Friday, January 31, 2014

2014 Predictions ... if we had a vote

Perhaps no Mountain West softball season has been this difficult to predict.  Heading into the beginning of the 2014 campaign, there's no clear-cut favorite, and that's a rarity.

Defending champion San Diego State loses three key cogs from a team that made its sixth straight NCAA regional appearance last season.  The biggest:  MW Pitcher of the Year Rebecca Arbino, who appeared in 42 of the Aztecs' 56 games a year ago, starting a team-high 29.  Also departed are a pair of 4-year starters in Kristin and Kamerin May.  Kristin, who started 54 games at catcher, concluded her career by ranking in the top 10 of five different categories in SDSU softball history.  Kamerin started every game, hit better than .300, and earned all-MW and second team all-region honors.

The bright spots for SDSU are many, however.  The biggest:  The return from injury of Hayley Miles, who missed all of the 2013 season.  Miles was a third team NFCA All-American in 2012, hitting 20 home runs, with a .429 batting average.  She'll team with 2013 MW Player of the Year Patrice Jackson (18 HR, 48 RBI, .366) and another all-region pick, Lorena Bauer (13 HR, 49 RBI, .401).  Southpaw pitcher Danielle O'Toole, who won 14 games and led the team with a 1.81 ERA, is back after winning conference freshman of the year honors.

It will be interesting to see how O'Toole responds now that Arbino is gone and she's the go-to pitcher on the squad, and also pitching to a new catcher behind the plate.  Freshman Erica Romero is now the new young pitcher to watch in the conference after collecting all sorts of accolades at traditional high school power Santiago of Corona.  If the CIF Southern Section Division I Player of the Year comes in and performs as expected, the Aztecs may not miss a beat.

Then there is Fresno State.  In their 36-year softball history, the Bulldogs have never finished lower than third in conference play no matter which league they've been in.  And perhaps nothing says more about a coach's expectations than how she schedules.  Trisha Ford has Fresno State playing a schedule that might even make Margie Wright think twice.  Six of the nation's top 10 teams in the preseason NFCA poll are on the Bulldogs' slate in 2014 for a total of seven games, including two against No. 1 Tennessee.

To say Fresno State is loaded would be an understatement.  The Bulldogs return every key player from 2013 except for one, including pitchers who accounted for all 30 wins a year ago.  No Mountain West pitching staff is as deep or complete as Fresno State, led by first team All-MW pitcher Jill Compton, the conference leader in shutouts and wins in MW play.  The Bulldogs also return Hannah Harris, who ranked in the top 10 of six MW pitching categories as a freshman last year, and Taylor Langdon, the team leader in ERA (1.92) and a MW Pitcher of the Week honoree, also as a freshman.  Add to the mix sophomore lefty Kiley Shae Aldridge, a transfer from Arizona who missed all of last year with an ACL injury suffered in the preseason.  Aldridge had some big appearances as a true freshman in 2012, including a key save where she struck out the side versus BYU when both were members of the WAC.

On offense, the Bulldogs have speed, speed, and more speed after stealing a school-record 87 bases last year.  Fresno State returns four All-MW players (tied with UNLV for league-best), including infielder Vonnie Martin (.436 in conference play); sophomore catcher Paige Gumz (.352), and junior Brenna Moss (.358, and the nation's leader in triples).  And the Bulldogs get a big bonus in the return of Brooke Ortiz, who was hitting .361 to lead the team at the time of her season-ending injury in February last season. In all, Fresno State not only returns its entire pitching staff, but 10 of its top 11 hitters from last year.

When it comes to comparing longtime powers San Diego State and Fresno State, the differences are small, and a case can be made for either being the preseason favorite.  SDSU has more offensive firepower, Fresno State has greater team speed, and both teams should have strong pitching, which is always the name of the game.  The wildcard factor:  San Diego State must travel to face Fresno State at Bulldog Diamond this season, and Fresno State rarely loses at home.  Ford's squad was 18-3 there a year ago.

Defending Western Athletic Conference champion San Jose State moves over to the Mountain West after one of the best seasons in Spartans history.  SJSU will be young but very talented, and must replace the player who was not only key to its outstanding season a year ago, but one of its all-time greats:  pitcher Amanda Pridmore.  How important was she?  Pridmore pitched in 50 of the Spartans' 59 games in 2013 and was the WAC Pitcher of the Year.

UNLV, like Fresno State, returns four all-conference players, including its most important -- senior pitcher Amanda Oliveto.  She is the key to the Rebels' season.  Last year, it was feast or famine for awhile.  When Oliveto was in the circle, UNLV had a chance to beat any team in the country.  When she wasn't pitching, the Rebels could lose to anyone in the country as well.  Oliveto picked up 18 of UNLV's 21 wins last year, with the rest of the pitching staff winning a total of just three games in 17 decisions.  With two new freshmen pitchers, Lisa Dodd will look for a more well-rounded staff, though Oliveto is the clear key.

Stefany Valentino (.405, 64 hits, 34 runs), Pauline Monreal (13 doubles, 33 RBI) and Tayler Van Acker (.315) all return for a Rebels squad that should be improved in 2014.

Nevada, paced by senior pitcher Karlyn Jones and a host of returnees, could make noise after a 30-23 season a year ago.  In fact, this could be a breakout year for the Pack, who return their top five hitters from last season.  Jones (17-10, 3.45 ERA) will be joined by Megan Dortch (10 wins, 4.03 ERA) on an experienced staff that returns intact and adds a promising freshman in McKenna Isenberg.

Boise State returns a strong nucleus this season, losing only pitcher Lela Work and all-MW Holly Bourke.  They were key contributors, but the Broncos appear set to return to their winning ways after a small hiccup in 2013.  BSU went 25-26-1 overall (9-9 in MW play), but brings back Devon Bridges and Tara Glover on the offensive side, along with pitchers Rebecca Patton (11-10, 3.39 ERA) and Kenzie Cole, who came on strong at the end of the year.

Colorado State may fall back a bit this year after losing pitcher Kacie McCarthy to graduation.  The all-conference and former MW Pitcher of the Year selection, McCarthy pitched in 34 of CSU's 49 games, including 15 of its 18 Mountain West games.  No pitcher with an ERA under 4.75 returns, and that's a big issue.  Ashlie Ortega's big bat does return, however.  And that's a good thing.  Her .381 average, 53 hits and 28 RBI led the team.  Much of the offense is back, but a lot will depend on how the team overcomes the loss of McCarthy, who was a fixture in the circle.

New Mexico should be improved this season, if only because the injury bug can't hit two years in a row, right?  The Lobos were bit by injuries as the season went along, forcing Erica Beach to work different lineups all the time.  It never worked out and UNM struggled to a last-place finish with only three wins in 18 conference games.  Utah State joins the Mountain West after a difficult season in the WAC where it won only 11 of 54 games.  There's nowhere to go but up for USU, which comes to the conference with a new coach in Steve Johnson.

Overall, the Mountain West looks amazingly balanced this season and teams will play a record 24 conference games as the MW expands to nine softball teams for the first time.  Things appear so even that it wouldn't be a surprise to see a 16-8 or even 15-9 record win the conference championship.

Our picks for 2014:

1.  Fresno State Four All-MW returnees as virtually the entire team is back
2.  San Diego St.  Aztecs have a solid shot at a 7th straight NCAA bid
3.  UNLV  Oliveto's senior year could be her best yet
4.  Nevada  Wolf Pack look to build on last year's 30-win season
5.  Boise State  Broncos could finish anywhere from first to fifth in a deep MW   
6.  San Jose State Spartans move to a stronger conference without Pridmore
7.  Colorado State  The loss of McCarthy could be difficult to overcome
8.  New Mexico  Lobos could be improved but still not rise too much in standings
9.  Utah State  New coach, new conference and nowhere to go but up

See how we fared a year ago.  We actually did a better predicting job than the Mountain West coaches, who came out later with their poll.  Here were our preseason picks last year (link):

1.  San Diego State  We got it right!
2.  Colorado State  We got it right!
3.  Fresno State  We underestimated the Bulldogs, who finished tied for 2nd
4.  Boise State  We got it right!
5.  Nevada  Basically correct as Nevada tied for 4th; coaches had them last
6.  UNLV  We got it right!
7.  New Mexico  We got it right!  Coaches had the Lobos 5th