Wednesday, October 5, 2016

UPDATE: Changes galore for Mountain West softball in 2017

This post has been updated with additions in red.

To say the Mountain West will have a different look in 2017 is an understatement.

Widespread changes have taken place all over the conference, with two new head coaches, several notable pitchers and players gone, and one team even having a new home field.

Two-time reigning MW Coach of the Year Trisha Ford left Fresno State this summer to take over the reins at Arizona State.  Ford departs as the winningest coach -- by percentage -- in Mountain West softball history and led Fresno State to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances the last two seasons, along with a national Top 25 finish in 2016.  The 2-time reigning conference champion Bulldogs will be led in 2017 by new head coach Linda Garza, who moves over from UC Riverside of the Big West.

Garza led the Highlanders to their only two winning seasons as a Division I team, posting back-to-back winning years in her final two seasons at UC Riverside.  The Highlanders, who had never had a 30-win season in school history before Garza's arrival, picked up 39 wins in 2015 and 32 in 2016 with her at the helm.  A Fresno native who prepped at Hoover High School, less than a mile from the Fresno State campus, Garza should pick up right where Ford left off last season.

The other MW school with a new head coach for 2017 is Nevada, where Matt Meuchel left after eight seasons with the Wolf Pack to become an assistant coach at Arkansas.  Meuchel guided the Pack to an NCAA Tournament appearance in his first season at the helm in 2009, but was never able to recapture the magic of that season where his team went 40-19 overall and 15-5 in the Western Athletic Conference.

Nevada has not finished with a winning conference record since that 2009 season.  Its 10-10 league record a season ago marked Nevada's most conference wins in seven years, and its 32-15 overall record was also its best since 2009.  Former Nevada assistant Josh Taylor, also a former Pack baseball player, will take over in 2017.

Taylor will inherit a Nevada squad that lost its ace pitcher, Brooke Bolinger, who transferred to Texas.  Bolinger, a first-team All-MW selection as a freshman a year ago, went 16-6 with a 2.81 ERA and started well over half of the Pack's games in 2016 (27 of 47).

Fresno State lost perhaps its top recruit before she ever threw a pitch for the Bulldogs.  Left-hander Giselle Juarez was the lone incoming MW freshman recruit to be ranked among the Top 50 high school pitchers in the country by, and she signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Bulldogs last Fall.  However, Juarez instead chose to go with Ford and is now listed on the Arizona State roster.  A one-time Arizona Wildcats verbal commit, Juarez signed with Fresno State before ultimately going to ASU.

Garza remedied the situation -- and avoided a potential disaster -- by signing a pair of JC recruits who can both hit and pitch in juniors Savannah McHellon and Sarah Santana.

McHellon, a player with Southeastern Conference experience, arrives after spending a year at Northeast Florida State College.  McHellon was one of the country's most heavily-recruited high school players in 2014, and was ranked as the No. 18 overall prospect in the nation by Student Sports before signing with Georgia of the SEC.  At NE Florida last year, she earned NJCAA Division I first-team All-American status, going 19-0 during the regular season as a pitcher with an ERA under 1.50.  She tossed nine shutouts, including a no-hitter.  As strong as her pitching is, McHellon may be an even more feared hitter.  She slugged 23 home runs in 2016, had 58 RBI, 42 walks, a .571 on-base percentage, and season-long 1.057 slugging percentage.

Santana arrives from nearby Fresno City College, where she posted a California state JC pitching record 38 wins a season ago to earn first-team JC All-America honors and conference Player of the Year.  When not pitching, she was devastating at the plate.  Santana led the state of California in hits (78), ranked second in batting average (.508), third in home runs (16), and third in RBI (68).

Colorado State will have a new pitcher as well, and it's a name and face that will be familiar to Fresno State's new head coach.  Kaylynn Pierce arrives after playing under then-UC Riverside head coach Garza as a Highlander.  Pierce went 9-4 with a 4.20 ERA as a freshman at UCR, adding three saves as well.  She pitched a pair of complete-game shutouts and held opponents to a .247 batting average, best on UCR's team.  Pierce is a key pick-up for Rams coach Jen Fisher.

Utah State has released its 2017 roster, which is notable due to the absence of pitcher and utility player Alleyah Armendariz.  A second-team All-Mountain West selection each of the last two seasons, Armendariz led the Aggies in doubles (14) and was second on the team in home runs (7) and runs scored (33), while batting .325 as a junior.  She started 46 games last season and made 14 appearances in the circle, where she had the team's second-lowest ERA at 4.67.  As a sophomore, Armendariz hit a team-high 12 home runs and started 52 games, including 19 at pitcher.

Update:  New Mexico suffered a big blow, with the departure from the program of pitcher Colette Robert.  During a strong freshman season in 2016, the left-hander led the Lobos in innings pitched (120), wins (8), starts (17) and complete games (9), and was tied for the team lead in appearances with 24.  No other New Mexico pitcher had more than three complete games a season ago.  Robert has transferred to the College of Idaho.

Boise State saw one of its pitchers depart, as Shawna Burke is now at Oregon State.  As a Bronco, Burke went 2-3 and made 30 appearances, mostly in relief.  Those 30 appearances ranked second on the team, as did her 64 2/3 innings pitched as a freshman.

San Jose State lost pitcher Chantelle Ladner, who has transferred to the JC ranks and is now at Salt Lake CC in Utah.  Ladner arrived with great fanfare in 2016, having played for the Australian U-19 National Team, where she was named top pitcher.  Ladner went 4-6 a season ago with a 5.80 ERA in 54 1/3 innings.  Her strikeouts-to-walks ratio ranked second-best on the Spartans team.  Update:  The Spartans lost a second pitcher, as Ashley Penney left the program following her freshman season in 2016.  Last year, Penney earned starts versus the likes of Stanford and Portland State, and picked up a pair of wins, including one over Virginia among her 11 appearances.

SJSU also lost its home field.  With its home stadium no longer intact, the Spartans were rumored to be looking at playing their 2017 "home" games at nearby Santa Clara University.  No final word has been released as of yet, but SJSU will have a new assistant coach to take with them wherever they play.  Letty Olivarez, after spending a season as a co-head coach at Arizona State, has joined the Spartans as an assistant.  Update:  SJSU will play its home schedule at Santa Clara, with the exception of three "home" games versus Nevada, with those three being played in Stockton.