Mountain West Pushing Closer To Becoming A Consistent Multiple-Bid League
A one-bid league in five of the last seven seasons. One NCAA Super Regional appearance ever. A 7-16 NCAA Tournament record since 2013.
These statistics often describe standard marks for mid-major conferences.
The Mountain West Conference hopes to change its recent trend, and this season could present the perfect opportunity.
Boise State (18-2) holds the nation’s second-longest win streak at 17 games, behind only the last remaining unbeaten team in the country, No. 5 Alabama. The Broncos are ranked No. 24 in the Softball America Poll and the USA Today/NFCA Coaches Poll, the first time the program has been ranked since its creation in 2009.
Colorado State (17-4) boasts a league-best six wins over Power 5 competition – Stanford, Utah, Oklahoma State, Nebraska and Syracuse twice – and enters conference play with an eight-game win streak.
UNLV (19-5) enters Mountain West play with its best start in 28 years and back-to-back victories over then-ranked No. 23 Stanford. In its last six games, the Rebels have pitched four shutouts and have not allowed more than one run in any game.
Fresno State (14-6) rides an eight-game win streak into Mountain West play after facing a challenging non-conference slate that included games against UCLA, Tennessee, Oregon State and Long Beach State.
Entering opening weekend of Mountain West play, seven of the nine teams sit above .500, a clear boost for overall conference RPI.
Jen Fisher, who is in her ninth season as Colorado State head coach, pinpointed the importance of raising the conference profile, and that focus may be paying off.
"Our conference has been consistently trying to become the most competitive that we can," she said. "Our coaches are really about the conference. Of course, we're each about our own team, but there is a feeling of caring about the good of the entire conference. We are trying to find a way to get recognized for that as a conference to try and get more than just the automatic berth.”
Scheduling has become a major emphasis to shape the league into a consistent multiple-bid league.
“You have to find a balance between playing tough teams and playing teams that you believe you can win against,” Boise State head coach Maggie Livreri said. “We have to put ourselves in positions that you are winning lots of games out of the league. Then, the hope is that we elevate each other's RPI when we are playing each other within the league.”
Fresno State, the most storied program in the Mountain West, consistently schedules at a high level. As Fresno State head coach Linda Garza explains, she schedules aggressively because of the program’s standard of excellence and because it positions her team for NCAA Tournament at-large opportunities.
“When we get a chance to play some of those Power 5 teams, we need to win and keep them below .500 so we can get programs with 35 to 40 wins in. If we can get two to three teams with a competitive record, it puts us in the right conversation."
That conversation may come in May when the NCAA Division I Softball Committee selects its 32 at-large teams. With strong non-conference showings and wins over Power 5 opponents, the Mountain West has an opportunity to do what the conference has done only twice since its inception in 2000 – send three teams to the NCAA Tournament (2006 and 2009). The conference has never sent four teams.
“This is what we want,” Garza said. “We want to be a competitive mid-major. We are not the Power 5. We understand and respect who we are, and our coaches have done a good job with scheduling and putting their teams in good positions to win and stay competitive."
Mountain West season opens with two series featuring the four hottest teams in the conference. No. 24 Boise State visits UNLV while Fresno State travels to Colorado State. The Mountain West title race offers plenty of contenders, and a strong conference play start may be a deciding factor.
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Boise State puts its 17-game win streak on the line and begins its Mountain West title defense with a three-game series at UNLV.
The series begins Friday at 8 p.m. ET, followed by games Saturday at 6 p.m. ET and Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.
Coming off a 5-1 weekend with a pair of wins at Stanford, the Rebels look to add to its best program start since 1991.
In scouting for UNLV, Livreri emphasized the importance of preparation at the plate.
“We have to prepare for their pitching a bit,” Livreri said. “They have a freshman doing really well. She's new, so our girls have not seen her yet. That's the pitcher we are really keyed in on.”
That pitcher, freshman Jenny Bressler, enters conference play with an 11-2 record, the most wins of any pitcher in the Mountain West and a 1.83 ERA. She earned her first Mountain West Pitcher of the Week honors after allowing no runs in 16.2 innings with 16 strikeouts, which included a complete game shutout win of Stanford.
UNLV complements its pitching rotation with a potent offense that hits a conference-leading .332. Seven Rebels hit over .300, led by Lauren Tycksen at .468.
Boise State travels to Las Vegas looking to carry team consistency into Mountain West play.
“We have different ways to beat you,” Livreri said. “When they are all playing together, you get that consistency that we are seeing right now. We're able to find ways to win.”
While feeding off the momentum of last season’s Mountain West title and NCAA berth, the Broncos are still unsatisfied after going 0-2 in the NCAA Seattle Regional. They use that sour taste as motivation entering conference play.
“They are a very hungry team,” Livreri said. “They had some success last year but were not satisfied with it. The expectation is not just to get to the postseason. It's to win in the postseason and have that mindset every day.”
Pitchers Gianna Mancha and Kelsey Broadus split time in the circle for Boise State, each boasting seven wins. Leadoff hitter Kora Wade paces the Broncos offensively with 27 hits and 23 runs, both team highs.
Livreri’s first conference series as a head coach doubles as a homecoming. After growing up in Las Vegas, Livreri played softball for UNLV in 2005-2006 and was on staff from 2007-2011.
“It’s home. My family is there, so we will have some support in the crowd. It should feel pretty comfortable for me."
The other prominent Mountain West opening weekend series features historic conference power Fresno State and rising contender Colorado State.
The three-game series opens on Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Games two and three are scheduled for Saturday at 3 pm. ET and Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.
Both teams carry eight-game win streaks into conference play, but they have used separate strengths to win. Fresno State has allowed one run or less in five of its eight contests during the streak, which includes two shutouts.
The Bulldogs utilize a three-pitcher rotation featuring all underclassmen. UC Riverside transfer Hailey Dolcini leads the crew at 6-1 with a 1.39 ERA while lefty Danielle East and freshman Danielle Lung round out the rotation. All three pitchers have logged at least 40 innings of work.
In contrast, Colorado State has stretched its win streak with its bats, scoring 10.9 runs per game during the last eight games.
While the offense has certainly showed dominance during the streak, Colorado State has displayed a balanced attack all season. The Rams average 6.8 runs per game and have a 1.70 team ERA, both conference bests.
Fisher credits her players for buying in and believing in hitting coach Whitney Cloer.
“Our players have bought into letting themselves be coached,” Fisher said. “It’s a somewhat foreign concept to some of these kids, but they have embraced that.”
Colorado State entered conference play at 13-6 with wins over Wisconsin and Texas in 2018 before finishing seventh in conference at 10-14.
Fisher has encouraged her 2019 team to forget that they are entering conference play. She hopes her team simply plays with the same enthusiasm and power that it has to start the season.
“We’re trying to pretend that we are not in conference play. Our main thing is to not be better, but be more consistent than we have been in the past."
With a blizzard passing through Fort Collins, Colo., earlier this week, weather could play a significant role in the series. The highs hover near 40 degrees and lows near 20 degrees all weekend.
The cold has not phased Garza and Fresno State. The Bulldogs practiced every Wednesday night in January and practiced this Wednesday night to stimulate the colder temperatures in Colorado.
"My kids don't make excuses,” Garza said. “As much as we are a storybook program, we are super blue collar. This is a blue-collar town. We take pride in our work and work our tails off to get the things we have. We'll put some sleeves on and get some hands warmers. At the end of the day, we have to barrel up strikes."