Sunday, April 16, 2017

Everyone keeps asking: "What's wrong with Fresno State this season?"

Emails, private messages and direct messages have been coming to us for weeks now, all asking the same question:  "What's wrong with Fresno State this season?"

The Bulldogs, who were ranked as high as 17th in the nation last season and in the conversation to become an NCAA regional host and No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament, have struggled mightily in 2017.

Despite being selected the preseason favorite by conference coaches to win the Mountain West championship in 2017, Fresno State currently finds itself in sixth place in the league standings midway through MW play.  The Bulldogs are under .500 in conference play this late in a season for the first time in program history, regardless of the conference in which Fresno State has competed.

First-year head coach Linda Garza's team has lost four straight Mountain West games -- again, a program first in conference play -- and has just one win in its last seven games overall.  At a school like Fresno State, whose longest losing streak ever in the sport of softball is five in a row, these are trying times.

How bad is it?  The Bulldogs must go at least 9-3 in their final 12 conference games in order to avoid the distinction of having the worst league record ever for a program that began playing softball in 1978.  Nearly a quarter century ago, the 1993 Fresno State softball team finished 14-10 (.583) in WAC play, for both the worst conference record and worst finish (3rd place) in school history.

No Bulldog softball team has ever finished with a losing record in conference play, nor lower than third place in the final conference standings of any league in which Fresno State competed.  Both of those streaks are in jeopardy this year, unless things turn around quickly.

The Bulldogs were a nationally-ranked Top 25 team less than two months ago, holding down the No. 21 spot in the USA Today/NFCA coaches poll for the week ending February 20, 2017.  Fresno State was still receiving votes in the national polls less than a month ago, but is now 3-7 in its last 10 games.

So what happened?  First, things would have looked a lot different for the Bulldogs if pitcher Giselle Juarez, a top 50 national recruit by Flo Softball and two-time Arizona high school player of the year finalist, had been at the school instead of going to Arizona State along with former head coach Trisha Ford.  Juarez signed a National Letter of Intent with Fresno State in November 2015, but opted to go with Ford to ASU and has made 11 starts as a true freshman this season  and leads the nationally-ranked Sun Devils pitching staff in strikeouts.

Savannah McHellon
It was a crushing blow to the Bulldogs' program.

Garza went out and got heralded JC transfer Savannah McHellon, a pitcher who can hit, to provide some much needed back-up in the circle.  One wonders how bad things might have been at Fresno State this season, if not for the late addition of McHellon, who's been not only a reliable No. 2 starter (15 starts, including wins over the likes of BYU and Oregon State), but also the team leader in both home runs (8) and RBI (35).

The oddity in the Bulldogs' struggles is this:  Heading into the 2017 season, pitching was thought to be Fresno State's main weakness after losing 2-time MW Pitcher of the Year Jill Compton.  But, in fact, pitching has turned out to be the Bulldogs' strong suit, largely due to right-hander Kamalani Dung.  The sophomore from the state of Hawai'i has been sensational in 2017, with six shutouts and an ERA shockingly nearly a full point better than Compton's last season, and nearly 1 1/2 points better in conference play than the eventual MW Pitcher of the Year.

Dung's 16-10 overall record looks pedestrian compared to Compton's 25-6 mark a season ago, but Dung's ERA in MW play is 2.07 this year.  In winning the league's top pitching honor a season ago, Compton's ERA in conference play was 3.51.

In fact, as a pitching staff, Fresno State has lowered its team ERA in both conference play and overall
Kamalani Dung
this season. So again, what happened?

Offense and defense happened.  Or, lack of it.  With the exception of the opening weekend of the 2017 season, when the Bulldogs committed just one error in five games at the Kajikawa Classic in February, defense has been an issue.  Already in 2017, Fresno State has allowed nine more unearned runs than it did all of last season, which included four NCAA postseason games as well.

In Mountain West games this year, defense has been the difference between most of the Bulldogs' wins and losses.  Fresno State has given up 17 unearned runs thus far in conference play.  The Bulldogs' opponents have allowed 1 unearned run.  A 17-to-1 differential in unearned runs speaks volumes.  Easy fly balls to the outfield have been dropped, and routine infield grounders booted game after game.

Defensive issues play a big part in trying to explain this stunning stat:  Fresno State has a losing conference record, even though its team ERA is 2.86, compared to its opponents' 5.56 ERA.  There's no way that should happen.

But along with shaky defense, maybe even more surprising is the Bulldogs' lack of offense.  Heading into 2017, Fresno State looked -- on paper, at least -- like an offensive juggernaut.  Most of its big bats from a spectacular 2016 season were back, including three of the team's top four home run hitters, a 2017 preseason All-American (Lindsey Willmon) by College Sports Madness, and 2016 Mountain West Player of the Year Kierra Willis.

But the Bulldogs' run production has taken a massive nosedive.  After scoring 347 runs last year, that number is 230 this season.  In Mountain West play, that dropoff has been even more shocking.  Fresno State scored 200 runs in MW play last season, but only 59 this year.  After hitting 44 doubles and 31 home runs in MW play last year, the 'Dogs are down to only 12 doubles and 12 home runs this season.  The team batting average in league play has dropped 74 points, while its slugging percentage has fallen from .592 to .483.

After having 254 hits in Mountain West play last season as a team, the Bulldogs have just 89 midway through conference play in 2017.  Willmon, who batted .459 in MW play as a junior, has seen her batting average drop more than 200 points this year, to.242.  Dominique Jackson, who started 44 games and hit 11 home runs as a true freshman under Ford last year, has not started a game this season and has just nine total at-bats in 2017.

NCAA Strength of Schedule
Still, Garza should be commended for not trying to take the easy way out like some of her coaching colleagues who pad their non-conference schedules with easy wins.  Fresno State, once again, played the toughest schedule in the Mountain West.  In the NCAA's "toughest schedule" release of games played thru March 19, the Bulldogs had played the nation's 28th strongest slate.  No other MW team ranked in the top 50 at that time.  Three teams in the conference ranked outside the top 250, signifying very weak non-league schedules.

And that's not to say Fresno State won't pick up the pieces and go on a long winning streak and ultimately reach the NCAA Tournament this season.  The Bulldogs are more than capable, but things will have to turn around quickly.  And despite all the problems that many consider a "free-fall," the 'Dogs sit just two games back of first-place Utah State in the loss column in MW play.  It all starts with a home series against rival San Jose State beginning Friday at Margie Wright Diamond, and it's a series Fresno State must win to have a realistic shot at claiming a third straight Mountain West championship.