs show up in preseason USA Today/NFCA Top 25 rankings

The 2018 preseason USA Today/NFCA Top 25 was unveiled Tuesday, and the two teams we predicted first and second in the Mountain West race this season both earned votes.

San Diego State received enough votes to rank 35th in the country, while Fresno State came in at No. 43.  The two teams will open their seasons next week at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe.  SDSU will meet one nationally-ranked opponent in No. 25 Georgia, along with power conference foes Stanford, Northwestern and Nebraska.  Fresno State opens its season in just about the toughest way possible, meeting No. 3 Oregon Friday morning. That's followed by games with Stanford, No. 7 Arizona, a Notre Dame team that's receiving Top 25 votes, and Purdue.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Prediction time: Pitching questions abound, making 2018 a wide-open year

We've been in the prediction game since 2005, and have never faced a season like this one in Mountain West softball.  In the past, there have always been one or two teams who stand out as the teams to beat in the conference race.  Not this season.

The conference has become so strong top-to-bottom that softball has practically separated itself as the Mountain West's best overall women's sport.  The MW ranked sixth in the nation last year in conference RPI, ahead of traditional power conferences such as the Big Ten.  The problem with having such a strong league:  Teams are beating each other up in the conference season. Glossy records are becoming a thing of the past in Mountain West play, and we've reached the point where 16 or 17 wins in league play (in 24 games) could secure the league title.

Could a 15-9 record, or even 14-10, be enough to claim the top spot this season? That seemed almost unthinkable a few years ago, but it could be the case this time around.

It'll be important for MW teams to take care of business in non-conference play, because this is shaping up to be one of those years where the league could get multiple NCAA bids again.  In 10 of the past 17 seasons, the conference has sent at least two softball teams to the NCAA Tournament.  But not since 2009 has the league had three teams reach the tourney.  Last season, a MW-record five teams advanced to the postseason (with Fresno State and San Jose State in the NCAAs, and Boise State, Nevada and Utah State reaching the National Invitational Softball Championship).  On paper, this looks like a year where the MW could possibly exceed that number.

Anyone who tells you they know how the Mountain West softball race will go in 2018 is lying to you.  In delving deep inside rosters and examining each team, one thing is abundantly clear:  There is no obvious favorite to win the MW title this season.  All nine teams head into the season with question marks, and eight of the nine will have to replace important pitchers who paced them in 2017.

And pitching is key.  Despite the evolution of college softball, which has become far more of an offensive game over the last decade, the game's most important aspect remains pitching.  An explosive offense will only take you so far, as San Diego State learned last season when the Aztecs led the nation in team batting average, yet missed the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.

Meanwhile, San Jose State and Fresno State both relied on pitching, and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.  For the Spartans, it was only their second NCAA appearance since 1992, while the Bulldogs reached a national-record 33rd NCAA Tournament in 36 years.  The bad news for those two this season:  The pitchers who led both teams in 2017 are now gone.

San Jose State had three senior pitchers depart (including first-team All-MW ace Katelyn Linford), and the trio accounted for a stunning 36 of the team's 37 wins.  So the Spartans are basically starting from scratch in the circle in 2018. Meanwhile, Fresno State suffered a big offseason blow when 2017 MW Pitcher of the Year Kamalani Dung decided to transfer to Cal.  Dung earned 26 of the Bulldogs' 35 wins last season, but Fresno State does return three pitchers who combined for 20 starts and 41 appearances in 2017.

The pitching losses run deep throughout the Mountain West.  Utah State is the only team to return a pitcher who earned all-conference honors in 2017, in sophomore Kellie White (18-7, 2.51 ERA).  The trouble for the Aggies: White is the only returning pitcher on Utah State's 2018 team who picked up a win last year.  What made White so effective in 2017 was having another solid starting pitcher (April Brown, who went 13-8 with a 3.05 ERA) alongside her.  In losing Brown and Katie Schroeder, who left following her sophomore campaign last year, the Aggies are losing players who combined to start more than half (26 of 51) of the team's games last year.

San Diego State loses one of its top pitchers in school history, and perhaps its most reliable ever. Erica Romero, who led the nation in wins with 36 as a sophomore, is gone after being the workhorse of the staff for the past three years.  In that time, she won 61 games and was the team's ERA leader each of the last three seasons both overall and in conference. Romero appeared in 157 games for SDSU over her career (2nd most in school history) and earned 103 starts, winning 67 games and striking out 397. She appeared in 32 of the Aztecs' 49 games last season.

Nevada lost ace McKenna Isenberg, who led the Wolf Pack in nearly every pitching category last season. Isenberg started 32 of the Pack's 55 games in 2017.  UNLV lost ace Morgan Ettinger, who made 135 appearances with 81 starts in a 4-year career, including 29 starts last year.  Boise State lost ace Christina Washington, who started 29 of the Broncos' 53 games last season and led the squad in wins (16), appearances (33), innings (144.2), complete games (11) and shutouts (5).

New Mexico lost not just its coach, Erica Beach, whose contract wasn't renewed. The Lobos said goodbye to pitcher Tess McPherson, who led UNM in wins, starts, complete games, appearances, shutouts and several other categories. McPherson was the only Lobos pitcher to hold opponents under .300 last season. Just one New Mexico returning pitcher started more than three games in 2017.

Only Colorado State returns its entire pitching staff from last season intact. The Rams had the fifth-best ERA in the Mountain West both overall and in conference play a season ago and are a team to watch, primarily due to the returning pitching experience. CSU, however, is nearly the exact opposite of every other team in the conference. The Rams ranked last in the league in team batting average both overall and in MW play, hitting just .257 in conference. The question for CSU in 2018 won't be will the pitching hold up. It'll be: can they score? The Rams lost perhaps their best overall player in school history and a key cog all the way around in 2017 MW Defensive Player of the Year Haley Hutton.

A case can be made for as many as six of the nine MW teams to win the 2018 conference championship. There are a couple of freshman pitchers arriving who could transform the race, along with some key JC and NCAA Division I transfers who could prove to be the difference.  Keeping in mind that the margin between teams in these rankings are razor thin heading into 2018, here is our best guess as to how things may look when all is said and done in May:

1.  San Diego State - The Aztecs were an offensive juggernaut in 2017, leading the country in batting average and hitting a stunning .367 as a team in conference play.  Nine players hit better than .300 in Mountain West action and six of those return, led by 2017 MW Player of the Year and second-team NFCA All-American catcher Jenavee Peres.  All Peres did last season was hit .538 in conference games with a .588 on-base percentage and .988 slugging percentage with nine home runs.  San Diego State also returns last season's MW Freshman of the Year Shelby Thompson, who hit .391 in league play with six homers.  This team will be tough to keep off the scoreboard, as first-team All-MW senior outfielder Zaria Meshack (.415, 61 hits), junior third baseman Molly Sturdivant (.381, 8 HRs) and junior second baseman Katie Byrd (.361, 16 doubles) all return.  As mentioned earlier, pitching mainstay Erica Romero is gone. Pitcher Marissa Moreno is back after a freshman campaign that saw her make 10 MW starts and finish with a 6-3 record and 4.40 ERA. She is the only Aztecs pitching returnee with a conference ERA below 5.00, and no SDSU returning pitcher held opponents to a batting average below .300.  For the first time since joining the Mountain West, San Diego State last season ranked in the bottom half of the league in team ERA in conference play.  SDSU had just the sixth-best team ERA (4.33) in Mountain West games in 2017. As recently as 2013, San Diego State had a conference-best 1.70 ERA in league play, and it's risen steadily since.  The good news for coach Kathy Van Wyk:  If this team hits as well as it is capable, it could defy the odds, and pitching may not matter as much this season.  Count on seeing a lot of slugfests where San Diego State prevails.

2.  Fresno State - Last season was a mixed bag for the Bulldogs, with extreme highs and lows. In mid-February, the team was ranked as high as No. 21 in the national rankings, but by April, they were mired in the worst 11-game stretch in school history, going 2-9 at one point.  A miraculous late-season run followed, and the Bulldogs did what they always do... they reached the NCAA Tournament for a national-record 33rd time in 36 years. A lot of experience is gone from last season's squad, but a great deal of talent arrives in Fresno just in time.  First-team All-Region pitcher/utility player Savannah McHellon is back to lead the way, and is that rarity in softball these days:  a player who can beat you in the circle or at the plate. She led the Bulldogs in home runs (10) and RBI (44), and was second in doubles and slugging percentage in 2017. McHellon also made 16 pitching starts last year, with most coming in February and March. Her 5-7 record is deceiving when you consider the opponents she was asked to face. McHellon pitched a complete game 6-hitter vs. Oregon, started and took the loss against Big Ten champ Minnesota, faced Texas Tech, Cal, BYU, Oregon State, and Cal State Fullerton, among others.  She is one of only a handful of returning MW pitchers to have held opponents under a .300 batting average for the season, at .291.  Again, considering the caliber of foes she pitched against, it's impressive.  She will likely be asked to do more in the circle this season.  With complete-game wins over the likes of NCAA entrants BYU and Oregon State last year, McHellon can dazzle when she's on. She'll be part of a 6-member pitching staff (huge by Bulldog standards) that also consists of underrated senior Sarah Santana, who went 1-0 and didn't allow an earned run in limited action, and sophomore Samantha Mejia (3-1, 4.22 ERA in 18 appearances as a freshman). Mejia had some flashes of brilliance, tossing a complete game vs. then-8th ranked Washington, holding the Huskies off balance in what was a 2-1 game heading to the seventh inning.  In NCAA Tournament play, Mejia pitched four innings of scoreless, 3-hit relief against then-No. 20 Michigan, striking out five Wolverines. Could the Bulldogs claim their fourth straight MW Pitcher of the Year honor in 2018?  It's possible.  The 'Dogs have led the league in ERA each of the past three years.  Fresno State is very high on freshman southpaw Dani East,  known as a strikeout pitcher and one of the newcomers to watch in the MW.  The fact East was recruited by the likes of Florida and Georgia says a lot.  All-conference outfielder Vanessa Hernandez is back for her junior season and was spectacular late in 2017. Hernandez hit .361 in MW games and tied McHellon for second-best on the team in both HRs and RBI in league action. It was Hernandez's dramatic, 2-out, game-winning grand slam in the seventh inning of the regular season finale that perhaps secured the Bulldogs' NCAA at-large bid a year ago. Second team NFCA All-Region pick Rachel Minogue, who led the Ohio Valley Conference in batting average (.415) last season at Eastern Kentucky, is one of several high-profile transfers expected to make an immediate impact. Heavy-hitting Hayleigh Galvan (Oklahoma State) and catcher Emily Brodner (60 starts while at Illinois) could make their presence known immediately, and junior Dominique Jackson (.286 in MW play last year, 11 HRs as a freshman in 2016) seems likely to return to the starting lineup.  Jackson, a special talent who, for some reason, saw action almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter last season, has the ability to hit elite-level pitching.  During her freshman year, Jackson hit a home run against eventual NCAA champion Oklahoma, a 3-run HR in a 7-3 win over then 8th-ranked Tennessee, a seventh inning blast against then- 22nd ranked Baylor, two home runs in the same game against both Northwestern and Utah State, and a grand slam on the road against San Jose State's Colette Riggs.  Senior Katie Castellon, who's appeared in 126 games in her career and started all 58 last year, is back, along with sophomores Schuylar Broussard and Haley Fuller, who split time at third base last year.  Fresno State has plenty of potential, but will need to improve defensively.  Last season, the team matched a single-game, school record set 31 years earlier when it committed eight errors.  Defensive meltdowns occurred at critical moments in conference play and led directly to some losses too.  For only the second time in school history, the 'Dogs had more errors than their opponents in conference games.  Overall, there are more questions than usual heading into a season for the Bulldogs (all centered around pitching), but this seems like a team that could gel just in time for league play.  With a demanding non-conference schedule full of national powers, there will likely be bruises and setbacks early in the season, but expect Fresno State to be rolling again when May comes around.

3.  Utah State - The Aggies were settled into a groove last season, on top of the Mountain West with a commanding 3-game lead over the rest of the conference at one point, and looking practically unstoppable.  Then everything came to a screeching halt.  Following an April 29 doubleheader sweep of San Diego State, coach Steve Johnson's team was 14-5 in conference play and on the verge of its first MW softball championship.  The following day, USU was run-ruled by the Aztecs 15-5 in Logan, and that began a slide where the Aggies lost five in a row to cap a disappointing end to the regular season.  A postseason bid to the NISC followed, marking Utah State's first postseason appearance since 1993, but it was a far cry from the NCAA Tournament that was within the Aggies' grasp.  Utah State went 1-2 in the NISC, including a season-ending, 10-2 run-rule loss to fellow MW member Boise State.  For a team that had NCAA hopes less than two weeks earlier, it was a bitter end to an otherwise impressive overall season.  The return of White gives USU hope that 2018 could end on a better note.  As a freshman, she was one of the conference's biggest surprises, going 18-7 with a 2.51 ERA and earning all-MW honors.  If we had a vote, she would've won the league's Freshman of the Year honor.  The concern this season: she's the only returning Aggies pitcher who won a game last season. Freshman pitchers Stephanie Reed and Delaney Hull will be asked to contribute immediately.  Second-team All-MW outfielder Riley Plogger is back after a freshman season where she led the Aggies with a .367 batting average in conference play.  Mia Maher (.319) is the only other starter with a batting average better than .300 in MW games to return this season.  Senior outfielder Jazmin Clarke (.250 in MW play), Amee Aarhus (.293 in conference), and Brina Buttacavoli (.267 with 2 HRs in MW action) all return, but the clear key is White.  The Aggies will go as far as she can take them, and that could be very far.  Utah State will need to find some power though, since no USU returning player hit over two home runs in conference play a season ago.  Utah State has to travel to both San Diego State and Fresno State in MW action in 2018, and both of those squads will want a little payback after losing twice in Logan in 2017.  The good news: The Aggies host San Jose State and can offer a little payback of their own after last season's heartbreaking sweep at the hands of the Spartans cost them a conference championship.

4.  San Jose State - A veteran, senior-laden pitching staff in 2017 led the Spartans to the promised land: their first Mountain West softball title, and the NCAA Tournament. Coach Peter Turner's squad went 1-2 at the Los Angeles Regional, picking up the first NCAA postseason win in program history.  But 2018, on paper at least, sure looks like a rebuilding season due to major pitching concerns.  As mentioned above, pitchers who accounted for 36 of the team's 37 wins last season, are gone.  The lone returnee, sophomore Kacie Gresenz, pitched less than two innings in league play and finished with an ERA over 12.00.  Freshmen pitchers Morgan Orchard and Caroline Bowman, and sophomore transfer Desiree Severance, who spent a year at Drexel, join Gresenz to comprise this year's staff.  The talent level appears to be there, but it's untested at this point.  Three starters who hit better than .300 in Mountain West action return in infielders Cassidy Clark (.380), Georgia Blair (.356) and Madison Aurin (.354).  This will be a very young team, with 13 freshmen and only two seniors (outfielder Brittany Abacherli and infielder Emma Entzminger) on a large, 28-member roster.  While SJSU could have one of the top infields in the conference, the lack of experience in the circle is worrisome.  Overall, there are far too many unknowns to predict the Spartans to repeat their 2017 Mountain West championship, but if the pitching exceeds expectations, SJSU could be formidable again this season.  There's also a chance that San Jose State could take a steep fall in a league that continues to get better.  Predicting them fourth could be a bit optimistic, but Turner usually has his team ready to go.

5.  Nevada - Pitcher McKenna Isenberg and her 18 wins last season may be gone, but freshman pitcher Julia Jensen arrives in Reno with some great credentials that instantly make her one of the newcomers to watch in the conference.  Nevada's Gatorade State HS Player of the Year twice in the past three seasons at Sparks Reed High School, Jensen has the pitching skills to perhaps get the Wolf Pack back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nearly a decade.  Of course, winning on the high school level and the NCAA Division I level are considerably different, and one never knows what's going to happen in that transition.  Still, Jensen's arrival gives the Pack hope.  And Nevada looks solid with a good mix of firepower at the plate too.  Much like Utah State, the Pack would've probably been better suited to test itself more in non-conference play.  The schedule is middle-of-the-road, with few opportunities to make national noise in non-conference play, and little margin for error if Nevada wants to reach the NCAA Tournament.  Heading into this season, it's eerily reminiscent of 2016 when then-freshman sensation pitcher Brooke Bolinger arrived on campus with many of the same credentials as Jensen.  That year, Bolinger earned first-team All-MW honors, yet a weak non-conference schedule (against which Nevada went an impressive 22-5) left the Pack unprepared for the rigors of conference play, and a .500 league mark meant no postseason. This season's non-league slate is slightly stronger than 2016, though.  Heavy-hitting Jennifer Purcell returns following an injury-plagued 2017 season, and will likely be a force.  Nevada will also see the return of a pair of first-team All-MW seniors in Erika Hansen (.311, team-best 13 HRs) and Aaliyah Gibson (.351, nine triples), along with second-team pick Kenzi Goins (.314). The Pack finished with their first winning record (13-11) in conference play in eight years last season, and could see an improvement on that if Jensen and junior right-hander Kali Sargent (9-10, 4.20 ERA) can keep opponents off the scoreboard.  The Pack is a legitimate MW title contender on paper, and should have a strong overall record thanks to the aforementioned schedule.  The ceiling is high for this team if Jensen is as good as advertised.

6.  Boise State - Two seasons ago, the Broncos were dreadful, and there's no way to sugar coat it.  Boise State finished last in the Mountain West, winning only six of 24 league games, and picking up victories in just 14 of 52 games overall that year.  What a difference a couple of years make.  Head coach Cindy Ball got the Broncos turned around quickly last season with an impressive and surprising year.  Boise State played its first postseason games in program history, earning an NISC bid, and advancing to the Ogden Regional championship game before ultimately falling to host Weber State.  The Broncos won 33 games and finished at .500 (12-12) in a resurgent Mountain West.  Picking them sixth this year may seem a bit too low, but the league looks very strong once again.  Sophomore Kelsey Broadus and senior Paige Reimann return to pace a large, 7-member pitching staff.  Both started eight games a year ago and combined to go 14-7.  Freshmen Tori Bivens and Gianna Mancha should see time in the circle for a Boise State team that dramatically improved its team ERA last season.  On offense, a lot of firepower returns, and it starts with junior Rebekah Cervantes, twice already a first-team All-MW selection.  Cervantes hit .432 a year ago to lead the Broncos. Senior Makenzie Sullivan, the team leader in home runs with 10 last season, is back along with junior Kora Wade, the team's stolen base leader (22).  Add a key transfer in Madison Anthony, formerly of Oregon State, and Boise State appears set for what could be a breakout season.  It's not a stretch to say that the Broncos have an outside shot to win their first MW softball title in 2018, and the gap between the first- and sixth-place teams in the conference has narrowed considerably in the last two years.

7.  Colorado State - The only Mountain West team to return its entire pitching staff intact from a season ago, it seems odd to pick the Rams this low.  Again, though, it's more a reflection of the quality of the conference overall.  Colorado State had the fifth-best team ERA both overall and in conference play (4.07) a season ago, yet finished in seventh place with a 9-15 record in MW games. Contrast that with the Rams' 19-7 non-conference mark a season ago.  The problem was at the plate where CSU ranked last, again both overall and in conference play.  Colorado State hit just .257 as a team in MW games, and must improve that stat significantly to break into the upper half of the league standings. A big concern is replacing all-everything Haley Hutton, the MW Defensive Player of the Year, and CSU's leadoff hitter who made the team go for the past four seasons.  She batted .372 in conference play, led the league in stolen bases, ranked second in runs scored, third in triples, and fourth in hits.  On a team that already didn't have a ton of offensive firepower, losing your key cog to the entire offense will be hard to overcome.  Luckily, CSU can rely on Haley's sister, Bridgette, who returns as one of the better pitchers in the conference. Junior Bridgette Hutton (10-9, 3.46 ERA) and senior Larissa Petakoff (8-8, 2.58 ERA) return, along with Kaylynn Pierce (9-3, 4.15 ERA).  Those three combined for an impressive 11 shutouts last season, and they give the Rams a chance to finish near the top in the Mountain West this season.  Two big bats return in catcher Amber Nelson and second-team All-MW selection Hannah McCorkhill, who hit 12 home runs apiece.  They will be the keys to an offense that returns just three players who hit better than .220 last year.  Transfers from Nebraska (Haley Donaldson), Hawai'i (Sarah Muzik) and Trinidad State (Isabella Navarro) look promising.  If the offense improves, Colorado State could make a serious move up the league standings.  This is a team that took two of three games last season from both San Diego State and eventual MW champion San Jose State.

8.  UNLV - New head coach Kristie Fox takes over after five seasons at Texas-Arlington, where she turned around the Mavericks' program and led them to an NISC berth in 2017.  It was UTA's first postseason appearance in 14 years.  She inherits a team that won just eight of 24 games in Mountain West play last season after going 17-9 in non-conference play.  We need to stress this again: Going 8-16 in MW games after a 17-9 non-league start is a reflection of just how deep the Mountain West has become in softball.  The Rebels were able to beat the likes of DePaul, Louisville and Virginia Tech last year before running into a buzzsaw in conference where everyone was beating everyone else.  This season looks like a rebuilding one for sure in Las Vegas.  The loss of 4-year pitching starter Morgan Ettinger makes sophomore Breana Burke the only returnee who pitched a complete game for the Rebels in 2017.  Burke (4-4, 2.86 ERA), with two complete games last season, joins sophomore Charlie Masterson (4-3 last season) as the only pitching returnees.  Freshmen pitchers Mia Trejo and Devynn Marshall join the squad this year, and it'll be interesting to see if Fox uses Janine Petmecky in the circle.  The senior last pitched as a sophomore in 2016, throwing more than 90 innings that year and winning four games.  Petmecky, a second-team All-MW pick, led UNLV offensively last season with a .344 batting average and 55 hits.  The Rebels will need to add some power at the plate and shore up their defense.  UNLV hit just 23 home runs as a team last season to rank last in the conference, and also committed a staggering 88 errors on the year, by far the highest among Mountain West teams. Senior infielder Alyssa Navarro, whose eight HRs led the Rebels last season, is back.  Mara Kemmer, who ranked third on the team with a .327 batting average and also went 3-1 in five pitching starts last year as a true freshman, has decided to concentrate on basketball and is not listed on the current UNLV softball roster.  A new-look Rebels squad could face some growing pains in 2018.

9.  New Mexico - The Lobos have a new coach in Paula Congleton, a former New Mexico player who has spent the past 19 years as the head coach at Santa Barbara City College.  She inherits a program that has been up and down recently, but one that really hit the skids at the end of last season. New Mexico lost 17 of its final 19 games in 2017, and will enter this year on an 11-game losing streak.  UNM was outscored a combined 35-3 in its final two conference series of the season, and the team finished last in pitching, last in fielding, and next-to-last in offense in the Mountain West.  Clearly, there's nowhere to go but up.  Congleton's already made one important change, and we like it.  She's given New Mexico a definite schedule upgrade.  The Lobos' soft slate in non-conference play last season left the team woefully unprepared for a demanding Mountain West season.  The only MW team not ranked in the final RPI top 125, New Mexico finished 168th last year.  That number should improve thanks to an impressive 2018 slate that includes Oregon, Arizona (twice), Utah, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, BYU, Hawai'i and more.  That's a hefty haul for a team in such a major rebuilding mode, and the record this year may not reflect as much improvement as some may like.  But teams get better when they face tougher opponents, and Congleton appears to know it and isn't shying away from a strong schedule.  Most first-year coaches wouldn't tackle a slate like that (ahem, and even some longtime coaches still don't).  But it's clear from scheduling alone that this program wants to head in the right direction.  Senior catcher Chelsea Johnson (.369, team-high 7 HRs last year) leads the way on offense, and she's the only returning Lobo who won All-MW honors in 2017. In fact, Johnson is one of only a handful of returnees on an almost entirely revamped team.  Six Lobos hit over .300 a season ago, and five of them are now gone.  Three pitchers - Krissy Fortner (5-6, 3.60 ERA, the Lobos' career saves leader), Jensen Main (17 starts and five complete games last year as a freshman), and Marissa Bethke (15 appearances that included a save in 2017) - all return. And Congleton's brought in one of the best to coach them in former Michigan All-American Megan Betsa. The last time we saw Betsa, she was mowing down Fresno State hitters in a pair of NCAA Tournament pitching wins in 2017.  Six freshmen will vie for playing time on a New Mexico team that will look a lot different this time around.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Impact newcomers: 2 new names to know in the Mountain West for 2018

There are several newcomers to watch in the Mountain West in 2018, but two names are absolute musts.  They both have a chance to make immediate impacts that could affect the race for the conference championship this Spring.

One was her state's softball player of the year last season as a high school senior. The other was leading her NCAA Division I conference in batting average on her way to earning NFCA All-Region honors last season.

They are Nevada incoming freshman pitcher Julia Jensen, and Fresno State junior transfer Rachel Minogue.  Jensen is a 2-time Nevada Gatorade Player of the Year (2015 and 2017) out of Sparks Reed High School.  Minogue won the Ohio Valley Conference batting title last season at Eastern Kentucky, leading the OVC with a .415 batting average and 73 hits.

Big things are expected of both this year.

Jensen holds the Nevada state high school record for wins both overall and in a single season, and ranks third all-time in strikeouts. She finished with 1,140 strikeouts during her time at Reed and joins another Mountain West newcomer to watch - Boise State freshman Gianna Mancha (Central HS, Fresno) - as pitchers who struck out 21 in a single game during her high school career.

In her standout sophomore and senior seasons where she earned state top pitching honors, Jensen went 34-2 with 346 Ks and a 0.80 ERA (2015), and 31-2 with 386 Ks and a 0.92 ERA (2017). Oh, and she can also hit too. Jensen smacked 11 home runs and hit .438 as a high school senior, and could potentially see time in the everyday lineup for the Pack when not pitching.

Nevada lost its top pitcher from 2017, with the departure of McKenna Isenberg, who led the Wolf Pack in wins (18), starts (32), complete games (19), innings pitched (183), shutouts (2), and strikeouts (181) last year, so the opportunity is there for Jensen as a freshman.

Fresno State's Minogue arrives after two standout seasons at Eastern Kentucky, where she was named all-conference both seasons, and was an NFCA second team All-Region selection. She prepped at a national softball powerhouse (Santiago HS, Corona) and earned first team All-CIF honors there, but had a breakout season at EKU last year.

Minogue not only led the OVC in batting average (.415), but ranked No. 1 in the conference in hits with 73, No. 3 in RBI with 46, and No. 4 in total bases with 103.  She increased her batting average to .431 in conference play.  Her five hits and eight RBI, in a win over Tennessee State, were both single-game highs in the conference. She started 108 games in two seasons at EKU, including all 58 last year, finishing with a .585 slugging percentage and .490 on-base percentage.  When considering she earned second-team NFCA All-Region honors last year, it's worth noting only two MW players in 2017 (Jenavee Peres of San Diego State and Savannah McHellon of Fresno State) were higher selections.

An all-around versatile athlete who could see starts in the infield, outfield, and at designated player for the Bulldogs, Minogue's .415 batting average last season was Eastern Kentucky's top single-season mark in 14 years.  Her stats last season in the following categories - hits, RBI, and doubles - would've all ranked No. 1 on Fresno State's 2017 team.  Minogue should make an immediate impact on a Bulldog squad looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth straight season and nation-leading 34th time.

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.