Jackson Moore - Scout

Mountain West title on the line in softball's Valley Rivalry

The Spartans could get within striking distance of the Mountain West Title with a series win over the top team in the conference standings - Fresno State.

The Mountain West Conference’s top two softball teams face off this weekend, with the final results critical in deciding the conference champion. San Jose State softball hosts rival and defending Mountain West champion Fresno State in a three-game series that begins Friday, with 12 p.m. start times for all games. Only the Friday and Sunday games will be streamed on the Mountain West Network.

San Jose State (22-21, 11-4 MW) comes off a three-game sweep of Nevada in Reno last weekend, with final scores that reflect the Spartans’ strong offense: 11-1, 12-4, and 12-8. This makes seven games out of 15 in which San Jose State has scored in double digits, all of which were wins. With a 17-6 record in that stretch, San Jose State averaged 8.7 runs per game in the past 23 games. San Jose State also has the best batting average (.330) in the MW with a hitting lineup that features first-team all-conference seniors Jessie Hufstetler and Jessica Madrid. Hufstetler has twice been honored as Mountain West Player of the Week, on Apr. 5 and Apr. 12. Also on Apr. 5, USA Softball and the National Fastpitch Coaches Association both awarded Hufstetler with their player of the week awards. On Apr. 26, Brittany Abacherli won MW Player of the Week for scoring seven runs and batting in three in the sweep of Nevada.

With a #18 RPI, Fresno State (34-9-1, 15-0 MW) is currently ranked #20 on the USA Today coaches’ poll and #21 on the ESPN media poll. The Bulldogs have won 25 straight conference games dating back to April 12, 2015. Fresno State’s .320 batting average is second in the MW. Fresno State returns three batters who earned second-team all-Mountain West honors: Malia Rivers, Whitney Smith, and Kierra Willis. Another hitter, Lindsey Willmon, was Mountain West Player of the Week in the first week of the season.

Fresno State’s strength is in pitching, as the team has a 3.32 ERA (3.29 in MW), good enough for second in the conference. The rotation at Fresno State features three-time all-MW senior Jill Compton (20-4, 2.86 ERA) and two-time all-MW senior Hannah Harris (4-4, 2.69 ERA). Compton has also twice been named MW Pitcher of the Week. Quality pitching has been the difference in some close wins recently, such as a 3-2 squeaker on Apr. 23 against Colorado State and a three-game sweep against Utah State in which all the wins were by one run each.

In contrast, San Jose State has an overall ERA of 5.46, next to last in the MW. When taking only MW games in account, San Jose State’s ERA is 4.40, third in the conference. Juniors Katelyn Linford and Colette Riggs each have earned a Pitcher of the Week award from the MW this season, Linford most recently for pitching 15.1 innings in all three games last series with a 2.74 ERA and 10 strikeouts. The second game in the Nevada series, a 12-4 win, would have ended early by run rule if not for four runs given up in the bottom of the fourth inning. In the series finale, San Jose State took a 7-0 lead before giving up seven unanswered runs in the fourth and fifth innings. San Jose State committed just three errors in the entire Nevada series, right after committing four errors in the 11-7 loss to San Diego State on Apr. 17. Fresno State will be sure to take advantage of any pitching or fielding miscues.

Given a four-game lead and nine conference games remaining, Fresno State can clinch its second straight Mountain West title by sweeping San Jose State. Alternatively, by winning just two of three, Fresno State will end the series with a five-game lead and still be in good position to win the conference. In contrast, San Jose State can pull within three games of Fresno State by winning the series or just one by sweeping Fresno State. A series win would put San Jose State on the bubble for an at-large NCAA bid, given San Jose State’s strong out-of-conference schedule (ranked #44 of 291 teams).

It is important to consider level of competition when evaluating San Jose State’s offense. Fresno State’s great pitching numbers are similar to Nevada’s, albeit against far superior competition: Fresno State got a 19-9-1 out-of-conference record with a top-ten schedule that included wins against ranked Tennessee and Utah teams. Nevada, on the other hand, got a 22-5 out-of-conference record with a #281-ranked schedule that included such heavyweights as UC Davis, Santa Clara, Southern Utah, and Montana. In six games against ranked opponents this year, San Jose State scored just 10 runs, for an average of 1.67, while giving up 55 (9.17 per game).

Already, an 11-4 start to MW play has resulted from San Jose State’s tough out-of-conference schedule. It will remain to be seen if San Jose state will be competitive against a top-25 in-conference team after having played six top-25 teams from the major conferences. Also, no team has gone undefeated in conference play in the history of Mountain West softball. BYU was the closest to do so in 2005 with a 16-2 conference record, in addition to other two-loss conference records in 2009 and 2011. Fresno State went 20-4 in the MW in 2015, with two of the losses being at home against San Jose State. Utah State and Colorado State, both of whom lost their series against San Jose State, had close, missed opportunities to put Fresno State in the loss column. Thus, San Jose State has a chance to distinguish itself from them.

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