Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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

Photo credits:  Fresno State, Cal-Hi Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 2, 2017

Poor umpiring has threatened to ruin the game of college softball

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dung has thrown every Bulldog pitch for 11 consecutive games.

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

San Jose State wins, Fresno State loses in NCAA openers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

When checking the RPI, things are even more clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

Fresno State has won 92 games in postseason history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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