Sunday, May 10, 2015

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.