Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Predicting the 2017 MW race: Fresno State looks like the favorite again

With the 2017 season starting next month, it's time again to forecast the Mountain West softball race.

This year seems a bit more unpredictable than usual, with so many changes to Mountain West teams -- both by addition and subtraction.  Two new head coaches take over this year, most notably at Fresno State, which has just its fourth head coach in the nearly 40-year history of the program.

Fresh off back-to-back Mountain West championships and a record-setting 22-1 conference record and No. 17 national ranking a year ago, the Bulldogs will look for a three-peat behind Fresno native Linda Garza, who takes the helm after the most successful seasons ever for UC Riverside softball.  The Bulldogs have big shoes to fill all around, but bring in a host of talent.

Garza inherits a squad that returns five starters, including 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Kierra Willis, and a very strong set of newcomers.  Flo Softball ranked Fresno State's incoming recruiting class the 18th-best in the nation, with three national Top 100 recruits set to wear Bulldog red in 2017.

The biggest difference this time around?  The 'Dogs may find themselves in a lot of slugfests, with the departure of three pitchers, including 2-time Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, Jill Compton, who won 88 games in four seasons.  After a summer spent with the Dallas Charge of the NPF, Compton will serve as a student assistant coach at Fresno State in 2017 and could provide some valuable insight to a talented group of new pitchers, including two first-team JC All-Americans.

But where the Bulldogs' true power lies this season is at the plate, where they appear to have what could be the most explosive offense in school history and one that could re-write the record books.

San Diego State, which failed to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years a season ago, should challenge Fresno State for the conference title and returns a strong nucleus.  San Jose State's squad will be talented, especially in the circle, but the lack of a home field could play a role in the Spartans' season.  Colorado State, Utah State and Boise State look to be perhaps the most improved teams this year, and could surprise.

Here's how we see the Mountain West softball race in 2017.

1.  Fresno State
2.  San Diego State
3.  San Jose State
4.  Colorado State
5.  Utah State
6.  UNLV
7.  Nevada
8.  New Mexico
9.  Boise State

The team-by-team breakdown:

Fresno State - The Bulldogs hit a school record 61 home runs last year, with four players in double-figures in that category.  Three of the four return, including 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year and NFCA first team All-Region pick Kierra Willis (11 HR, .345 BA, 57 hits, 54 runs, 45 RBI, 40 walks, 10 doubles).  First team All-MW and NFCA All-Region pick Lindsey Willmon (12 HR, 61 hits, 48 RBI, .690 slugging percentage) is back for her senior season, along with sophomores Morgan Howe (.371 BA), and Dominique Jackson (11 HR, including one against eventual NCAA champion Oklahoma in a game Fresno State narrowly lost 3-2).  All-MW and All-Region infielder Malia Rivers returns after hitting .306 with 56 hits last year, and outfielder Vanessa Hernandez is back after a freshman campaign in which she caught fire and improved as the season went along.  Big things are expected this season out of Hernandez, who hit .750 with four home runs and 15 RBI in 12 at-bats in four games this Fall.  Highly-touted newcomers, including twin sisters Maddi and Kindra Hackbarth, and first team junior college All-American Savannah McHellon, should make an immediate impact.

 The Hackbarth sisters, both high school All-Americans and Top 100 national recruits (as rated by Flo Softball), arrive after being recruited by the likes of Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan, Cal, Northwestern and more.  Maddi Hackbarth, likely to inherit the starting catcher's job left open by the departure of MW Defensive Player of the Year Paige Gumz, hit a staggering .875 in Fall ball with three home runs, and averaged 1.5 RBI per at-bat.  McHellon should see time at both pitcher (she went 20-2 last season with 17 complete games, 181 strikeouts and a 1.50 ERA) and at the plate, where she hit 23 home runs and had 58 RBI in 47 games.  One of the most heralded high school recruits in the country two years ago, McHellon began her career at SEC powerhouse Georgia, where she went unbeaten with a 1.40 ERA as a pitcher in limited action, and hit three home runs in just 40 at-bats.  She could be the Mountain West's top newcomer this year.  Sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung returns after going 8-1 as a freshman, holding opponents to a ,262 batting average.  If that number sounds good, it's because it's identical to the .262 put up by her former teammate and 2-time MW Pitcher of the Year Compton last season.  Dung made her way into the lineup as a regular in 2016 when senior Hannah Harris went down with a career-ending ACL injury in early March, and proved up to the task.  A valuable part of Fresno State's run to the MW title, yet somehow overlooked when the conference awards came around, Dung went a perfect 5-0 in MW play.  She earned non-conference wins over the likes of NCAA Tournament qualifier Long Beach State, and her 13 strikeout performance in a win over Utah State represented the most Ks by a Mountain West pitcher in a game last season.  Dung had a better than 6-to-1 strikeouts to walks ratio this Fall and seems poised to become another in the long line of Fresno State pitching greats.  Along with McHellon, new pitching additions include freshman Samantha Mejia, an All-CIF selection from Bakersfield, and JC first team All-American Sarah Santana.  A former conference Player of the Year out of Fresno's Clovis West High, Santana set the California state JC record for pitching wins (38) last season at Fresno City College and also swung a mean bat, ranking in the top three in the state in several categories -- hits (78, first), batting average (.506, second), home runs (16, third) and RBI (68, third).  Garza will have the most versatile lineup in the Mountain West, and a Bulldog team that -- despite losing some very talented players -- could be even deeper than last year's championship squad.

San Diego State - The Aztecs look to return to the NCAA tournament after missing out on postseason play last year for the first time since 2007.  A 12-12 Mountain West record and inconsistency prevented an NCAA at-large bid, despite a 30-22 overall mark.  San Diego State, for the first time in years, did not sweep a single MW team in conference action, and lost at least once to every team that finished in the bottom half of the final MW standings.  The good news:  six starters return, along with all four pitchers from a season ago.  The key will be keeping junior catcher Jenavee Peres healthy.  Peres started fewer than half of the Aztecs' games in 2016, and with her robust .451 batting average sidelined, a key part of SDSU's offense was gone.  Overall, the dropoff in offensive production as a team was tremendous for Kathy Van Wyk's team compared to the previous year.  In 2015, SDSU hit 63 home runs.  That number dropped to just 25 last season.  Zaria Meshack (.368 BA, 49 hits) and Sydnee Cable (.303 BA, 40 hits) join Peres as the Aztec returnees who hit above .300 last season.  Pitchers Erica Romero (15-9, 3.70 ERA) and Alex Formby (11-10, 3.66 ERA) were a steady 1-2 combo last season and both return to lead what should be a quality pitching staff.  Romero, after throwing 28 complete games in 2015, saw that number drop dramatically last year, going the distance just four times.  Formby led SDSU by holding opponents to a .282 batting average and should be improved with a year in San Diego under her belt after transferring from Virginia.  An intriguing freshman pitcher arrives in Marissa Moreno, who chose SDSU over Utah State, among other potential schools.  Moreno is a 2-time CIF first team selection and struck out 526 batters while at Torrance High School.  The Aztecs should be improved in 2017, and their return to prominence could again mean the Mountain West gets multiple bids to the NCAA tournament.

San Jose State - The Spartans finished second in the Mountain West a year ago, six games in the loss column behind Fresno State, which ran away with the conference title.  If not for some missteps in non-conference play, SJSU would have joined the Bulldogs in the NCAA tournament.  In the end, a middling RPI in the 60s left San Jose State on the outside looking in.  And this year will be a strange one for the Spartans, who no longer have a home field on campus and will be forced to play "home" games in nearby Santa Clara and not-so-close Stockton.  A whopping seven SJSU players hit over .300 a year ago and started more than 40 games.  Four of the seven are no longer on the team, though, which presents a problem.  Gone is a lot of offensive firepower, including the big bats of All-MW selections Jessie Hufstetler, Jessica Madrid, and Taylor Purdy.  Those three alone combined for 20 home runs, 41 doubles, 176 hits, 117 RBI and 126 runs scored.  Top returnees include first team All-MW and second team All-Region pick Brittany Abacherli (.351 BA, 60 hits, team-high 12 HR, 49 RBI), along with sophomore Madison Aurin, who came on strong towards the end of her freshman season to earn second team All-MW honors.  A third team All-Region selection as well, Aurin had 10 home runs and 41 RBI to go along with 43 hits and a .344 batting average in 33 starts.  Despite losing two pitchers who decided to leave the program, SJSU returns its top three pitchers from a season ago.  Just one, however, had an ERA under 5.00 last year, and that is Emily Rogers (3-3, 3.58 ERA).  Katelyn Linford, who led the Spartans in innings pitched, wins, starts (22) and complete games (6), returns after going 10-10 with a 5.08 ERA.  Senior Colette Riggs (9-4, 5.25 ERA) is also back for a San Jose State team that will look quite a bit different, with 11 freshmen on a 26-member squad.  Finding replacements for all of the missing ingredients on offense will be key to SJSU's success, along with the ability to win without ever playing a true home game.

Colorado State - Coach Jen Fisher, after a nightmarish 2016 season where Mother Nature dealt the Rams some severe blows, faces a rather nice prospect -- 26 home games.  That's rare these days, and especially for a team that plays in a cold climate like Colorado State.  CSU has stacked up a strong schedule for what should be an improved team, and hopefully the weather will cooperate this time around.  Last year, nearly every conference series for the Rams was delayed, postponed or rescheduled by rain or snow.  Colorado State returns six starters and a pair of pitchers, plus adds a key transfer in pitcher Kaylynn Pierce, who played for current Fresno State coach Linda Garza last season when Garza was the head coach at UC Riverside.  Pierce went 9-4 for the Highlanders, with an ERA of 4.20, holding opponents to just a.247 clip.  She had eight complete games and tossed a pair of complete-game shutouts, and is one of the newcomers to watch in the MW this year.  The Hutton sisters -- Haley and Bridgette -- should be forces.  Senior Haley Hutton has earned All-MW honors in each of her first three seasons and hit .411 last year, reaching base safely in 40 of 46 games.  She had a .519 on-base percentage and led the team with 62 hits a season ago.  Sister Bridgette Hutton went 4-11 in the circle as a freshman, appearing in 23 games, and pitching much better than her record might indicate.  She and Pierce will be needed to offset the loss of all-conference pitcher Holly Reinke, who won 51 games as a Ram, including a no-hitter against UNLV in her final appearance in a CSU uniform.  Returning starters include Amber Nelson (.343), Savannah Clark (.308, 45 hits, 7 HR, 29 RBI), Taryn Arcarese (.275, 10 doubles, 31 RBI), Madison Kilcrease (.262, 32 hits, team-high 32 walks), and junior Hannah McCorkhill (.218).  Colorado State gets the opportunity to host both San Diego State and Fresno State in Fort Collins this season.  On paper, this is a well-rounded team that could break back into the upper echelon of the conference standings.

Utah State2017 could be a bit of a rebuilding year in Logan.  Four of the seven Aggies players who started 40+ games a season ago have departed, and there are some big losses to overcome.  Most notably, gone is Noelle Johnson, one of the top players in program history.  Johnson pitched in 150 games over four seasons for Utah State, striking out more than 500 batters and re-writing the record books for Aggies pitchers, while simultaneously being a standout at the plate.  A 2-time first team All-MW pick, Johnson hit .333 or better in three of her four seasons, including .348 as a senior.  She and Alleyah Armendariz combined for 44 pitching appearances last season and both are gone.  Three of last season's top batting averages are gone, including All-MW selection Sarah Chow (team leader in batting average at .376, hits with 59, and runs with 36).  Chow had more than half of the team's triples (8 of 14) last season.  Despite the losses of quality players, there is a lot in which to build upon.  Utah State had its most successful season in 20 years, finishing 12-12 in conference play and 26-25 overall, and returns Victoria Saucedo, its team leader in home runs (12) and RBI (44).  Jazmin Clarke (.351 in a strong freshman campaign) returns, along with Paxton Provost (.333, 21 hits) and Sarina Jaramillo (.317, 51 hits, 22 RBI).  April Brown (7-5, 3.79 ERA) appears to be the team's top pitcher and could be in for a breakout season.  Katie Schroeder (7-1, 5.00 ERA) returns as well, and Utah State adds a freshman in Kellie White.  Eleven of the 20 players on Utah State's roster this season are upperclassmen.

UNLV - The Rebels saved their best for last in 2016, ending the season with their top performance of the year.  UNLV upset Mountain West champion Fresno State on its home field on Senior Day last May, snapping the Bulldogs' 32-game conference win streak and preventing them from finishing with a perfect 23-0 league record.  Senior pitcher Morgan Ettinger, who earned the complete-game win over the Bulldogs last year, is back this season, along with all three other UNLV pitchers from 2016.  Ettinger (8-6, 4.52 ERA) will be joined by returnees Kwyn Cooper (7-9, 3.28 ERA), Alyssa Batastini (5-6, 4.96 ERA), and Janine Petmecky (4-10, 5.25 ERA).  On offense, five starters return, and there are four key losses, including Garie Blando, the Mountain West Player of the Year in 2014.  Last season's top hitter -- All-MW pick Alyssa Cordova (.347) is also gone, and there's a question of how much power the Rebels will have on offense.  Despite playing a high number of home games in one of the conference's most hitter-friendly parks, UNLV hit just 29 home runs last year.  Making matters worse: the returning players this season accounted for just 13 of those.  The key for coach Lisa Dodd is getting those power numbers up.  Jadelyn Yadao-Valdez (.338 BA, 16 RBI), Cooper (.330 BA, 14 RBI) and Petmecky (.316, 28 RBI) return, along with catcher Emily Haslinger (.259 BA, 23 RBI) and should lead the way on offense.  UNLV will have as many as seven pitchers on its staff in 2017 after picking up a pair of JC transfers, both from Salt Lake Community College.

Nevada - New head coach Josh Taylor takes over in Reno after Nevada enjoyed one of its better seasons of late, going 32-15 overall and 10-10 in conference play.  A weak non-conference schedule and poor RPI meant the Pack didn't get a look at a possible NCAA tournament bid, but Nevada's upgraded the quality of its schedule this season.  The biggest loss of all came when pitcher Brooke Bolinger chose to depart after a freshman season where she won first team All-MW honors a year ago, going 16-6 with a 2.81 ERA.  She threw five shutouts, 18 complete games, and started 27 of the Wolf Pack's 47 contests, and appeared to be the face of Nevada softball for the next three seasons.  With Bolinger's departure, senior McKenna Isenberg (11-7, 3.87 ERA) and junior Chase Redington (2 starts, 19 appearances a year ago) are the lone returnees who saw any time in the circle in 2016.  Freshman Courtney Riley, a 2-time Sacramento Bee second team All-Metro pick the last two seasons at Elk Grove HS, arrives this year, but pitching depth may be a concern.  Megan Sweet, a first team All-MW pick and Nevada's leader in hits, home runs and RBI a season ago, is gone but won't be far away; she will serve as a student assistant this year.  Jennifer Purcell (.412 BA, 40 RBI, 12 HR), Aaliyah Gibson (.404, 59 hits) and Kwynn Warner (.345, 15 RBI) are the only returning starters who hit over .290 last year, and there is a decided lack of overall team experience.  Just eight returning players had an official at-bat last season for Nevada.  Purcell and Gibson both earned second team All-MW honors a year ago and were All-Region picks as well, with Purcell garnering first team honors.

New Mexico - The Lobos took an unexpected dip in the Mountain West standings last season and have been on a bit of a rollercoaster the last couple of years.  Picked to finish last in the league by conference coaches in 2015, New Mexico finished a strong and surprising fourth.  When picked to finish fourth and maintain that momentum in 2016, the Lobos dropped to seventh.  This team has been very unpredictable, as evidenced by last year.  UNM defeated its first Top 25-ranked team in three years when it beat Nebraska at a tournament in Fullerton in March.  But by May, the Lobos were in the midst of a 9-game losing streak, and struggling mightily as the season came to a close.  Colette Robert, who led UNM in pitching wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, complete games, and starts, decided to transfer after her 2016 freshman season and is now at the College of Idaho.  Lauren Soles, who led the Lobos in ERA (3.98) and was the only pitcher to hold opponents under a .300 batting average, is gone as well.  Pitching returnees Krissy Fortner (3-4, 5.47 ERA) and Tess McPherson (4-3, 6.65 ERA) will be asked to do a lot, but they're joined by freshman newcomers Jensen Main and Angelica Lujan.  Main was her HS league's Pitcher of the Year in California last season and should see significant time.  Despite losing a key standout in Mariah Rimmer, the Lobos look solid on offense.  Talented senior infielder Jasmine Casados (.348 BA, 42 RBI) returns, along with All-MW junior catcher Chelsea Johnson (.391 BA, 11 HR), and seniors Shelbie Franc (.252 BA) and Michala Erickson (.314, 8 HR. 53 hits, 28 RBI).  The big question mark will be pitching.

Boise State - There were some glimmers of hope last season for the Broncos, despite the poor overall record and last-place finish.  The positives:  Boise State picked up a stunning, 3-2 win at San Diego State on the final weekend of the regular season, and that victory may have been the deciding factor in keeping the Aztecs from receiving an NCAA at-large bid; and the Broncos won consecutive Mountain West series at one point, taking two of three from both Colorado State and UNLV.  But there were also negatives.  For example, Broncos pitchers were shelled in series against Fresno State and San Jose State, giving up 44 runs to the Spartans and a MW-record 49 runs to the Bulldogs.  Boise State finished with a team ERA of 6.96, and its top two pitchers in terms of ERA are gone.  Hope for an improved season lies in newcomers to the Broncos' pitching staff.  Christina Washington, who went 31-12 in three seasons at Cal State Fullerton, transferred to Boise State for her senior season and could be the answer coach Cindy Ball has been looking for.  Washington had an ERA under 4.00 in all three years for the Titans, but now faces the prospect of playing in a home stadium where a ball that would be a shallow pop-up in Fullerton will soar out of Dona Larsen Park.  Pitching in Boise is always an adventure, but Washington has the ability to be a difference-maker.  Also new to the team: Oregon State transfer pitcher Rainey Dyreson, who won five games as a freshman with the Beavers.  Sophomore shortstop Rebekah Cervantes (.342 BA, 13 HR) is Boise State's lone All-MW honoree returning, following a standout season where she won Freshman of the Year honors.  Senior outfielder Izzy Serrano (.325 BA, 16 RBI) and sophomore catcher Morgan Lamb (.323 BA, 6 HR, 17 RBI) are also back for a team that has a strong chance to move up in the standings if the pitching comes through, especially from Washington.  The temptation was to flip New Mexico and Boise State in our preseason predictions, and it could very well end up that way.

Note:  This preview does not take into consideration any possible injuries that are currently unknown, nor any possible late transfers or roster changes.