Sunday, May 17, 2015

2015 recap: Fresno State's road to the Mountain West championship

UCLA's 4 home runs end Aztecs' season in rout

San Diego State's 2015 season came to a halt Sunday as the Aztecs were eliminated by No. 7 national seed UCLA in the NCAA Los Angeles Regional.  The Bruins hit four home runs against Aztecs pitcher Erica Romero en route to an 8-0 (6 innings) run-rule blowout.

It was the sixth run-rule loss of the season for San Diego State.  UCLA moves on to Super Regional play while SDSU's year closes with a 38-20 overall record and second-place finish in the Mountain West.

This one was all Bruins from start to finish, literally, as Danielle Spaulding homered to lead off the game for UCLA against Romero.  It was Spaulding's 19th of the season. But the Aztecs did a good job of escaping numerous early jams as the Bruins loaded the bases with just one out in each of the first two innings.

In the second, the Bruins added to their lead when Romero issued three consecutive walks, including one with the bases loaded.  Romero ended up going 5 1/3 innings, allowing the eight runs (all earned) on nine hits with five walks allowed.  The real problem were extra-base hits, including the four home runs, as more than half of UCLA's nine hits in the game went for extra bases.

Gabrielle Maurice hit a 2-run home run in the fifth to make it 4-0 and Kylee Perez hit her fifth round-tripper of the year to begin the sixth inning.  After Romero gave up a single to Allexis Bennett and a one-out walk, Stephany LaRosa hit her 18th home run of the season -- a 3-run shot -- as the lead ballooned to eight runs and the run rule went into effect.

San Diego State managed just three hits -- all singles -- against UCLA's Ally Carda.  The Aztecs' string of losses to ranked opponents continued.  San Diego State lost its 15th straight game vs. a Top 25 foe and finished the year 0-10 vs. ranked teams.  Over the past three seasons, SDSU is 1-27 vs. teams ranked in either Top 25 poll.  The lone win came early last season against Cal, which was ranked 23rd and 25th in the major polls early in the year before dropping from the rankings and finishing 23-29 overall.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Aztecs remain alive with 2 late rallies Saturday

San Diego State remained alive in NCAA Los Angeles Regional action Saturday, scoring late twice in a pair of 1-run victories.  In the afternoon session, the Aztecs scored a run in the bottom of the sixth to eliminate Cal State Northridge 5-4.  Later, San Diego State rallied to tie Texas in the bottom of the seventh before pulling out a 4-3 win in nine innings to eliminate the Longhorns.

In an odd twist, both Aztecs wins came over teams Mountain West champion Fresno State defeated during the regular season.  Now, SDSU gets the chance to face its first ranked opponent since March 18 when it faces regional No. 7 seed UCLA Sunday.  The Aztecs will need to beat the Bruins twice in order to advance to their first Super Regional in school history.

UCLA and San Diego State met on the opening weekend of the 2015 season and the Bruins prevailed 4-1.  In that game, the Bruins managed just four hits against Aztec pitcher Erica Romero. 

In the win over the Matadors, Lorena Bauer hit a 3-run home run in the third inning and an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth that proved to be the game-winner.  Big West champ Northridge saw its late-season problems continue as the Matadors ended the year losing five of their final six, and winning only three of their last 10 games.  Romero went the distance and needed just 94 pitches to complete the win.

In the game with Texas, all of the late-game scoring came on home runs as the teams combined for five round-trippers from the sixth inning on.  The Longhorns continually threatened early, but Erica Romero escaped jam after jam.   At one point, San Diego State was being out-hit by the Longhorns eight to one, but led 1-0.  Its lone hit to that point was a third inning Kayla Jordan single, following a walk and sacrifice.  In the top of the sixth, Texas took a 2-1 lead on a 2-run home run before SDSU answered with a homer from Jenavee Peres in the bottom of the inning.  The Horns responded with a 2-out blast in the top of the seventh and were two outs from victory in the bottom of the inning when Hayley Miles launched a solo shot of her own to tie it.  Romero escaped trouble in the eighth after giving up a walk and single to begin the frame, aided by some ineffective Texas at-bats, with quick outs that failed to advance the base runners.  In the ninth, SDSU's leadoff batter, Taylor Stewart, hit a walk-off homer to right on the third pitch of the bottom half of the inning to win it.

Texas out-hit San Diego State nine to six, but it was the Aztecs who made their hits count.  SDSU is now 38-19 on the season, while Texas ended the year 38-17.  Romero threw 236 pitches on the day and has now picked up 36 of the Aztecs' 38 wins.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Fresno State falls 8-7 to BYU; Aztecs fall 8-3 to Texas

A Mountain West championship season came to a disappointing end as Fresno State fought hard but ultimately could not hold a sixth inning lead and allowed BYU to escape with an 8-7 win at the Eugene Regional in the NCAA Tournament Friday.

In contrast to how the team finished down the stretch in the regular season, the Bulldogs were not all that sharp defensively or in the pitching circle for the second day in a row.  Conference Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton looked strong early, but the Bulldogs couldn't help her out with some shaky defense, a couple of base running mistakes, and leaving too many runners on base.  In a 1-run game, those miscues were the difference.

Brenna Moss led off the first inning with a single, but was thrown out trying to steal second base for the first out of the game.  It would prove crucial after Michelle Solomon launched a home run to left one batter later.  Instead of a 2-run lead, it was just 1-0, and the game remained that way until the fourth.

The first five BYU batters reached base safely in the fourth, including two with help from Compton via a walk and hit-by-pitch.  After four hits, including a 2-run double from Alexis Strid, the Cougars had put five runs on the board and led 5-1.  Taylor Langdon was summoned from the bullpen.

To their credit, the Bulldogs responded immediately in the bottom half of the fourth and made it a 5-3 game.  Bria Kennedy and Whitney Smith hit run-scoring singles, but Malia Rivers grounded out with the bases loaded, preventing a bigger rally.  An inning later, Fresno State would regain the lead.

In the fifth, Solomon walked to lead things off, and Kierra Willis reached on a fielder's choice before both runners advanced on a wild pitch.  Paige Gumz hit a sacrifice fly to make it a 5-4 game before Alyssa Villalpando singled to tie it.  After Kennedy walked and Chase LeeHong singled to load the bases with one out, Smith hit a grounder that allowed Fresno State to take a 6-5 lead when the BYU throw home was late.

The Bulldogs missed a big chance to blow the game open as Moss, who completed her 4-year career with one single in NCAA Tournament play, grounded into an inning-ending double play in what would turn out to be her final at-bat as a collegian.  Not taking advantage of scoring opportunities told the tale of the game.

In the sixth, BYU took the lead for good with the help of a big Bulldog error.  With one out and no one on base, the Cougars got a single from Lacey Hofstedt.  Gordy Bravo then followed with a single to right-center, and Hofstedt was headed to third.  Villalpando, standing at third base, took the throw and attempted to relay it to second base to get Bravo, who likely would've been out.  Instead, Villapando's throw sailed wide past second and careened into the outfield, allowing Hofstedt to score the tying run.  After Langdon got a fly out for out number two, the error proved extremely costly when Mercedes O'Connor hit a 2-run home run to left that made it 8-6.

In the bottom of the seventh, Villalpando redeemed herself with a deep blast over the fence in left, crushing the ball to pull the Bulldogs within a run.  It would be Fresno State's last hit of the season, though, as BYU pitcher McKenna Bull retired the next three Bulldog batters in succession.  Villalpando finished with a game-high three hits and two RBI to go with her two errors.  Trisha Ford's squad ended up out-hitting the Cougars 11 to 10, but the four errors in two games -- all by Villalpando and Rivers, the only two players with NCAA Tournament experience prior to this season, ironically -- were key.

Fresno State went 0-2 in NCAA Tournament regional play for the first time in 29 years and just the second time in 31 all-time NCAA appearances for the Bulldogs.  Fresno State had won at least one game in 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances dating to 1987.  The only previous time a Bulldog softball team went 0-2 in the NCAA tourney was back in 1986.

Immediately after eliminating the Bulldogs, BYU was itself eliminated in a 7-0 rout by North Dakota State.  The 24th-ranked Bison and No. 1-ranked Oregon, the No. 2 national seed, will meet for the Eugene Regional title Saturday.

Texas 8, San Diego State 3 - In the NCAA Los Angeles Regional, the San Diego State Aztecs surged to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning with the help of a pair of Texas errors, but watched the Longhorns score eight unanswered runs.  SDSU got a leadoff walk from Kayla Jordan and a single from Leia Ruiz to begin the game.  With one out in the first, Jenavee Peres hit a single and the Aztecs took advantage of a Longhorn error in the outfield for a 1-0 lead.  Taylor Stewart followed with an RBI single to make it 2-0 before Sydnee Cable reached on the second error of the inning with two outs, allowing a third run to score.  Down 3-0, Texas would turn it on, scoring five runs in the bottom of the first inning against Erica Romero and taking the lead for good.  The Longhorns had five hits in the bottom of the first, including four straight hits with two outs.  Among them:  a 2-run, 2-out double by Gabby Smith, who also earned the pitching win for the Longhorns.  Texas, which lost to Mountain West champion Fresno State during the regular season, would go on to score in each of the first four innings to break it open.  Erin Shireman hit a home run in the fourth inning and finished with three hits and three RBI as part of the 9-hit Texas attack.  Romero struck out two and walked five batters in the game.  Saturday, the Longhorns will meet UCLA, a 9-1 (five innings) winner over Cal State Northridge, while San Diego State meets the Matadors at 2:30 pm in the first elimination game of the Los Angeles Regional.  Cal State Northridge, the Big West champion, stumbled to the finish line and enters its game with SDSU having lost four of its last five games and six of nine.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Compton tosses 3-hitter but Bulldogs fall in NCAA opener

The opening game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament turned out to be exactly what everyone envisioned -- a pitcher's duel between a pair of conference Pitchers of the Year.  And just before Thursday's game, they both learned they were First Team NFCA All-Region selections too.

Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton went toe-to-toe with Summit League Pitcher of the Year Krista Menke in a first-round NCAA matchup that pitted the All-Pacific Region pick Compton against the All-Midwest Region selection in Menke.

In the end, it was Menke and her No. 24/25-ranked North Dakota State Bison who came out on top 4-0 over Fresno State in a game that featured only five hits, and none for extra bases.  Compton allowed just three singles in the game, including one that was a soft infield bloop that tipped off her glove and landed about five feet behind the pitching circle.

But Fresno State could never find any rhythm against Menke, an elite pitcher with Top 25 victories this season against the likes of Minnesota, South Alabama and Washington all on the road.  The Bulldogs got two singles from Michelle Solomon, one in the fourth and one in the sixth, but that was it.  Menke struck out 10 and Fresno State had two runners aboard just once in the game.

In the fourth, Solomon singled to left with one out and Kierra Willis walked.  But Menke got a quick, one-pitch out on a fly ball by Paige Gumz and then struck out Alyssa Villalpando.  In the sixth, Solomon singled with one out again, but Willis struck out and Gumz flew out.

While Compton wasn't hit hard, her control was an issue.  In her first NCAA Tournament game (and the Bulldogs' first as a team since 2011), she worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the first, but ran into trouble in the second.  Compton allowed a pair of walks to begin the frame, and a sacrifice moved the runners to second and third.  Uncharacteristically, Compton walked both of the next two batters she faced, forcing in a run and giving NDSU the only run it would need.  With the bases still loaded, she got consecutive strikeouts to escape further damage, but the Bison carried a 1-0 lead to the third inning despite not having a hit.

In the third, Bulldog second baseman Malia Rivers led off the inning by committing one of her two errors in the game.  It would be costly, and it appeared to rattle Compton.  After a sacrifice advanced the base runner, Compton allowed another walk, followed by NDSU's first hit of the game -- a run-scoring single off the bat of Amanda Grable.  An ill-advised decision to get the runner out at home allowed Grable to advance to second, and the Bulldogs paid the price.

Jackie Stifter singled through the right side, plating two more runs and it was 4-0.  Against Menke, that probably looked like 400-0.  Fresno State hadn't seen a pitcher of that caliber since early March at the Judi Garman Classic in Fullerton and it showed.  The Bulldogs struck out 10 times as Menke improved to 33-4 on the season with 372 strikeouts (second-best in the nation).  Trisha Ford's squad watched its 11-game winning streak come to an end.

The Bulldogs had one other scoring chance in the fifth.  Bria Kennedy opened the frame by working an 8-pitch at-bat for a walk that gave Fresno State some hope.  It evaporated quickly as the next three Bulldogs (Chase LeeHong, Whitney Smith and Brenna Moss) were retired on a total of six pitches.  LeeHong botched a sacrifice play with a soft bunt in the air, Smith popped up on the first pitch she saw, and Moss completed an 0-for-3 day with a quick pop-up.

Fresno State now is in must-win mode.  The Bulldogs will face BYU on Friday at 2 pm in Eugene in the first elimination game of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.  The Cougars were run-ruled 8-0 in six innings by top-seeded Oregon Thursday in a game where Ducks pitcher Cheridan Hawkins tossed a 1-hitter.  A win in Friday's 2 pm game would advance Fresno State to a 5 pm game Friday against the loser of tomorrow's opening contest (11 am) pitting Oregon and North Dakota State.

The Bulldogs must defeat BYU Friday to avoid going 0-2 in an NCAA regional for the first time in 29 years.  In their 30 previous NCAA Tournament appearances, the Bulldogs have won at least one game in postseason play every year except 1986.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

MW champion Fresno State plays NCAA opener Thursday

Mountain West champion Fresno State will open play in its 31st NCAA Tournament in 34 years tomorrow as the Bulldogs take on No. 24/25 North Dakota State at 2 pm Pacific time in the Eugene Regional.

When Bulldog leadoff hitter Brenna Moss steps into the batter's box, she will represent the first at-bat in the entire 2015 NCAA Tournament.  Fresno State, the designated visitor in its opening game with the Bison, will be in the only regional that runs Thursday thru Saturday.  The other 15 regionals, including the Los Angeles Regional involving Mountain West runner-up San Diego State, all will run Friday thru Sunday.

Currently riding the nation's third-longest winning streak (11 straight games) and the team's longest winning streak since 2008, Fresno State will look to win its 12th in a row tomorrow.  A victory would be the program's 90th all-time win in NCAA Tournament play.  The game will be the 151st NCAA game for the Bulldogs, who are tied with UCLA for most all-time tournament appearances with 31.

North Dakota State presents a formidable task for the Bulldogs, and the teams in many ways look like mirror images of each other -- with strong pitching and powerful offenses (NDSU .338 team batting average to Fresno State's .328 average).  The Bison will be playing their first game ever with a national ranking.  This week, NDSU vaulted into the major polls at No. 24 ( Softball) and No. 25 (NFCA).

The Bison were ranked once previously, but only at the end of the 2009 season. That year, North Dakota State upset nationally-ranked Oklahoma to win the NCAA Norman Regional and advance to Super Regional play where they lost to Arizona State.

The Bulldogs and Bison have met just once in history.  Fresno State won that meeting 1-0 on the opening weekend of the 2012 season as then-Bulldog pitcher Michelle Moses threw a shutout and also hit a solo, game-winning home run. Thursday's pitching matchup is nearly certain to pit Mountain West Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton (28-10, 2.10 ERA, 235 strikeouts) vs. Summit League Pitcher of the Year Krista Menke (32-4, 2.05 ERA, 364 strikeouts).

Compton's ERA rose from 1.84 to 2.10 last weekend in a ballpark with NCAA minimum 190-foot fences down the line at UNLV.  Howe Field, home of the Eugene Regional, also has a short porch in both right and left with those same NCAA minimum distances.  On the plus side for the Bulldogs:  an offense that is on fire of late and one that pounded out 47 hits and scored 37 runs last week as the Rebels were swept at home for the first time in more than three years.

Thursday's second game, at 5 pm, matches No. 1-ranked and No. 2 overall NCAA seed Oregon (the Pac-12 champion) against West Coast Conference champion BYU.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

2015 All-Mountain West Conference awards announced

2015 conference softball champion Fresno State placed a league-high seven players on the All-Mountain West teams that were announced Tuesday.

The Bulldogs took three of the top five overall awards as junior Jill Compton earned Pitcher of the Year honors, junior catcher Paige Gumz was named Defensive Player of the Year, and head coach Trisha Ford was named the Mountain West Coach of the Year.  Fresno State, which also received votes in both major polls today, will enter the NCAA Tournament Thursday riding the country's third-longest winning streak at 11 straight games.

San Diego State earned two top honors as senior Lorena Bauer was named Player of the Year, while catcher Jenavee Peres was named Freshman of the Year.  The Aztecs will enter NCAA Tournament play Friday riding a season-high 6-game winning streak.

For the complete list of honorees go here.

Fresno State's total of seven all-conference honorees leads the Mountain West.  The Bulldogs had two first team picks in Compton and Brenna Moss, both of whom were named to the first team for the third straight season.  UNLV's Emily Haslinger, a second-team selection, was the only other player to earn All-MW recognition for a third consecutive year.  San Jose State had five players selected, while San Diego State and Utah State had four each, UNLV three, a trio of teams (New Mexico, Nevada and Boise State) two, and Colorado State one.

It's probably not too soon to look ahead to next year.  Fresno State is expected to return a league-high five All-MW players (including the Pitcher and Defensive Player of the Year in Compton and Gumz), while Utah State should return three and SDSU two.  No other MW team will return more than one 2015 honoree next season.

As always, there were a few noticeable snubs and omissions.  Most notably, New Mexico -- which finished in fourth place and won 13 conference games for its best finish in Mountain West play in 15 years -- had just one first-team and one second-team player.  UNM's Jasmine Casados, a .386 hitter for the season with 56 hits (including six homers) and 40 RBI, was the only player in the league to play at least 30 games and finish in the top 15 in overall batting average, but not earn all-league honors.  Casados' batting average in conference play was higher than some other honorees.

Fresno State's Kierra Willis, twice a MW Player of the Week this season, including as recently as last week, was a second-team pick.  She is the only player in the conference to win a weekly honor twice this season, but find her name on the second team rather than the first team.  Willis led the Mountain West champion Bulldogs in RBI (55), triples (9) and home runs (8).  Her RBI total ranked third in the conference, while she led the MW in triples.  Her nine triples tied her for second in the nation with SEC Player of the Year Kelsey Stewart.

Some other notable omissions:  San Jose State pitcher Madison Fish (16-5, 3.64 ERA, 88 strikeouts), New Mexico pitcher Krissy Fortner (9-5 with a 2.85 ERA that ranked 4th in the conference and 5 saves that ranked 12th in the nation), New Mexico pitcher Lauren Soles (10-5, 3.45 ERA and coming off a complete-game shutout that eliminated San Jose State from the conference race), and Fresno State third baseman Alyssa Villalpando (.358 batting average, and went 10-for-13 in last weekend's title-clinching series at UNLV).  In addition, Gumz was deemed to be the conference's Defensive Player of the Year, yet was inexplicably left off both the first- and second-team lists. We probably should have learned our lesson last year when standout UNLV pitcher Amanda Oliveto was somehow left off the All-MW team despite being one of the main reasons the Rebels were even in contention for the title during the final week.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Our picks: Moss, Compton, Peres have earned MW honors

If we had a vote (which we don't), here are our selections for the 2015 Mountain West softball Player, Pitcher and Freshman of the Year. 

Yesterday, we picked our 2015 Co-Coaches of the Year:  Fresno State's Trisha Ford and New Mexico's Erica Beach.  You can read more about those selections here.

Our 2015 Player of the Year is Brenna Moss of Fresno State

The choice came down to a few players, including Moss and teammate Kierra Willis, along with San Diego State slugger Lorena Bauer and San Jose State first baseman Jessie Hufstetler.  In the end, Moss stood out.

The Mountain West leader in batting average (.446), hits (82) and stolen bases (25), Moss also finished second in runs scored (59).  Simply put, she made conference champion Fresno State go.  The Bulldogs' leadoff hitter ignited an offense whose final regular-season team batting average (.328) rivaled the school record of .340 set by the 1998 NCAA championship team.

Setting Moss apart was her ability to hit elite pitching during Fresno State's daunting schedule.  Moss had four hits, including doubles in each game, against SEC Pitcher of the Year Lauren Haeger of No. 1 ranked Florida, and Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year Cheridan Hawkins of 2nd-ranked Oregon on the same day in March.  The next day, she added four more hits against nationally-ranked Arizona and Baylor with two in each game.

In the decisive game three of the Bulldogs' series at San Diego State, Moss had three hits -- including another double -- and reached base in four of five at-bats.  That was in a game that Fresno State would win 8-1 and one that would ultimately provide the 2-game swing allowing the Bulldogs to win their first conference championship since 2009.

And that doesn't even begin to tell the whole story.  Moss was such a defensive presence in center field, anchoring the Mountain West's top outfield, that opponents seldom dared to score from second base on hits in her direction.  When they did, Moss' cannon of an arm erased opposing base runners almost routinely.  She finished with eight assists, a staggering number for an outfielder.

Now ranking among the all-time Fresno State leaders in batting average and hits, Moss is the school's career stolen base leader. That's what made her batting average of .446 -- ranking among the top 25 in the country -- so powerful.  Once Moss reached base, she was always a threat to steal.  More often than not, her singles translated to doubles and triples.

For those reasons and in leading her team to a conference crown, Moss is our choice for Player of the Year.  She will begin her professional softball career this summer with the Chicago Bandits after being selected 13th overall in the recent National Pro Fastpitch draft.

Our 2015 Pitcher of the Year is Jill Compton of Fresno State.

This choice was an easy one, and over the past two months it became clear:  Compton
was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in Mountain West history.

Winning conference Pitcher of the Week honors four consecutive weeks during one stretch, Compton became the first MW pitcher to ever accomplish the feat.  She earned that distinction six times in a seven-week span, signaling her move from not just the Mountain West stage but to the national stage.  And this doesn't include the weeks she didn't win the honor:  like when she tossed a perfect game against the Iowa Hawkeyes of the Big Ten; or when she defeated then-No. 25 Texas in Palm Springs; or guided the Bulldogs to wins over Stanford and Big West champion Cal State Northridge.

Compton was at her best in Mountain West play, becoming a shut-down type of pitcher against teams that otherwise were offensive powers.  She tossed 1-hitters on almost a routine basis and toyed with MW opponents even when she wasn't at her best.  In April, she threw 1-hit shutouts three times in a five-game stretch.  Over the past several weeks, Fresno State is 15-0 in her last 15 starts.

More than any other player in the conference, Compton became a difference-maker.  The bottom line:  the Bulldogs would not have won the Mountain West title without her.  For a myriad of reasons, Compton is our choice for Pitcher of the Year.

Our 2015 Freshman of the Year is Jenavee Peres of San Diego State.

After a somewhat slow start to the season, Peres came on strong in conference play and let everyone know why she is a member of the US Junior National Team.  The powerful freshman finished with a .366 overall batting average and 46 RBI that included eight home runs.  Her RBI total was second-best on San Diego State's team.

Peres had 11 doubles and a .595 slugging percentage, keeping the Aztecs in the race for their fourth straight Mountain West title until finally being eliminated in the final weekend.  She had 56 hits in 51 games, starting 48 of them, and added six stolen bases.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

MW champ Fresno State to Eugene, runner-up Aztecs to UCLA

Mountain West champion Fresno State is headed to one of the most difficult regionals in the nation at No. 2 overall seed Oregon, while San Diego State earned an at-large bid and will travel the short distance to Los Angeles for a regional that features No. 7 overall seed UCLA.  (See the bracket).

The Mountain West learned it received two bids for the first time since the 2011 season when the NCAA Tournament bracket was revealed Sunday.  SDSU earned its eighth straight bid and 11th overall, while Fresno State picked up its 31st bid in 34 seasons.

This was almost universally believed to be the oddest NCAA Tournament bracket in recent history.

Among the oddities:  The selection committee chose to send the Mountain West champion to a regional with the Pac-12 champion, while sending the Mountain West runner-up to a regional with the Pac-12 runner-up.  Notre Dame, the third-place finisher in the ACC and a borderline Top 25 team all season, was given a No. 15 national seed and selected to host a regional.  Minnesota, a Top 15 team all season and one that was 15th in the RPI and in the top 10 for a portion of the season, was not only unseeded, but sent to face No. 12 national seed Arizona.

Pittsburgh, the sixth-place finisher in the ACC with an 11-13 conference record and RPI of 56, was given an at-large bid.  Kentucky, losers of 13 of its last 15 games and winners of just five of 24 conference games, was awarded an at-large bid as well.

All Fresno State and San Diego State games this week will be available online.  Fresno State will open the entire 2015 NCAA Tournament with a Thursday 2 p.m. game against North Dakota State.  The Bulldogs are in the only Thursday-Saturday regional in the country because BYU is there as well.  The Cougars face Oregon afterwards.  SDSU opens with Texas, a team that lost to Fresno State this season, at 3 p.m. Friday.  The second game in Los Angeles features host UCLA vs. Cal State Northridge (another team Fresno State beat this season) at 5:30.

Fresno State's first opponent -- North Dakota State -- lost this season to San Diego State in a game where the Bison out-hit the Aztecs seven to six but lost 6-1.  In that game, however, North Dakota State went with freshman pitcher Jacquelyn Sertic and did not use ace pitcher Krista Menke, who has been overpowering all season.  Menke, the Summit League Pitcher of the Year, is No. 2 in the nation in strikeouts with 362 on the season and is 32-4 overall.  Fresno State will counter with Jill Compton, the overwhelming favorite to win Mountain West Pitcher of the Year honors when the awards are revealed Tuesday.  The Bulldogs are 15-0 in Compton's last 15 starts.

Our Co-Coaches of the Year: Erica Beach & Trisha Ford

If we had a vote (which we don't), our picks for Mountain West Coach of the Year honors would go to two coaches actually.  They came into the 2015 season with wildly different expectations for their teams.  One was expected to be a conference champion.  The other was expected to be a conference bottom dweller.  One led a team with a target on its back all season.  The other guided a team almost unanimously picked to finish last.

In the end, both came up winners.

Our picks for Mountain West Co-Coaches of the Year for 2015:  Fresno State's Trisha Ford and New Mexico's Erica Beach.

The job Beach and her New Mexico staff did with the Lobos this season is nothing short of amazing.  UNM returned only one second-team All-MW player in 2015, and was coming off a 2014 season where the Lobos had the highest pitching staff ERA in the conference at a woeful 7.66.

Fast forward to this season.  Using the same pitchers from 2014, and adding just one new one in Krissy Fortner -- a student who didn't even play softball while attending UNM as a freshman last year -- the Lobos lowered their team ERA nearly in half to 4.11.  It was a stunning transformation.

New Mexico finished alone in fourth place in the final Mountain West standings at 13-11 in conference play and 29-25 overall.  The 13 league wins were the most by a UNM softball team since 2000 when the Lobos won 14 in the first year of the sports's existence in the conference.  The 29 overall wins are the most for New Mexico in 11 years and the fourth-place conference finish its highest since 2007 when the Mountain West housed only six teams.

Beach's squad earned four wins over Big Ten teams in non-conference play and picked up one of its biggest wins in school history with a dramatic comeback on the road at 3-time defending MW champion San Diego State.  Down by five runs entering the seventh inning against the Aztecs on April 24, UNM scored seven times for a stunning 8-6 win.

Just Friday, New Mexico pulled off its first shutout of the season as pitcher Lauren Soles and the Lobos blasted San Jose State 14-0 in five innings, eliminating the Spartans from the race for the conference crown.  That win solidified our choice of Beach as one of the coaches of the year.  It was clear:  New Mexico has turned its program around and the future is bright for the Lobos with Beach at the helm.

The only thing more difficult than being picked to finish last in a conference during the preseason:  Being picked to finish first.

Expectations were high at Fresno State entering this season.  They're always high at a program that ranks as one of the elite mid-majors in the country.  Trisha Ford not only met the high expectations, but exceeded them as the Bulldogs won the outright 2015 Mountain West championship by two full games over longtime rival San Diego State.

It's a credit to Ford that she even stepped into trying to fill the shoes of former Fresno State head coach Margie Wright.  Ford's teams play in a stadium named after Wright for heaven's sake!  Trying to follow a legend is never easy because there will always be comparisons no matter what.

But in her third year leading the Bulldogs, Ford turned the 2015 version of Fresno State softball into something the San Joaquin Valley hadn't seen for a long while -- a team that could beat you in virtually every way possible.  For the first time in more than a decade, and perhaps since the late 1990s when the Bulldogs were a fixture in Oklahoma City, this team has it all:  Top level pitching, a wide-ranging and effective defense, and a top-to-bottom lineup with big bats.

Under Ford, junior pitcher Jill Compton's progression has been a game-changer.  Compton has gone from good to very good to great in three years. The overwhelming favorite to win Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, Compton has been nearly unbeatable.  In fact, over her last 15 starts, she's been exactly that:  unbeatable.  Fresno State is 15-0 in the last 15 starts by the junior right-hander who owns a perfect game against Iowa this season.

As effective as Compton has been, the Bulldogs are much more than a one-trick pony.  Fresno State's entire 4-member pitching staff has been effective.  So effective, in fact, that the Bulldogs' staff ERA is nearly a point and a half better than any other team in the conference.  And did we mention hitting?

Under Ford and her staff, the real transformation has come at the plate.  Fresno State's team batting average of .328 is its highest in more than a decade and just narrowly behind the school record set by the 1998 NCAA championship team (.340).  The Bulldogs have 11 run-rule wins this season and are the only MW team not to be run-ruled despite a rigorous schedule that ranks among the top 50 in the country.

Several Bulldog players are having career type seasons.  Brenna Moss has the most hits and best batting average of her career, and her final regular-season .446 batting average ranks in the top five in school history.  With a program so rich in tradition, ranking among the best in school history at Fresno State is a feat in itself.  Michelle Solomon and Kierra Willis pack a 1-2 punch, each with over 50 RBI in their best seasons under Ford.  Transfers Alyssa Villalpando and Malia Rivers have blended in perfectly and carry .358 and .374 batting averages.

And it doesn't stop there.  What Ford has done with players like Bria Kennedy has been remarkable.  The 5-foot-1 junior entered the 2015 season with one hit for her career.  This season, she's an everyday starter with a .429 on-base percentage and the ability to deliver some of the team's biggest clutch hits of the season.  Included in that were her two home runs this weekend at UNLV, including her first career round-tripper in the game where the Bulldogs clinched the outright Mountain West championship.

Ford's Bulldogs are the first team to ever win 20 conference games in Mountain West play.  Fresno State will enter the NCAA tournament with 40 or more wins for the first time since 2008 when the Bulldogs earned one of 16 national seeds.  The team's current 11-game winning streak is also its longest since that 2008 season.

With a target on its back all season, and with soaring expectations, it wasn't easy to be Fresno State.  But the Bulldogs probably wouldn't have had it any other way.  Ford definitely delivered in 2015, and so did her team.  For that reason, we're proud to select her as one of our coaches of the year.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Fresno State completes epic run to the MW title with 40th win

The Fresno State Bulldogs didn't back into the Mountain West softball title.  They reached out and grabbed hold of it five weeks and never let go, continuing an epic run to the crown when they were all but unstoppable.  In the end, the Bulldogs Saturday became the first Mountain West team to ever win as many as 20 games in a season in conference play, finishing 20-4, a full two games ahead of 3-time defending MW champ San Diego State in the final standings.

When Fresno State opens play in its 31st NCAA Tournament next week, the Bulldogs will be the first Mountain West team since 2010 to enter regional play already with 40 or more wins under its belt.  The Bulldogs are now 40-14 overall.

Fresno State crushed UNLV for a third day in a row, winning 12-4 and handing the Rebels their first 3-game sweep at home in Las Vegas in over three years.  The Bulldogs ran their winning streak to a season-high 11 straight games and will enter the NCAA tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country.

Coach Trisha Ford's squad has gone 16-1 in its last 17 games during an epic final two months of the season.  Fresno State is 25-5 in its last 30 games following a rigorous stretch where the Bulldogs played the Florida Gators, Oregon Ducks, Arizona Wildcats and Baylor Bears in back to back to back to back games over a mere 28-hour span on a Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.

Junior pitcher Jill Compton won her 28th game of the season as Fresno State's success with her in the circle continued.  Over Compton's last 15 starts, the Bulldogs are a perfect 15-0 following Saturday's win over the Rebels.

Elsewhere Saturday, San Diego State kept its NCAA at-large hopes alive -- and likely strengthened them -- with a 3-1 win over Oregon State.  San Jose State rebounded from an embarrassing Friday with an 8-0 win at New Mexico.  Colorado State won its road series at Nevada with a 5-3 win Saturday, while Utah State beat Boise State 3-2 to sweep that road series.

Fresno State 12, UNLV 4 - The Bulldogs reached double figures in runs and hits for the third day in a row in a rout of the Rebels in Las Vegas to complete the 3-game sweep.  Alyssa Villalpando, who totaled six hits Thursday and Friday, had a monster 4-for-5 game with a double and three RBI, for a .769 series batting average.  Michelle Solomon's standout weekend continued with a 3-hit, 3 RBI day, and senior Brenna Moss captured the Mountain West batting title for the season with another 3-hit day.  Moss was 3-for-4 and ended the regular season with a career-high 82 hits and .436 batting average to lead the conference in both categories.  Kierra Willis capped a stellar sophomore season by reaching base safely in all five plate appearances, going 2-for-2 with three walks and her league-leading ninth triple and two RBI.  Paige Gumz counted a double among her two hits with an RBI, and Whitney Smith added a double and two RBI as Fresno State wrapped up a sweep in which it scored 37 runs on 47 hits.  Jill Compton allowed three hits to earn the win in four innings of work, but all three were home runs including two by Alyssa Cordova.  At one point in the game, the Bulldogs trailed 4-3 despite out-hitting UNLV eight to three at the time.  But like earlier in the series, each time the Rebels scored, the Bulldogs answered immediately.  Fresno State scored nine unanswered runs to win going away, including six in the top of the fifth inning.  Taylor Langdon, who got the final out to wrap up the conference title Friday, pitched three nearly perfect innings Saturday.  Langdon (3-0 this season) allowed only one single over the final three frames.

San Jose St. 8, New Mexico 0 (5 innings) - In sharp contrast to Friday's 14-0 run-rule rout by the Lobos, it was the Spartans who picked up the run-rule win Saturday.  Madison Fish pitched a 1-hit shutout and the Spartans had 11 hits and got similar performances from a variety of players.  Five San Jose State players finished with two hits and four of them (Michelle Cox, Jessica Madrid, Emma Entzminger and Nicole Schultz) had nearly identical stat lines:  two hits and two RBI with a double.  Entzminger's two hits were a double and a solo home run, her first as a collegian.  Sharon-Renae Estrada had a pair of singles.  Fish allowed a single to Gabrielle Stacey in the first inning but shut the Lobos down the remainder of the way.

Utah State 3, Boise State 2 (8 innings) - A season full of 1-run losses came to a merciful halt for the Broncos with their second straight 1-run loss.  Utah State earned the series road sweep as Hailey Froton delivered a 2-run knock in the top of the eighth before a sacrifice fly narrowed the score in the bottom of the frame.

Colorado State 5, Nevada 3 - The Rams completed a very up and down season on an up note by taking two of three in Reno against the Wolf Pack.  Taylor Hutton's 2-run home run in the third inning was one of four extra-base hits for Colorado State.  Holly Reinke, who also earned the pitching win, had two doubles and two RBI.

San Diego State 3, Oregon State 1 - In non-league action in San Diego, the Aztecs won the only game of the series after Friday's game was rained out and cancelled.  That cancellation meant Oregon State is still alive for NCAA at-large consideration with a 26-26 overall record.  SDSU, which finished two games behind Mountain West champion Fresno State in the final conference standings, has a good shot at an NCAA at-large bid Sunday with a 36-18 record.  A 2-run home run by Jenavee Peres following a Beavers error in the sixth was the difference.  OSU's C.J. Chirichigno hit a home run in the seventh off winning pitcher Erica Romero.

Friday, May 8, 2015

BREAKING: Fresno State is the 2015 Mountain West softball champion

Fresno State has won the Mountain West softball championship outright with a 15-7 (five innings) run-rule victory over UNLV in Las Vegas Friday night.  The Bulldogs are headed to their 31st NCAA softball tournament in 34 years and will learn Sunday where and against whom they will play.

The Bulldogs earned their NCAA bid while their game with the Rebels was still going on, thanks to New Mexico's 14-0 (five innings) pounding of San Jose State, eliminating the Spartans from the race for the crown.  Fresno State's 19 league wins are the most ever by a team in Mountain West play, and the Bulldogs can win their 20th MW game and 40th overall this season tomorrow.

Fresno State will take a 10-game winning streak into Saturday's regular-season finale at UNLV.

Fresno State 15, UNLV 7 (5 innings) - The Bulldogs were nearly unstoppable on offense, pounding out 16 hits, scoring in every inning, and run-ruling the Rebels for a second straight game in Las Vegas.  After hitting her first career home run Thursday night, Bria Kennedy followed it up with her second home run Friday when she had a three RBI night.  Kennedy's blast came in the top of the fifth and provided the final 8-run margin, enabling the run-rule to be invoked.  Kierra Willis and Alyssa Villalpando both hit doubles among their three hits apiece.  Brenna Moss hit a 2-run triple and finished with three RBI, while freshman Chase LeeHong had a pair of hits and three RBI as well.  Michelle Solomon and Paige Gumz each had two hits, with Solomon adding two RBI and a double.  Malia Rivers had a hit and RBI, and Whitney Smith walked twice and scored both times as every player in the lineup had a strong offensive showing.  On a rare night when Jill Compton gave up two home runs, including a first inning grand slam to Alyssa Cordova on an 0-2 pitch with two outs in the first inning, the Bulldogs' offense came to the rescue.  Both teams had defensive issues on another cool, windy night in Las Vegas.  Hannah Harris picked up the win in relief, allowing no earned runs in 2 1/3 innings.  When UNLV loaded the bases with two outs in the fifth with Fresno State up by eight runs, head coach Trisha Ford called on seldom-used junior pitcher Taylor Langdon to get the game's final out.  Langdon induced heavy-hitting All-MW Rebels senior Sam Juarez to ground out to third, where Villalpando made a nice play and threw to first for the game's final out.  The Bulldogs came rushing from the first base dugout to the circle where they celebrated their first outright conference championship in six years.  Fresno State is headed to the NCAA tournament for the 31st time in 34 seasons.  Janine Petmecky took the loss, allowing nine hits and eight runs in two innings.  The Bulldogs will enter the NCAA tourney as one of the hottest teams in the nation, running their winning streak to 10 in a row and earning a win for the 15th time in their last 16 games.

New Mexico 14, San Jose State 0 (5 innings) - This one was all Lobos from the outset as New Mexico hit four home runs and got an outstanding pitching performance from Lauren Soles, who completely shut down the Spartans.  Soles allowed six hits in New Mexico's first shutout of the season, and it came in a spot where San Jose State had to win to have any shot at the Mountain West regular-season championship.  UNM struck for 12 hits against four different SJSU pitchers, with starter Katelyn Linford getting the loss.  The hitting star of the night was Lisa Rodrigues, who finished with a staggering seven RBI in just two plate appearances.  Leading 5-0 in the third, Rodrigues came to the plate and delivered the hit that all but put it away -- a grand slam over the left field fence that gave New Mexico a commanding 9-run lead.  It was a grand slam that could be felt in Fresno and Las Vegas where the Bulldogs and their fans were anxiously scoreboard watching in the hopes of a New Mexico win.  Rodrigues wasn't done yet though.  In the fourth, following a Karissa Haleman triple and a walk, Rodrigues launched a 3-run homer to center.  It was a solo homer by Jasmine Casados in the first that got things started for UNM before Michala Erickson crushed one out to straightaway center on the first pitch of her at-bat in the second.  Erickson's shot made it 4-0.  Casados finished with three hits and three RBI, Erickson with two hits and two RBI, Haleman with two hits, and freshman Chelsea Johnson with a double and RBI.  Predicted to finish last in the conference this season, New Mexico is now guaranteed a winning record in Mountain West play and can become a 30-win team for the first time since 2004 with a victory on Saturday in the series finale.  SJSU, which controlled its own destiny in the league race less than two weeks ago, will finish third in the MW this season and is now a full three games behind champion Fresno State.

Nevada 3, Colorado State 2 (8 innings) - With two outs and no one on base in the bottom of the eighth, Molly McWilliams doubled and Nikki Orozco singled her home with the game-winning run for the Wolf Pack in Reno.  Orozco had two hits and two RBI to lead Nevada, which got a complete-game 7-hitter from Megan Dortch.

Utah State 10, Boise State 9 - A 10-run top of the third inning provided the Aggies with a big lead and they held on for the win in Boise.  Alleyah Armendariz picked up her second win of the season against 16 losses, while the Broncos lost their 41st game of the year.  There were three home runs in the game and all came from Boise State, including two by Hailey Torrez.  Six of USU's 11 hits were doubles.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Fresno State clinches tie for MW title, eliminates Aztecs

Fresno State has moved to the brink of its first outright Mountain West softball title, its first conference crown in six years, and its 22nd in school history.  Coach Trisha Ford's red-hot Bulldogs won their ninth consecutive game and were winners for the 14th time in their last 15.  Fresno State is 18-4 in conference play and two games ahead with two to play.

The Bulldogs clinched at least a portion of the regular-season Mountain West championship Thursday with a 10-2 (6 innings) run-rule win over UNLV in Las Vegas.  In the process, 3-time defending conference champion San Diego State was officially eliminated from the race to claim the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the Mountain West winner.

Fresno State's magic number is now 1.  One Bulldog win, or one San Jose State loss in its series with New Mexico, during the remainder of the weekend will give Fresno State the outright Mountain West championship and the accompanying automatic NCAA bid.

The Spartans kept their slim hopes alive, outlasting the Lobos 12-9 in a slugfest.  In other games, road teams Colorado State and Utah State run-ruled Nevada and Boise State.

Fresno State 10, UNLV 2 (6 innings) - The Bulldogs secured at least a piece of their 22nd softball conference championship and moved to the brink of the school's 31st NCAA Tournament bid with a run-rule win over the Rebels in Las Vegas.  Fresno State pounded out 14 hits in a game that could have even been more lopsided on the scoreboard.  The Bulldogs stranded 11 base runners in just the first four innings alone, and left the bases loaded in both the third and fourth innings.  Jill Compton's outstanding junior season continued as she won her 13th consecutive start, pitching a complete-game 5-hitter and striking out eight.  Compton is now 27-10 with 229 strikeouts.  It came on a very windy Las Vegas night with the wind blowing out of Eller Media Stadium.  Brenna Moss hit her first home run of the season, a 2-run shot in the sixth, and finished with three hits, two RBI and a pair of runs scored.  It was just the second home run of Moss' sterling 4-year Bulldog career. Junior Bria Kennedy launched her first career home run -- a solo shot to left in the third off UNLV starter Morgan Ettinger, who absorbed the loss.  Kennedy had a pair of RBI and hit a deep sacrifice fly to left in the first inning.  Malia Rivers had three hits, joining teammates Moss and Alyssa Villalpando in the 3-hit parade.  Villalpando, who had two RBI, got them on one of the most important hits of the game with a 2-run single in the top of the first inning.  It was part of a 4-run first for the Bulldogs and set the tone for the night.  All nine Bulldog batters had hits or scored runs.  Kierra Willis' hot bat continued with a pair of hits and an RBI, while Whitney Smith and Michelle Solomon had a hit and RBI, and hit and run scored, respectively.  Solomon narrowly missed a grand slam on a ball that just went foul down the left field line in the third.  Emily Haslinger had both UNLV RBI in the game, with a groundout and solo home run.  Already assured at least a co-championship, the Bulldogs obviously want this one all to themselves.  One Fresno State win or one San Jose State loss over the next two days gives the Bulldogs the automatic NCAA bid that goes to the Mountain West champion.  Fresno State (38-14), which is two wins shy of a 40-win season for the first time in five years, did not have a batter who struck out in the game.

San Jose State 12, New Mexico 9 - This one looked like it was going to be all Lobos early, before the Spartans responded with eight unanswered runs midway through the game before having to hold off New Mexico at the end.  UNM stormed to a 5-2 lead after two innings and had little trouble against San Jose State starter Allison Lang, who lasted just 1+ inning and gave up those five runs (all earned).  New Mexico had four big hits in the first when it scored three times to take a 3-0 lead.  Shelbie Franc singled, while Jasmine Casados and Karissa Haleman doubled, and freshman Chelsea Johnson smacked a 2-run home run over the fence in right.  The lead wouldn't last long as UNM ran into some pitching troubles of its own and senior starter Carrie Sheehan didn't make it out of the third inning.  San Jose State put up 4-spots in both the third and fourth innings to take a commanding 10-5 lead after getting down 5-2.  Jessica Madrid hit a 2-run homer in the third, while Jessie Hufstetler and Sharon-Renae Estrada both hit 2-run doubles in the fourth.  In the sixth, the Lobos rallied with an RBI single by Michala Erickson and a 2-run home run by Brandi Heimburg.  That made it a 10-8 game before SJSU added two more in the seventh with Madrid and Hufstetler causing the damage.  In the bottom of the seventh, Karissa Haleman went deep with a solo blast as UNM saw all three Spartans pitchers in the game.  Katelyn Linford, who went four innings of middle relief, grabbed the win, while Madison Fish entered in the sixth and finished the game.  Despite the win, SJSU moved to the brink of elimination in the conference race with Fresno State's road rout of UNLV.  Both the Lobos and Spartans finished with 12 hits each.

Colorado State 10, Nevada 2 (5 innings) - In Reno, a 10-run top of the second inning was all the Rams needed in a rout of the Wolf Pack.  Colorado State's 10 runs in the frame came on eight hits, including a pair of multi-run homers.  Danielle Wikre blasted a 3-run shot, while Taylor Hutton smashed a grand slam.  Holly Reinke scattered six hits to pick up the win.  Nevada's McKenna Isenberg took the loss and the Pack got a home run from Alyssa Mendez.

Utah State 16, Boise State 3 (5 innings) - In Boise, this matchup of struggling teams went the way of the Aggies, who snapped an 11-game losing streak.  Utah State hit five home runs as Hailey Froton, Alleyah Armendariz, Brina Buttacavoli, Paxton Provost and Noelle Johnson all hit round-trippers.  Johnson also scattered nine hits to pick up the pitching victory, while Nicole Wilson took the loss.  The Broncos and Aggies have combined for 76 losses this season against just 29 wins.

The Mountain West title & NCAA bid scenarios

Still confused about the scenarios for claiming the Mountain West title and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it?  Here's the only information you'll need for this weekend in one easy post.
  • Fresno State clinches the championship and automatic NCAA bid with 2 wins vs. UNLV this weekend OR with 1 win vs. UNLV, combined with at least 1 win by New Mexico over San Jose State this weekend.
  • San Jose State clinches the championship and automatic NCAA bid with a 3-game sweep of New Mexico, combined with at least two Fresno State losses at UNLV.
  • San Diego State clinches the championship and automatic NCAA bid if UNLV sweeps the 3-game series from Fresno State, and New Mexico wins at least 1 game in its series vs. San Jose State.
Thus, the title race can be over as early as today if both Fresno State and New Mexico win.  If the Bulldogs win today, San Diego State is automatically eliminated.  If the Lobos win today, San Jose State is automatically eliminated.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Mountain West title could be decided Thursday

Well, here we are.  It's the final week of the regular season and we're just four days away from Selection Sunday when the 64-team NCAA Tournament field will be unveiled (7 p.m. Pacific time on ESPNU).

Stop us if you've heard this before:  Fresno State will travel to the state of Nevada in firm control of the conference race in the final week of the season.  Does it remind you of anything?  It should, because the MW race is in nearly the exact same situation this year as last year. 

In 2014, the Bulldogs traveled to face the Nevada Wolf Pack in Reno in the season's final week.  Going in, Trisha Ford's squad knew all it had to do was win that series, or hope that the San Diego State-Boise State series didn't result in an Aztec sweep.  We all know how that turned out:  The Aztecs swept the Broncos, while the Bulldogs lost two of three to the Wolf Pack, and SDSU ended up winning the conference title by a game over the Bulldogs.

Instead of heading north to Reno, this season the Bulldogs will make the trek south to Las Vegas and UNLV.  Fresno State's lead this year is even greater than last season.  The Bulldogs hold a 2-game lead in the loss column over both San Diego State and San Jose State with three games to play.  By virtue of holding the tiebreaker over the Aztecs, one win by Fresno State means the Aztecs can not win the league's automatic NCAA bid.

That painful 2014 ending lingered all offseason in the minds of what is now an older, more experienced, and more focused group of Bulldogs in 2015.  A key difference has been the stretch drives of the two teams.  The 2014 Bulldog team was 8-8 in its final 16 games; its final RPI of 59 meant Ford's squad was on the outside looking in when NCAA bids were announced and San Diego State was the lone Mountain West representative.

This season looks a lot different.  Fresno State is one of the hottest teams in the country right now, riding an 8-game winning streak and earning victories in 13 of its last 14 games.  With an RPI of 46 and strong numbers when you look inside the RPI (a 4-1 record vs. teams ranked 26 to 50, and 22 wins vs. the RPI top 150), the Bulldogs are far better suited for an NCAA at-large bid this season than last.  Here's the caveat though:  Fresno State does not want to leave its NCAA fate up to the selection committee.

The deal is this:  Two wins this week will give the Bulldogs the outright Mountain West championship and automatic NCAA berth.  Fresno State also can grab that NCAA bid with just one victory, provided that New Mexico wins at least one of its three home games this weekend versus San Jose State.  The Bulldogs are the only MW team that controls its own destiny heading into the final week of the season.

That means the title could be decided as early as Thursday.  A Fresno State win, combined with a San Jose State loss, gives the Bulldogs the automatic bid and will end the suspense early.  Obviously the Spartans and Rebels will have a lot to say about that though.

New Mexico can secure coach Erica Beach's first 30-win season if the Lobos win at least two games this weekend against San Jose State.  After being picked to finish last in the conference, UNM has been the biggest surprise.  One victory will assure the Lobos of a winning Mountain West record.

San Diego State, which has completed its conference schedule, hosts a reeling Oregon State team whose season went downhill quickly with an injury to its top pitcher, Bev Miller.  The Beavers got off to a good start this season and were 18-5 and looking like an NCAA lock before Miller's injury.  She came back for the first time in several weeks on Saturday and led her team to a win over nationally-ranked Washington.  But it could be too late.  OSU is 4-16 in its last 20 games and must beat San Diego State at least once this weekend to even be in consideration for an at-large bid, per NCAA rules.  Oregon State is currently 26-25 overall, and a team must finish at .500 or above for NCAA Tournament consideration.

Colorado State closes the season at Nevada, while Boise State hosts Utah State.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fresno State receives Top 25 votes for a 3rd straight week

Currently riding a season-high 8-game winning streak and alone in first place in the Mountain West, Fresno State received Top 25 votes for a third consecutive week in the latest Softball poll, released Tuesday.

It is the final poll to be released prior to Selection Sunday, which is just five days away.  At 7 p.m. Pacific time on May 10, the Field of 64 for this year's NCAA tournament will be unveiled live on ESPNU.

The Bulldogs received enough votes to rank 36th this week. 

Aztecs' Bauer and Romero win weekly conference honors

San Diego State's Lorena Bauer and Erica Romero have been named the Mountain West Player and Pitcher of the Week.  Romero pitched all 19 innings in the Aztecs' sweep over Utah State last week and won three games in the 9-3, 10-2 and 10-4 wins.  Bauer now leads the conference with 18 home runs on the season after a standout weekend.  The Aztecs are currently in second place in the league with one week remaining, even though they've completed their portion of the conference schedule.  SDSU hosts Oregon State this weekend in two non-conference games.

How a conference tournament may have looked this season

If the Mountain West had a conference postseason tournament like virtually every other league in the nation, or like baseball does in the Mountain West, this bracket shows how a 9-team, single-elimination tournament might have looked this season.

Another idea of a bracket format that's been gaining traction around the country is an abbreviated, 4-or 6-team tournament.  A 4-team tournament, taking the top four finishers in the regular-season race, might be a good idea for the Mountain West should the conference decided to renew its tourney, which was last held in 2006.

A 4-team, double-elimination format would likely provide an RPI boost to all four participants on  the season's final weekend.  It could only help, rather than hinder, the conference's quest for multiple NCAA bids.  The last time the Mountain West held a conference postseason tournament -- in the 2006 season -- the league earned three NCAA bids, including two at-large bids.  The following season, 2007, that number dropped to one.

While the MW appears better suited for multiple NCAA bids this season than in recent years, it's worth noting that the conference has sent only its regular-season champion to the NCAA tournament for three straight years.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fresno State's magic numbers ... and what those numbers mean

We're entering the final week of Mountain West softball, and first-place Fresno State holds the inside track to the conference regular-season championship and the accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.  The red-hot Bulldogs, winners of 13 of their past 14 games, will carry an 8-game winning streak into the last week of the season.

Fresno State enters the final week holding a 2-game lead in the loss column over both San Diego State and San Jose State.  The Aztecs have completed their regular season, while the Bulldogs and Spartans both have three games left to play.

While there are several different scenarios, this one is the easiest:  If Fresno State wins at least two games of the 3-game series against UNLV, nothing else matters.  The Bulldogs do not have to scoreboard watch this week because they control their own destiny and even have a bit of wiggle room.  San Jose State and San Diego State do not have that same luxury.

Here's the deal:

Fresno State's magic number to eliminate San Diego State is 1.

The Bulldogs are 17-4 in Mountain West play and SDSU has finished the season at 18-6.  Fresno State, by virtue of winning its series against the Aztecs in San Diego last month, holds the tiebreaker.  The bottom line:  One Fresno State victory this week in the Bulldogs' series at UNLV will eliminate San Diego State from contending for the Mountain West's automatic NCAA bid.  If Fresno State finishes in a 2-way tie for the title at 18-6 with SDSU, the teams would be declared co-champions but the Bulldogs would earn the automatic NCAA bid.

Fresno State's magic number to eliminate San Jose State is 2.

The Bulldogs are 17-4 in Mountain West play and SJSU is 15-6 and closes the season with a 3-game road series at New Mexico this week.  San Jose State, by virtue of winning its series against the Bulldogs in March and the Aztecs in April, holds the tiebreaker in the event there is a 3-way tie for the title at 18-6.  The bottom line:  One Fresno State victory this week in the Bulldogs' series at UNLV, combined with one additional Fresno State win or one or more San Jose State loss at New Mexico will eliminate the Spartans from contending for the Mountain West's automatic NCAA bid.  San Jose State must sweep New Mexico to have a shot at winning the automatic NCAA bid, and even then it would not be enough if Fresno State wins at least two of three against UNLV.

San Diego State faces long odds of winning the automatic NCAA bid.

The Aztecs have completed their Mountain West season with an 18-6 record, but face long odds because they don't hold any tiebreak scenario against either the Bulldogs or Spartans after losing conference series to both.  In fact, SDSU is caught between a rock and a hard place, so to speak, because it must hope for at least one San Jose State loss against New Mexico.  But a Spartans loss also helps Fresno State and would mean the Bulldogs would win the Mountain West title and the automatic NCAA bid with just one win against UNLV.  San Diego State's only means of capturing the automatic NCAA bid is for San Jose State to lose at least one game to New Mexico, and for Fresno State to be swept in its 3-game series against UNLV.  How long are those odds?  The Bulldogs are riding an 8-game winning streak and have won 13 of their last 14 games and have never been swept in Mountain West play.  Moreover,  Fresno State has been swept in a 3-game conference series only twice in the Bulldogs' 38-year program history.

San Jose State has an outside chance at winning the automatic NCAA bid.

While currently two games behind Fresno State in the conference standings with three games left to play, the Spartans still have a shot.  It will require a set of circumstances that fall exactly right for San Jose State, and defy the odds of what's happened so far this season.  SJSU must become not only the first Mountain West team this season to sweep a 3-game series from New Mexico in Albuquerque, but also the first to even win a series in Albuquerque.  UNM is the only team in the conference to win each of its home series this season.  Even one loss eliminates San Jose State from both the regular-season title and winning the automatic NCAA bid.  And, as outlined above, even sweeping the 3-game series at New Mexico will not be enough if Fresno State wins at least two games against UNLV.

Fresno State wins the automatic NCAA bid if any of these scenarios happen:
  • the Bulldogs sweep UNLV
  • the Bulldogs win the series against UNLV (2 of 3)
  • the Bulldogs win 1 game against UNLV, and San Jose State does not sweep New Mexico
 San Jose State wins the automatic NCAA bid if this exact scenario happens:
  • the Spartans sweep New Mexico, and Fresno State does not win more than 1 game against UNLV
San Diego State wins the automatic NCAA bid if this exact scenario happens:
  • San Jose State does not sweep New Mexico, and Fresno State is swept against UNLV

Sunday's action sets the stage for final week of play

On the final day of the penultimate week of the regular season, things went pretty much as expected.  Teams at the top picked up wins, while the bottom dwellers in the Mountain West standings showed why they're in that position.

San Diego St. 10, Utah State 4 - The Aztecs set a school-record with six home runs, giving them 58 for the season, which ties the school mark.  Utah State, which limped to the end of last season and finished with 10 straight losses, is doing it again this year as Sunday's loss was the Aggies' season-high 11th in a row.  USU has been outscored 84-25 during its current 11-game losing streak. SDSU kept its slim Mountain West title hopes alive by winning its fifth in a row and scoring nine unanswered runs after trailing 4-1 entering the third.  Noelle Johnson was all the Aggies had on this day, pitching a complete game and getting all four RBI with a 2-run homer and 2-run double.  The Aztecs got two home runs from Sydnee Cable and one each from Kayla Jordan, Taylor Stewart, Kayla Bufardeci and Hayley Miles.  Erica Romero got the win and scattered 10 hits as USU stranded 11 base runners.

San Jose St. 7, Nevada 1 - The Spartans won their second straight game over the Wolf Pack after snapping a 3-game losing streak.  Katelyn Linford allowed three hits in the win and San Jose State had 12 of its own, with the Spartans' 2 through 4 hitters in the lineup accounting for 75 percent of the team's hits in the game.  Jessica Madrid, Jessie Hufstetler and Anissa Pinedo all had three hits, and Madrid and Pinedo finished with two RBI each.  Nevada used three pitchers in the contest and committed a pair of errors.  The aforementioned trio of Spartans hitters accounted for the only extra-base hits for San Jose State as all three finished with one double.  Linford had nine strikeouts in the victory.

New Mexico 11, Boise State 3 (5 innings) - Facing a 3-0 deficit in the bottom of the fourth inning, the Lobos erupted for 10 runs on seven hits to win this one going away and sweep the 3-game series.  Predicted to finish last in the preseason poll of Mountain West coaches, New Mexico now is one win away from being guaranteed a winning record in conference play and two wins shy of a 30-win season.  With two wins next week, coach Erica Beach's squad can also finish the regular season as the only Mountain West team to win all four of its home conference series.  UNM got five consecutive hits to begin the bottom of the fourth as Mariah Rimmer singled to begin the frame and Karissa Haleman doubled her home.  A Chelsea Johnson single, Mia Hignojos double and Lisa Rodrigues 2-run single would follow.  The inning culminated in a 3-run home run by Johnson in her second at-bat of the inning.  Rodrigues' solo blast in the fifth ended the game via the run rule and also handed her the victory in relief.  Nicole Wilson took the loss for struggling Boise State, which has now lost a school record 39 games.

UNLV 7, Colorado State 3 - The Rams committed four errors for the second straight game and they proved costly once again in a home loss to the Rebels, who captured the series two games to one.  Five of UNLV's 12 hits went for extra bases and came against Rams freshman pitcher Trinity Harrington, who picked up the win in the series opener on Friday.  Garie Blando, Alyssa Cordova and Janine Petmecky all had two hits.  Morgan Ettinger pitched the complete-game victory for the Rebels, surviving a tense seventh inning when Colorado State scored a pair of runs and brought the potential tying run to the plate with two outs.  Taylor Hutton popped up to shortstop to end the game with the bases loaded.  Colorado State finished the home portion of its schedule with a surprising 2-10 conference record.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Bulldogs win 8th straight; Spartans, Aztecs win

Saturday was a day of status quo action around Mountain West softball as every favored team came out on the winning side.

Fresno State ran its winning streak to eight straight with a 5-0 non-conference road win over Pacific in Stockton.  Pitcher Jill Compton continued her stellar junior season with another shutout, allowing only three hits and picking up her 26th victory of the season, while Kierra Willis supplied four RBI.  The first-place Bulldogs' 8-game winning streak is their longest since 2009, when they last won an outright conference championship.

San Diego State used the hot bat of Lorena Bauer and run-ruled a reeling Utah State team that lost its 10th game in a row.  Bauer's conference-leading 18th home run was the highlight for the Aztecs, while the game marked the third time in just two seasons that the Aggies have had a losing streak of at least 10 games.

San Jose State snapped a 3-game losing streak by turning the tables and taking advantage of a costly Nevada error in an 8-4, come-from-behind win over the Wolf Pack.  In other games, UNLV got a huge day from Samantha Juarez and run-ruled Colorado State to even that series, while New Mexico cemented its third home conference series win of the season by knocking off Boise State.

Fresno State 5, Pacific 0 - Jill Compton struck out seven and allowed only three hits as the Bulldogs shut out the Tigers on the road in Stockton.  Not only was it Compton's 12th straight win when starting a game, it marked the seventh time in those 12 starts she didn't allow an earned run.  Fresno State joined nationally-ranked Washington and Big West champion Cal State Northridge as the only teams to shut out Pacific at home this season.  The Tigers entered the game on a hot streak of their own, having won seven of their last nine contests. Sophomore Kierra Willis delivered a pair of big hits and finished with four RBI, giving her a team-leading 51 on the season.  After Malia Rivers hit an RBI single in the third to put the Bulldogs up 1-0, Willis blasted a deep 3-run homer over the fence in right-center for a 4-0 lead.  With two outs in the seventh, Michelle Solomon doubled and Willis singled her home for a fifth run.  Hannah Harris came on to pitch the bottom of the seventh, retiring UOP in order as Fresno State ran its winning streak to its longest in six years.  The Bulldogs faced a pair of Tigers pitchers who'd both won West Coast Conference Pitcher of the Week honors this season, including reigning WCC pitcher of the week Dani Bonnet.

San Diego St. 10, Utah State 2 (5 innings) - This one looked like a mismatch from the outset, with SDSU's Erica Romero heading to the circle for the Aztecs against Alleyah Armendariz (1-16, 9.62 ERA).  It turned out to be exactly that.  Romero made her 50th appearance in 52 San Diego State games this season and picked up her 32nd win against 16 defeats by allowing seven hits.  She had little trouble beating Utah State for a second day in a row as SDSU stormed to an early lead and never looked back.  In the end, the hit totals for the two teams weren't as lopsided as the score.  The Aztecs had nine hits to seven for USU, but the big difference was this:  San Diego State made its hits count in a big way.  Armendariz ran into trouble from the outset as Kayla Jordan doubled to begin the game and Taylor Stewart hit a 3-run home run to make it 4-0 before the game's second out had been recorded.  Lorena Bauer hit her league-leading 18th home run -- a 2-run shot with no outs in the top of the third inning -- and Armendariz was gone not long after that, replaced by freshman Paige Mills (16.80 ERA).  USU got a home run from Noelle Johnson but it wouldn't make much of a dent in the game.  With Johnson not pitching, Utah State was doomed.  No other Utah State pitcher has won more than one game this season, and the Aggies are now 4-34 over the past two seasons when Johnson is not the pitcher of record. Bauer finished with four RBI after hitting a 2-run single an inning after her homer.

San Jose St. 8, Nevada 4 - In San Jose, the host Spartans used a 6-run fifth inning to surge past the Wolf Pack and snap a 3-game losing streak.  Unlike Friday when San Jose State had all sorts of problems defensively, this time SJSU took advantage of a big Wolf Pack miscue to get on the board.  Nevada took an early 2-0 lead in the first against Madison Fish and the Spartans as Karley Hopkins and Jasmine Jenkins started the game with back-to-back doubles.  Leading 3-0 in the fourth, the Pack missed a chance to break the game wide open when Jenkins grounded out with the bases loaded for the final out.  It seemed to give SJSU some hope and momentum, and a Nevada error in the bottom of the fourth changed the complexion of the game and got the Spartans on the scoreboard.  With pitcher Megan Dortch throwing well to that point and keeping the Spartans' offense off-balance, SJSU had runners at first and second base with no outs after consecutive walks.  Dortch got Alyssa Martinez to hit a grounder that initially looked like a possible double play.  Instead, an error by Hopkins turned two outs into none, and allowed a Spartans run to score and put Nevada into a bind.  SJSU would score two runs in the inning without benefit of a hit.  An inning later, after Megan Sweet hit a homer to make it 4-2, SJSU erupted for six runs on just three hits as a pair of walks and a hit batter provided the base runners for key hits, including an Erin Rodriguez 2-run double and Sharon-Renae Estrada 2-run homer.  Both teams finished with seven hits.

New Mexico 7, Boise State 5 - In a game that was interrupted for a time by a lightning weather delay, the Lobos won for a second day in a row over the Broncos, clinching their third straight home series win in Mountain West play.  After Boise State took a 2-1 lead in the top of the second, this one was decided in large part by a 6-run bottom of the second for New Mexico.  The Lobos' six runs in the frame came on five hits -- all in a row -- after Lisa Rodrigues walked to begin the inning.  UNM got consecutive singles from Katie Gallucci, Michala Erickson, Brandi Heimburg, Shelbie Franc and Mariah Rimmer.  The singles by Erickson, Franc and Rimmer all scored runs, while the fourth run of the inning came home on a hit by pitch.  Karissa Haleman hit a sacrifice fly before the sixth run of the second scored on a Boise State error.  To the Broncos' credit, they haven't packed it in for the season and still have some fight left despite a 12-38 record.  A 2-run home run by Devon Bridges pulled Boise State within 7-4 and came just before the break in action due to threatening skies and lightning in the distance.  After the game resumed, BSU held the Lobos scoreless the rest of the way and the Broncos came close to tying it in the seventh.  With two outs and two on base, Izzy Serrano hit an RBI double to make it a 7-5 game and put a pair of Broncos in scoring position.  UNM southpaw Lauren Soles (9-5), who went the distance and scattered 10 hits, got Sara Ketelsleger to fly out and end the Boise State scoring threat.  Freshman Rachel Rodriguez (5-20) took the loss and went just 1+ inning.  Heimburg had three hits, Franc two, and Rimmer a pair of hits and two RBI for UNM, which has its sights on a 30-win season when few thought that was possible back in January.

UNLV 12, Colorado State 3 (5 innings) - In Fort Collins, the Rams committed three costly errors early and that all but sealed their fate on a day where Samantha Juarez had a pair of home runs and a staggering eight RBI.  Juarez hit a 2-run home run in the first inning after Garie Blando led off the game by reaching on an error by CSU starting pitcher Holly Reinke.  Two more Rams errors in the second inning led to a pair of additional runs and it was 4-0.  In the third, UNLV put the game out of reach with a 7-run frame that included a grand slam off the bat of Juarez.  Colorado State ended the game with as many errors (4) as hits, and lost for the ninth time in 11 conference games at home this season.  The Rebels had 14 hits, 11 of which were singles.  Blando finished with two RBI on a day where Juarez was the clear game-changer.  Morgan Ettinger evened her record at 9-9 with the win in a complete-game effort.  A year after earning all-conference honors, Reinke saw her record this season drop to 10-19.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Nevada stuns suddenly slumping Spartans 6-5

The first game of the day Friday turned out to be one of the most shocking upsets of the Mountain West softball season.  (Check back for updates).

The Nevada Wolf Pack, who'd lost four consecutive games and 10 of their last 12 entering Friday, pulled off a stunning 6-5 win at San Jose State, sending the Spartans to another frustrating loss.  In the process, idle Fresno State inched closer to the Mountain West title, pushing its conference lead to two games in the loss column over both SJSU and San Diego State, with the Bulldogs having just three MW games left.

Nevada 6, San Jose St. 5 - The Spartans committed a season-high six errors and Nevada pulled off its biggest win of the season in San Jose. For coach Peter Turner's Spartans, it was a third straight loss as San Jose State fell three games off the pace in the race for a Mountain West title.  Nevada won on a Friday series opener in conference play for the first time this season and had 13 hits after managing just nine during last week's entire 3-game series at Fresno State.  SJSU took a 1-0 lead before the Pack tied it on a Megan Sweet home run in the 2nd.  Sweet, who had two RBI, was one of three Wolf Pack players with three hits in the game, joining Karley Hopkins and Molly McWilliams.  Nevada led 5-2 in the fifth after the Spartans committed their fifth and sixth errors of the game with two outs in the frame.  SJSU, after scoring a run in the fifth, tied it in the sixth on a Jessica Madrid RBI single and Jessie Hufstetler triple.  Hopkins' RBI single with two outs in the top of the seventh on a sharp comebacker to reliever Madison Fish plated the game-winner and set up a tense bottom of the seventh.  Freshman Chase Redington, who picked up the win despite pitching just 1/3 of an inning and recording the final out of the sixth inning, gave up a leadoff single and walk to begin the seventh.  Megan Dortch was then called on in relief as the third Pack pitcher of the afternoon.  Dortch immediately induced a groundout and recorded out number one on an interference call on the Spartans' base runner. A walk loaded the bases before Dortch made a nice scoop play on a comebacker to get a force out at home and maintain the 1-run lead.  Then, with the bases still loaded and two outs, Dortch struck out SJSU's leading hitter, Michelle Cox, on a strike three looking to finish it off.  Both starting pitchers (McKenna Isenberg for Nevada and Allison Lang for San Jose State) gave up 12 hits in the game, and neither was around at the end.  Hufstetler led the Spartans at the plate with three hits.  SJSU's 3-game losing streak is its longest of the season.

San Diego St. 9, Utah State 3 - The Aztecs struck for some early runs to take a big lead, and the struggling Aggies dropped their ninth game in a row.  Utah State got a ray of hope in this one as Noelle Johnson returned to the lineup for the first time since April 18 and made the pitching start, but the Aztecs pushed three runs across in the second and were never really threatened.  San Diego State had 13 hits, including five for extra bases.  Lorena Bauer hit her league-leading 17th home run of the year, a solo shot, and finished with three hits.  Jenavee Peres had a pair of doubles among her three hits and added two RBI.  Erica Romero started and went the distance again, and has now pitched in 49 of San Diego State's 51 games this season.  In addition to pitching, Johnson had a pair of doubles to lead Utah State at the plate.  Hailey Froton added two hits for an Aggies team dealing with major injury issues.  Utah State again played minus sophomore Victoria Saucedo, the 2014 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, and Sarah Chow, the team's leading hitter with a .413 average, a mark that ranks fifth-best in the conference.

Colorado State 3, UNLV 0 -
Freshman hurler Trinity Harrington threw a complete-game 4-hitter and led the Rams to just their second home win of the season in conference play.  Colorado State scored single runs in the third, fourth and fifth innings against UNLV starting pitcher Janine Petmecky, who allowed eight hits and took the loss.  Haley Hutton's RBI single in the third got the Rams on the board and marked one of two hits for Hutton in the game.  It was Taylor Hutton's turn an inning later as her RBI double made it a 2-0 lead after Savannah Clark led off the inning with a double of her own.  A bunt single was CSU's lone hit of the fifth, but some wildness from Petmecky (two walks, including one to Danielle Wikre with the bases loaded, and a hit by pitch) allowed a third run.  A pinch-hit double by Merina Ili with one out in the seventh was the lone extra-base hit for the Rebels against Harrington, who now has four shutouts and five wins on the season.  During a stretch between the second and sixth innings, Harrington retired 10 Rebels batters in a row.

New Mexico 7, Boise State 6 - The Lobos scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning to send the Broncos to another crushing loss in a season full of them.  It was the 11th one-run loss of the season for the Broncos.  For New Mexico, it was the exact opposite and continued a trend of winning close games.  Coach Erica Beach's squad has won 26 games this season, 11 of which have either been by one run or in extra innings.  After Boise State took advantage of a 2-out infield error by New Mexico to score three unearned runs in the sixth and take a 6-4 lead, the Lobos rallied in the seventh.  Broncos pitcher Nicole Wilson, who allowed seven hits to that point and was in line for the win, hit Michala Erickson on the first pitch of the seventh inning and was immediately pulled.  Freshman Rachel Rodriguez entered in place of Wilson and ran into trouble quickly.  A Brandi Heimburg single and Shelby Franc bunt loaded the bases with no outs.  Jasmine Casados then singled to plate a run and Boise State committed an error to bring home another run to tie it.  Following a strikeout, freshman Chelsea Johnson hit a sacrifice fly to center and it was over.  Johnson's three RBI led the Lobos.  Krissy Fortner picked up the win in relief, while Rodriguez took the loss.  Heimburg and Casados had three hits each, and Boise State got a 2-hit, 2-RBI outing from Lindsey Nicholson.