Sunday, January 3, 2016
With the start of the 2016 season just five weeks from Thursday, it's time for our preseason predictions in the Mountain West softball race.
No surprise here. Perennial powers Fresno State and San Diego State look strong and sit atop our preseason forecast. Both look like NCAA Tournament-bound teams once again, and the Mountain West looks as deep as it has in several years. The Bulldogs return one of the best and most experienced pitching staffs in the entire country, while the Aztecs could be the most balanced team in the conference.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Fresno State ranked in the national Top 25 polls or San Diego State to be receiving Top 25 votes to begin the season.
New Mexico looks to continue a resurgence that began last year when the Lobos opened many eyes with a fourth-place conference finish after being predicted last by MW coaches. San Jose State returns a lot of talent but also needs to replace a lot if it wants to improve on last year's third-place finish.
And with that, here are our 2016 blog picks for individual honors:
Preseason Pitcher of the Year - Jill Compton, senior, Fresno State
Compton has progressed from a good pitcher as a freshman, to very good as a sophomore, to great last season when she was named Mountain West Pitcher of the Year and earned NFCA First Team All-Pacific Region honors. The other pitcher with whom Compton shared that honor? None other than Oregon's Cheridan Hawkins, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year and someone who led her team to the NCAA championship game. That's some fine company to keep, and it shows just how good Compton was a year ago. The MW leader in ERA and strikeouts, Compton won 28 games a year ago, threw her third career no-hitter (a perfect game over the Big Ten's Iowa Hawkeyes), and set a record by becoming the first player in conference history to win Mountain West Pitcher of the Week honors four consecutive weeks during one stretch. A 9-time MW Pitcher of the Week honoree and 3-time First Team All-MW selection, Compton flirted with the all-time league best ERA in conference play a year ago, and enters this season topping the Mountain West with 63 wins and 546 strikeouts. She's a difference maker. Given her progression, and increased maturity and poise in the circle, it's a good bet that Compton is set for an outstanding senior season.
Preseason Field Player of the Year - Jenavee Peres, soph., San Diego State
Just a sophomore, Peres began her freshman season with the Aztecs in 2015 a bit slower than expected after entering the year with a lot of hype generated from an outstanding high school and travel ball career. However, once she got going in 2015, Peres turned in a strong season on her way to earning conference Freshman of the Year honors. In conference play, she turned things up a notch as SDSU set seven offensive single-season team records. It appears as though she will be stronger this season with the freshman jitters long gone. Now invited to compete this week at the USA Softball Women's National Team selection camp, even bigger things are expected of Peres in 2016. The catcher helped her USA Junior National team win the gold medal last summer at the world championships and led them to a fifth-place finish at the World Cup of Softball X. Peres hit nine home runs, 11 doubles, and had 48 RBI as a freshman for the Aztecs, on her way to a .347 batting average. She earned NFCA Second Team All-West Region honors during a year where she had a .575 slugging percentage and .411 on-base percentage.
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year - Paige Gumz, senior, Fresno State
Last season, Gumz was honored as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year with another outstanding season behind the plate as the Bulldogs' catcher. There's reason to believe she can be even better this time around. Gumz has started all 162 games during her Fresno State career and is a big reason why the Bulldogs' pitching staff has found such success over the last three seasons. With a staggering fielding percentage of .997, Gumz committed just one error a year ago in 321 chances to lead the Mountain West's top team in overall fielding percentage. She's thrown out 20 base runners attempting to steal, and never had more than two errors in a single season despite starting every game the Bulldogs have played the last three years.
Preseason Freshman Pitcher of the Year - Brooke Bolinger, Nevada
A 2-time CIF All-Southern Section Division II first team pick, Bolinger's arrival gives the Wolf Pack some hope. Nevada has struggled in conference play for several years, primarily because it has been forced to win slugfests and hasn't had consistent pitching. Could Bolinger be the remedy? Coach Matt Meuchel certainly hopes so. The transition from high school to college, particularly in the pitching circle, can be difficult, but it's hard to deny the numbers Bolinger put up in high school. During her senior year at Yucaipa High, all she did was compile a 31-3 record with an amazing 0.26 ERA and 306 strikeouts in 211+ innings in leading her team to the D-II championship. The title-clinching win came against Mission Viejo, which entered the game unbeaten (30-0) behind Arizona-bound pitcher Taylor McQuillin. Over the last 18 games of her senior year, her ERA dropped to a mere 0.07. Those are truly stunning numbers, especially in a section that includes some of the nation's top high school players. Given Nevada's soft non-conference schedule, it would surprise no one if Bolinger made some big noise very early in her Wolf Pack career.
Preseason Freshman Field Player of the Year - Dominique Jackson, Fresno State
A 2-time CIF Northern Section Player of the Year and First Team All-State pick, Jackson gives the Bulldogs a new look on offense. A true power hitter, Jackson possesses a big bat to complement an already-potent Fresno State team. A second team high school All-American, she hit 30 home runs in high school, has already been featured in Sports Illustrated, and owns CIF section single-season records in home runs and RBI, as well as a conference record in stolen bases. And we got a glimpse in her first-ever appearance in a Bulldog uniform during Fall Ball that she could be something special. In October, she delivered the game-tying, RBI double in the fifth inning of Fresno State's game versus 3-time NPF champion USSSA Pride. And it came against 4-time All-American and 2014 NCAA Most Outstanding Player Hannah Rogers, the former standout for NCAA champion Florida. Fresno State, which used four different pitchers in that 1-run contest, gave USSSA Pride its closest game on the Pride's Fall tour that included stops at Arizona State, among others.
And now, our predictions for conference finish:
1. Fresno State
2. San Diego State
3. New Mexico
4. San Jose State
7. Utah State
8. Colorado State
9. Boise State
1. Fresno State (40-16, 20-4 a year ago)
2. San Diego State (38-20, 18-6 a year ago)
3. New Mexico (29-25, 13-11 a year ago)
After being predicted to finish last in the conference a year ago, New Mexico and coach Erica Beach surprised a lot of people with a team that finished fourth. Along the way, UNM picked up a road win at San Diego State and put an end to San Jose State's NCAA chances with a shocking, run-rule rout of the Spartans. New Mexico's pitching was vastly improved a year ago compared to the 2014 season, and the good news for UNM is that much of the talent returns. Pitchers Krissy Fortner and Lauren Soles, who combined to win 19 of the team's 29 games a year ago, return after ranking first and second on the team in ERA. Seven of the top nine players in terms of batting average return as well, including Jasmine Casados (.386) and second team All-MW pick Mariah Rimmer (.378), both of whom stepped up big a year ago and were important factors in the Lobos' improvement. Eight freshmen join the club, along with a new set of assistant coaches. The most intriguing name for those who follow college softball is new UNM assistant Shelby Pendley, the former Oklahoma star who won a national title while with the Sooners. New Mexico surprised many a year ago when it went into the season with low expectations. Now let's see how the Lobos respond when the expectations are higher than they've been in years. On paper, this team looks solid.
4. San Jose State (37-19, 17-7 a year ago)
The Spartans finished third a year ago, but a late season losing streak kept the squad from reaching the NCAA Tournament. Everything seemed to be going the Spartans' way in April. They became the first MW team to take a 3-game series from Fresno State at Margie Wright Diamond, winning two of three. Then, they got a pair of wins at San Diego State to take that series as well. In fact, they nearly swept the Aztecs in that series before falling in extra innings in the finale. In control of their own destiny, with the conference title seemingly theirs in late April, and -- most importantly -- holding the tiebreaker over both Fresno State and San Diego State, things ended with a thud. Coach Peter Turner's Spartans were run-ruled at UNLV, then stunned at home by Santa Clara in a non-conference game, before losing a third straight against Nevada, also at home. A shocking 14-0, run-rule loss at New Mexico on the final weekend of the regular season ended SJSU's title hopes. The Spartans would end the year with a MW record .350 team batting average, but no postseason. This could be a rebuilding year in San Jose. The Spartans lost their top two pitchers (Allison Lang and Madison Fish), who accounted for 22 of the team's 24 complete games and 29 of its 37 wins. No returning pitcher has an ERA below 6.00, so Turner went the international route and picked up Australian Chantelle Ladner, who competed with her country's junior national team. She could be the key to the Spartans' season. Top returnees include First Team All-MW picks Jessica Madrid (.439, 79 hits) and Jessie Hufstetler (.435, 11 home runs, 69 RBI). A lot will be asked of their bats to offset the losses of Michelle Cox (.419, 78 hits), Nicole Schultz (.359), and Sharon-Renae Estrada (.348, nine HR). Hufstetler and Madrid are two players to build around, but it's difficult to see this year's team matching last season's record unless Ladner has a spectacular season. Few teams in the conference lost as much combined pitching and hitting. After a 37-win season last year, it's very hard to see the team matching it in 2016.
5. UNLV (25-30, 11-13 a year ago)
Last year, the Rebels started out strong, picking up marquee non-conference wins against the likes of Louisville, DePaul, Houston and Northwestern. From there, it was mostly downhill. After going unbeaten to win their own Rebel Classic in early March, UNLV lost its next seven in a row and 10 of 11. Giving the Rebs hope this year is the return of senior Garie Blando, the league's Player of the Year two years ago and a key to UNLV's offense. Blando led the team in virtually every offensive category a year ago, batting .389, with 15 home runs, 16 doubles and 70 hits to grab First Team All-MW honors. Catcher Emily Haslinger, a second-team pick who hit nine homers a season ago to rank second on the Rebels squad, is back after hitting .310. Francesca Foti (.301) and Alyssa Cordova (39 RBI) also return to give UNLV a quality nucleus from which to build. In the circle, Kwyn Cooper (9-4, 4.32 ERA) and Morgan Ettinger (10-11, 4.69 ERA) are back, along with Janine Petmecky (3-10), who had some struggles as a freshman last season. Head coach Lisa Dodd hired former San Diego State pitcher Rebecca Arbino as an assistant so it will be interesting to see if the Rebels' stats improve in the circle. Two prominent names are missing from the UNLV roster: Fahren Glackin, who hit .333 in 44 starts last season, and Merina Ili (.318, 29 RBI, 41 starts last year), had solid freshman campaigns but are no longer listed on Rebels' current online roster. Five new freshmen will compete for playing time.
6. Nevada (16-37, 6-18 a year ago)
7. Utah State (19-36, 11-13 a year ago)
8. Colorado State (27-29, 8-16 a year ago)
The Rams received a bitter lesson involving scheduling a year ago. The lesson: It may not be wise to play a soft schedule entering conference play. Colorado State was riding high (or so it seemed) with an 11-game winning streak in mid-March, but it was compiled against a weak slate of opponents. Three weeks later, the Rams had already suffered a pair of 3-game sweeps at the hands of Mountain West opponents, including losing three in a row to Utah State. After going 19-13 in non-conference play, the Rams finished only 8-16 in the league. And that came a year after CSU was near the top of the Mountain West standings and still alive for the conference title in the month of May. Colorado State could be looking at another lower-division finish this time around. The team's top two pitchers in terms of ERA last season are gone. One was expected, but one was not. Molly Randle (5-2 with a 2.50 ERA before a season-ending injury) was a senior. The big blow came when talented Trinity Harrington decided to transfer to Texas A&M. Coach Jen Fisher often lauded Harrington's poise in the circle during a strong freshman campaign where she threw four complete-game shutouts, including one on the road against the heavy bats of San Jose State. Harrington ranked second on the team in both wins and ERA (3.10). All is not bleak, though. CSU returns senior Holly Reinke, who struggled as a junior (12-19, 5.23 ERA) after a strong sophomore season. And another talented Hutton lands in Fort Collins in the form of pitcher Bridgette Hutton, who had a stellar prep career in Colorado. She joins All-MW sister Haley Hutton, who had a team-best .363 batting average last season. CSU loses some of its heaviest hitters in Shae Rodriguez (No. 2 on the team with a .324 average and tied for the team lead with 12 doubles) and Danielle Wikre (team-high 9 home runs). Logan Losh (4-1, 3.69 ERA) returns along with Savannah Clark, who had a strong freshman season (.318 batting average, 12 doubles). With so many pitching questions, it's hard to see Colorado State improving this season.
9. Boise State (12-42, 4-20 a year ago)
Things didn't go as planned for the Broncos in their first year under head coach Cindy Ball. Boise State had the fewest wins in program history, failing to hold late leads numerous times in close games. This year, there is really no place to go but up. Pitcher Rachel Rodriguez, who arrived last season as a promising freshman pitcher full of top high school accolades, is no longer on the roster. Rodriguez was the pitcher of record in 25 games last season, going 5-20 in 38 appearances, which tied for the team lead. Nicole Wilson (3-12, 4.85 ERA) and Mackenzie McGill (3-8, 9.26 ERA) are the lone returning pitchers, and Ball has added four new hurlers, including three transfers. How well they perform will dictate Boise State's fortunes. The only new freshman pitcher is Shawna Burke, who arrives with quality credentials, including all-state honors in Oregon. Devon Bridges, perhaps the best player the Boise State softball program has ever known, departs after a spectacular career. Even in a down year for the Broncos, Bridges hit a team-best .359 and led the team in home runs, total bases, RBI, hits and several other categories. She will be hard to replace. The Broncos return five players who started 30 or more games a season ago, but with unproven pitching, it's tough to pick Boise State to finish much higher this season.
Note: This preview does not take into account any possible injuries or changes in rosters that may occur after this date.
Posted by Blogger at 7:01 PM
Saturday, January 2, 2016
(Edited January 3, 2016) -- The 2016 college softball season is a little more than a month away, so let's take a look at the non-conference opponents each MW team faces this season. As always, strength of schedule is one of the most important factors in any team's NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. And thanks to some strong scheduling, a couple of teams in the conference have put themselves in prime position to gain an NCAA at-large bid if things happen to fall the right way.
Fresno State - The defending Mountain West champions put together another demanding schedule, with 15 non-conference games against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago, including three who made it to Oklahoma City. Things start off with a bang for coach Trisha Ford's team as the Bulldogs meet SEC powerhouse Tennessee on the opening day of the 2016 season. Fresno State will face teams from the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC and more. Highlights include a pair of home games vs. Pac-12 power Washington, two at home vs. Kansas of the Big 12, a pair against Big Ten power Northwestern, and neutral site games with defending NCAA runner-up Oregon and former NCAA champion Oklahoma. Also on tap: Baylor, Cal, Utah, BYU, Ohio State, Oregon State, Indiana, Long Beach State, Cal State Northridge and Fullerton squads. There are simply no breaks in the non-conference schedule, and Fresno State will enter Mountain West play in late March battle-tested and ready. It's a slate designed by a coach who feels her team is ready to take the next step and make a strong push to advance to NCAA Super Regional or Women's College World Series play. See the full schedule.
San Diego State - It's another quality schedule for the Aztecs, who are fortunate to play the overwhelming majority of the year in southern California. There will be a lot of home cooking, and nine non-conference games against teams that made the 2015 NCAA Tournament. San Diego State leaves the state of California only one time before the month of May, and it's only for the short drive to UNLV March 24-26. Coach Kathy Van Wyk's squad will play games against SEC power Kentucky, Ohio State of the Big Ten, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Cal all at home in San Diego. Also on the docket are games versus Stanford, Nebraska, Oklahoma State, BYU, Washington, Cal State Northridge and Fullerton. An interesting feature this season: the Aztecs and Fresno State will both participate in non-conference tournaments on the other team's home field. See the full schedule.
New Mexico - Coach Erica Beach has taken things up a notch with this year's Lobos schedule. There weren't a ton of chances a year ago to post some eye-popping wins, but New Mexico gets that opportunity this time around. UNM starts things off in Tempe with a strong weekend where it will face Kentucky, Oregon State, Stanford and an underrated Cal Poly squad, among others. The Lobos will see some SEC faces in traditional power Alabama and two games against the Arkansas Razorbacks. Also on the schedule: Texas A&M, Nebraska and DePaul. This schedule tells us Beach thinks her squad has a chance to make another move towards the top of the Mountain West standings in 2016. See the full schedule.
San Jose State - Peter Turner's team will be getting an RPI boost this season if things fall the right way. After missing out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago with a team that probably was better than some others who earned at-large berths, it seems like SJSU wanted to improve the slate. And they did. It could be a daunting task, though, as San Jose State only has one non-conference home date (a March doubleheader vs. Colgate). So SJSU must do most of its winning on the road in neutral-site matchups. On tap: Arizona State, Tennessee, Georgia, Utah, Oregon State, Washington, Oregon, Missouri, Baylor, Northwestern and Ohio State, among others. It's a rigorous and impressive list of foes. See the full schedule.
UNLV - With a home like Las Vegas, known for its (usually) great weather and lots to do, it's natural for the Rebels to host a lot of games. This year is no exception. UNLV has the most favorable schedule of any Mountain West team, opening the year playing 19 of its first 23 games at home. But unless something changes, and many of those on the slate have surprisingly strong seasons, there are fewer chances for big RPI points this year. The schedule doesn't appear as strong as in the past by UNLV standards. Only four teams who made the NCAA Tournament a year ago dot the non-conference slate: Washington, Nebraska, Kansas and Florida Atlantic. See the full schedule.
Nevada - This is a soft and disappointing schedule, but one that gives Nevada an opportunity to pick up a number of wins. The good news: Nevada has a legitimate shot to have the best record among Mountain West teams entering conference play. The bad news: the RPI, in all likelihood, will be poor. And it's a slate that leaves little to no margin for error, and one that practically eliminates the Pack from NCAA at-large consideration before the season even begins. Nevada doesn't have a single non-conference game against an opponent with a top 75 RPI from a year ago. In fact, the Pack plays just two non-conference games against teams that finished with Top 100 RPIs. The two? Stony Brook and Boston College, who finished 86th and 98th, respectively, in the RPI last season. With a team that appears -- on paper -- to be stronger this season than last, it would have been nice to see the Pack challenge themselves more. See the full schedule.
Colorado State - The Rams face a strong, lively slate of games early in the season before things drop off significantly in the final couple of weeks before conference play begins. Credit coach Jen Fisher for scheduling some very tough opponents right out of the gate. Not many teams would want to face 13-time national champion UCLA on the opening weekend of the season, but Colorado State faces the Bruins not once, but twice in the first week. A true road game against Texas A&M is also on the schedule, along with neutral-site games on the season's third weekend against Missouri, Cal and Long Beach State in Palm Springs. Add in NCAA Tournament teams BYU, Cal State Northridge and Weber State, and the Rams will face overall stiffer competition in non-conference play than they did a year ago. That's a good move. See the full schedule.
Utah State - The Aggies face a mixed bag of scheduling of 2016. At first glance, things look a little less tough than last year. But contrast that with the fact Utah State plays in a cold climate that requires the Aggies to be away from home for 21 straight games to begin the season. That can be taxing, and it's understandable to try and ease things a bit. USU got off to a bad start in 2015 and we're sure coach Steve Johnson wants to remedy that this time around. Arizona State, Cal State Northridge and Maryland highlight the opening weekend in Tempe, and that could be the most difficult week of the non-conference season for Utah State. A pair of games against both DePaul and BYU will provide good tests, as will dates with improving teams like Weber State and UC Riverside. See the full schedule.
Boise State - The Broncos' schedule for the 2016 season does not currently appear on the school's athletics web site.
Posted by Blogger at 4:15 PM