Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Race for the title begins Thursday as Mountain West play begins

With the non-conference season largely over, it's time for conference play to begin in Mountain West softball.  So let's take a look at the state of the race as we begin league play.  Some of it may be surprising.

Four series begin Thursday through Saturday.  And with the Easter holiday coming Sunday, conference play begins this year with the one week that most schools dread.  It's the lone 10-day period of the season where most Mountain West teams play nine league games during that brutal stretch.

Opening series this weekend:  San Diego State at UNLV, San Jose State at Colorado State, Utah State at New Mexico, and Boise State at Nevada.  The only team idle this weekend:  Fresno State.

Here's an honest and realistic look at where each team stands heading into league play.

Fresno State - The Bulldogs have been ranked in the Top 25 of both major polls every week this season and, more importantly, are No. 20 in the RPI.  They've played the country's 10th toughest schedule, according to the latest NCAA stats. Things are rosy, right?  It's a slam-dunk to think the Bulldogs will win the Mountain West going away, right?  Nope.  Despite being ranked in the Top 25 and the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the league, something is amiss in Bulldog land lately.  Fresno State has won just eight of its past 18 games and has been hit by the injury bug.  Since opening the season 10-0, coach Trisha Ford would probably be the first to tell you the Bulldogs haven't played all that well since then.  At times, the pitching has been very un-Bulldog like.  Other times, it's been a lack of timely hitting.  And it's also been shaky defense at times too.  If the team's current ERA of 3.47 sounds alarmingly high, it should.  For a program known for elite pitching, it is the highest ERA in school history this deep into a season, and almost a full point higher than last year's team ERA of 2.50.  The team batting average of .278 is nearly 50 points lower than last season's .325 as well.  The good news: there is still time to turn things around.  And let's be honest:  the Bulldog stats are skewed due to the incredibly tough schedule.  With the target squarely on their back this year, the Bulldogs routinely faced every opponent's ace pitcher in non-conference play.  When pitted against Oregon, the Ducks sent All-American Cheridan Hawkins to the circle.  When the foe was BYU, the Cougars tabbed All-American McKenna Bull as its starting pitcher.  Utah sent first-team All-Pac 12 pitcher Katie Donovan to the circle vs. the Bulldogs.  Oklahoma? The Sooners sent first team All-Big 12 pitcher Kelsey Stevens to the mound.  You get the picture.  Perennial NCAA tournament teams Tennessee, Washington, Northwestern, Oregon State, Cal, Ohio State, Kansas, and others were all on the non-league slate, and all sent their No. 1 pitchers to the circle to face Fresno State.  There were no Santa Claras, Bakersfields, Colgates, Idaho States or Montanas on this schedule to ease the pain or give the Bulldogs a look at a series of average pitchers or average teams.  At Fresno State, that's just not the way things work.  So it's difficult to say whether Fresno State's recent struggles are a direct result of the team being 'off its game,' so to speak, or just a byproduct of a tough-as-nails schedule.  It seems to be more a result of a crazy slate of marquee opponents than anything else.  Time will tell.  On the plus side, the Bulldogs have far more power at the plate this year than usual, having hit 26 home runs already after hitting 29 all of last season.  The team is on pace to challenge the school record of 51 home runs in a season.  Star pitcher Jill Compton's injury three weeks ago -- on a line-drive comebacker to her face, where she tried to deflect it with her hand -- caused her to miss two weeks of action, and she has struggled a bit since returning.  Keep in mind, "struggling" is a relative term when you're talking about one of the country's top pitchers.  Compton continues to rank at the top of nearly all MW pitching categories. In her absence though, freshman Kamalani Dung has been a pleasant surprise.  Dung has shown moments of brilliance, holding a powerful Top 10 Washington team scoreless for five innings in one game, and earning a complete-game win over Big West favorite Long Beach State.  In her win over the 49ers, Dung held Long Beach to just one single and no earned runs over the game's final six innings.  Dung is one of several freshmen having strong seasons for the Bulldogs.  One scary thought for Mountain West opponents:  Fresno State has not come close to playing its best softball of the season.  Last year, the Bulldogs won 11 straight down the stretch to pull away and win the conference title.  If this team plays as well as it is capable of playing, the sky is the limit.  Getting the rest of this week off and having a bye during the opening week of conference play is exactly what the doctor ordered for the Bulldogs.  They should head into league action next week rested and ready.

San Diego State - A case can be made for San Diego State being considered a co-favorite in the race for the Mountain West title, and no longer a clear No. 2 choice in the league.  The Aztecs have improved their pitching from a season ago and finally have some depth.  Erica Romero no longer has to pitch every inning of every game in order for San Diego State to win.  Last season, it was Romero or nothing.  Literally.  The only games SDSU had a realistic chance of winning a year ago were when Romero was in the circle.  This season, she's only started nine of the Aztecs' 28 games.  Contrast that with the 2015 season when Romero made 47 starts, and no other Aztec pitcher had an ERA under 5.00.  This time, coach Kathy Van Wyk has four pitchers who all have ERAs under 4.00.  And that's the big difference this year:  Aztecs pitching.  Hitting is another story.  Yes, star catcher Jenavee Peres remains one of the most difficult outs in the league and is hitting .444 with a team-best 6 home runs.  But overall, San Diego State's power is way off from a year ago.  How far off?  The Aztecs hit 65 home runs last season.  This year, they've hit just 11, which ranks last in the league.  It's a stunning drop-off and requires SDSU to manufacture runs this year rather than rely on one or two big pops of the bat.  San Diego State enters conference play having won five in a row, including three 1-run games.  There are potential warning signs, however.  The Aztecs have had several head-scratching losses.  SDSU has lost games against the likes of Texas-San Antonio, Weber State, Illinois-Chicago and St. Joseph's, the last two taking place on the Aztecs' home field.  Overall, the schedule has not been as difficult as in the past, ranking outside the top 100 in terms of toughest schedule, according to the latest NCAA stats.  That slate resulted in an RPI outside the top 50 for San Diego State for the first time in several years.  If the Aztecs' pitchers continue to perform as well as they have so far this season, the lack of offensive firepower may not be a big problem.  With SDSU opening league play in Las Vegas, where the ball tends to fly out of the park, we will get a better idea of how the Aztecs' hitters will fare in league play.

San Jose State - The Spartans were predicted to finish third in the Mountain West by league coaches, but fourth here at the Mountain West Softball Blog.  In the preseason, we noted that no team in the conference lost as much on both sides of the ball as SJSU, and the record this year reflects that.  San Jose State went 20-12 in non-league play last year, but enters conference action just 11-17 this season.  Like Fresno State though, the Spartans played a difficult and demanding non-league slate this time.  Coach Peter Turner's team had a strength of schedule of 44 (out of 295 teams) in the most recent NCAA stats.  SJSU's struggled in a major way against top teams and the problems have been across the board statistically.  The biggest problem:  pitching.  After losing their top two pitchers from a season ago, San Jose State's team ERA has ballooned from 3.94 in 2015 to 7.77 this year.  Turner has used six different pitchers this season and none are holding opponents under a .300 batting average.  Two pitchers -- freshman and Australian National Team member Chantelle Ladner, and junior Katelyn Linford -- have combined for 20 of the team's 28 starts, and both have thrown more than 50 innings.  Their ERAs:  6.75 and 8.71, respectively.  Offensively, the team is down significantly too.  After batting a school- and Mountain West-best .350 as a team a year ago, San Jose State is hitting .304 this season.  It's certainly a respectable team batting average, but not nearly enough to offset the 7.77 team ERA.  SJSU has hit 14 home runs (after hitting 31 a year ago) and already has committed 40 errors in 28 games.  Still, one has to wonder:  How much of the overall drop-off is due to playing a quality non-conference schedule?  The pitching must improve if SJSU intends to contend for the Mountain West title.

New Mexico - If there is a team that could come out of nowhere to win the Mountain West this year, it could very well be the Lobos.  Last season, coach Erica Beach's squad was predicted to finish last, but surprised everyone by finishing fourth.  We predicted the Lobos would be a third-place team in the preseason, while the conference coaches selected them fourth.  The non-conference schedule has been a good mix of tough opponents at big-time tournaments and a few winnable (dare we say cupcakes?) games mixed in.  New Mexico enters league play coming off one of its better weekends in recent history.  UNM beat a quality Nebraska team 6-3 in Fullerton last week for its first win over a Top 25-ranked team in three years.  Winning 1-run games and closing out games has proven to be difficult at times for this team, but the win over the Huskers suggests this is an improving team that could be playing its best at exactly the right time.  New Mexico lost a pair of 1-run games to Arkansas, blew a 4-run lead in the seventh inning in a game versus a strong Texas A&M team, and has had some difficulties in losses to the likes of Idaho State, Cal Poly and rival New Mexico State.  But the team does seem to be resilient and a reflection of its quality coaching staff.  Still, the question remains:  Was the win over Nebraska a sign of things to come?  Or was it an outlier?  There weren't a ton of quality wins in the preseason for the Lobos.  For the second straight season, UNM has improved numbers statistically and it's the only school in the conference that can make that claim.  The team ERA is down to 3.93 (it was 4.11 last season), and the batting average has improved to .305 after being .299 in 2015.  Like so many other Mountain West teams, the power numbers are off though.  UNM hit 43 home runs last year, but is tied with San Diego State for fewest in the league with 11 this season.  The Lobos look solid and will be a factor in the race for the Mountain West crown.  No one should take this team lightly.

UNLV - The Rebels were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the preseason and there is nothing, based on UNLV's non-conference performance, to suggest that prediction is wrong.  The Rebels enter conference play with a 16-13 overall record, which sounds good until you look at who they played and where.  UNLV has just three wins away from home this year, and if that sounds like the fewest in the Mountain West, it's because it is.  The Rebels' three wins away from home were all at neutral sites (over Arkansas in Fullerton, over Loyola Marymount in Riverside, and over Wisconsin in Tampa).  The good news for UNLV?  Those are probably their three best wins on the season.  Coach Lisa Dodd's team was ranked as one of the bottom 25 in the country in the most recent strength of schedule stats released by the NCAA.  UNLV has played a conference-high 19 home games with few eye-popping wins.  The Rebels are 0-4 against their four most high-profile opponents of the season, falling to Washington, South Florida, Nebraska and Florida Atlantic by a combined margin of 27-3.  Statistically, the team looks good on paper, batting .317 with an ERA of 3.41.  Those are good numbers, but the lack of notable wins and the not-so-great schedule don't tell us enough to predict that UNLV could be at or near the top of the Mountain West standings.  Opening at home against San Diego State will tell us a lot though.  In fact, the Rebels can make their biggest noise of the season with a series win over the Aztecs.  

Colorado State - The Rams are an intriguing team.  Not a whole lot was expected of CSU this season, but it seems like the team is improved from a year ago.  With that said, we thought the Rams were going to contend for the league crown at this point last season too.  Pitcher Holly Reinke has returned to her 2014 form after a down season a year ago.  The reigning Mountain West Pitcher of the Week, Reinke has an ERA of 2.41 and is holding opponents to a .218 batting average.  She's also got 12 complete games under her belt this season, and her ERA has dropped nearly three full points, a stunning amount.  She gives the Rams hope.  And so does Colorado State's defense, which is where the Rams have improved the most.  Last year, CSU gave far too many games away with shoddy defense and a staggering 105 errors.  The Rams have committed 35 errors this season.  Colorado State enters league play having won seven of its past eight games against a decent schedule.  CSU played nationally-ranked UCLA tough, falling 6-5.  And 2-1 losses to Cal and 3-0 to Texas A&M are quality losses too.  Few of the Rams' 14 wins to this point scream, "Wow," though.  In fact, nothing about the non-conference slate suggests CSU will win the Mountain West, but an upper-division finish looks within reach.

Nevada - Here's an excerpt from our January 2016 preview of the Wolf Pack schedule: "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 that's exactly what happened.  Nevada enters league play at 19-5 overall, the best record in the Mountain West.  But as bad as we thought the schedule was in the preseason, it's turned out to be even worse.  The schedule ranks 281st of 295 Division I schedules, according to NCAA stats released this week.  And the gaudy 19-5 record has told us nothing about how good this Wolf Pack team actually is.  Predicted to finish eighth in the league by Mountain West coaches to begin the season, 18 of Nevada's 19 wins have come over teams ranked outside of the RPI top 100.  The Pack is 1-2 vs. RPI top 100 teams, and all three of those games came on the opening weekend of the season at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe.  It could turn out that Nevada is a really good team that played a very bad schedule.  The truth is we just don't know at this point.  Two losses to Sacramento State and a loss to Montana suggest this is a team that could be in trouble once it gets into the thick of a conference race against teams that have challenged themselves a lot in non-league play.

Utah State - Mired again with an RPI in the 200s (at No. 220 in the initial release), one has to wonder how much of a factor the Aggies will be in the league race.  This is a program that many people predict to be on the rise each season, only to be disappointed.  Utah State enters conference play 12-11 overall, including wins over Wisconsin and Weber State.  While the Badgers and Wildcats aren't exactly superpowers in the world of college softball, they are quality wins nonetheless.  Bothersome are six non-conference games against lowly Santa Clara and Northern Colorado, both of whom were able to beat Utah State once.  This is a team that just hasn't been able to get over the hump the last few seasons.  And with a strong senior class headlined by Noelle Johnson and Sarah Chow leaving after this season, one has to wonder:  If not now, when?  Johnson, surprisingly, is just 3-6 with a 5.21 ERA pitching this year, but is still one of the team's leading hitters at .343 and leads USU in home runs and RBI.  Chow is not only the team leader in batting average (.431) but one of the best in the MW as well.  Junior transfer pitcher April Brown (3.20 ERA) has been a pleasant surprise.  If Utah State truly wants to contend for the Mountain West title, it probably must win its series in Albuquerque this weekend. That would make the rest of the conference stand up and take notice.

Boise State - The Broncos are 8-20 overall, but coming off perhaps their best win of the season -- an 8-4 victory on the road in Lubbock over Texas Tech.  The Red Raiders aren't exactly a power, despite their Big 12 pedigree, but it was a good win.  The Boise State record is deceiving.  To coach Cindy Ball's credit, she could have taken the easy route for a team that struggled mightily last season by scheduling a bunch of easy games.  She didn't.  Boise State challenged itself in the non-conference of the portion of the season, and while the record isn't good, the RPI is nearly identical to Utah State (222 vs. 220).  The Broncos lost eight 1-run games and have been snakebitten at times with a series of tough losses.  If there is a tough way to lose a game, Boise State has found it.  Walk-off losses and the inability to hold late leads has been a problem.  But there are positive signs too.  A 9-1 run-rule rout of Stanford is a highlight, as are wins over quality teams like Loyola Marymount and New Mexico State.  A few baffling losses aside, Boise State seems like an improved team from a season ago.  Is it ready to contend for the Mountain West title?  Probably not, at least this year.  It does appear likely, though, that Boise State will pull an upset or two along the way.