Tuesday, July 5, 2016

UC Riverside's Garza will be Fresno State's next head coach

It began with a scoop by Justin McLeod of the Justin's World blog Monday evening, and ended with a confirmation from Fresno State athletic director Jim Bartko to The Fresno Bee Tuesday afternoon -- Linda Garza will be the fourth softball coach in Bulldog program history.

Speculation continued throughout the early part of Tuesday, and around 3 p.m., it was confirmed:  Trisha Ford's successor had been hired.  And the Bulldogs didn't even have to look too far, since their new coach is a name familiar to those who follow softball in the San Joaquin Valley.

Garza was a standout player at Fresno's Hoover High, right down the street from Fresno State on Barstow Avenue.  After a college career where she earned All-Mountain West honors playing for UNLV, Garza spent time as a volunteer assistant coach for the Rebels, and then in assistant or associate coaching positions with Arkansas (2002-04), Tulsa (2004-05), Purdue (2005-09) and Cal Poly (2010-12).

In the year prior to joining Cal Poly, Garza spent a season as the head coach at Wright State, where she took the Raiders to the Horizon League tournament championship and berth in the NCAA Tournament. The last four years have seen Garza flourish as head coach at UC Riverside of the Big West Conference, leading the Highlanders to their most successful seasons since the school joined the NCAA Division I softball ranks.

UCR made the move to Division I softball in 2002 and had never finished with a winning overall record in the sport before Garza took the reins of the program.  She began the rebuilding job in 2013, and by her third season, UCR had won a program-record 39 games, finishing that season 39-17 overall.   She followed it up with a second consecutive 30-win season in 2016, as UCR finished 32-22-1.

In addition, the Highlanders completed their first winning season ever in Big West Conference play, going 11-10 in league play in 2015.  That season, Garza's team finished with one of the top 15 team ERAs in the country (2.13) and featured -- for the first time in school history -- a Big West Pitcher of the Year honoree in Chelsea Ponce.  That same season, Ponce tossed the school's first-ever no-hitter.

To say that Garza had to rebuild at UC Riverside is a bit of an understatement.  This was a struggling UCR program that found little to no success on the softball diamond in its first 10 years of existence.  Not only were there no winning seasons in program history before her arrival, the Highlanders annually languished at the bottom of the Big West standings. From 2004 to 2008, UCR won just 14 of 102 conference games.  As recently as 2007, the Highlanders were winless (0-18) in league play.

In 2015, Garza's Highlanders also set a school record for most home wins in a season (22).  Over the past two seasons, her teams set program records in team batting average, hits, runs, RBI and fielding percentage.  UC Riverside had marquee non-conference wins the past two seasons over the likes of Kansas of the Big 12, and Michigan State of the Big Ten.

Garza's UCR squad saved some of its best games for Mountain West opponents.  The Highlanders have gone 5-0 in five games versus Utah State the past three seasons, and picked up victories over San Jose State and Colorado State in 2015, and UNLV this past season.  In Garza's first year at the helm of the Highlanders (2013), despite just beginning the arduous process of rebuilding the UCR program, her team defeated a San Diego State squad that would go on to win the Mountain West title and automatic NCAA bid that season.

The one team from the Mountain West that gave Garza's Highlanders the most trouble:  Fresno State.  The Bulldogs went 4-1 against UCR during her time there.  The win, though, -- a 4-2 victory in Fresno in the 2015 season -- was Riverside's first over the Bulldogs since UCR was elevated to Division I in 2002.  And just like the Highlanders' 2013 win over San Diego State, it came over the eventual Mountain West champion that season.

It seems like Fresno State hit a home run with the hiring of Garza, though the pressure to win in the Bulldogs program is a giant leap from what was expected at UC Riverside.  Many who've been around the sport think Garza's hiring is a great one.  Former New Mexico assistant coach Jennifer McKibben -- now at Pensacola State -- called Garza, "a fantastic hire," and "a tireless worker."  "She has done a tremendous job at every program she's been at," McKibben said.