Entering her second season at Fresno State, coach Trisha Ford is beginning the next phase of rebuilding the Bulldogs softball team.
Time to strengthen the schedule and get back to playing the nation's best.
The Bulldogs took a break from taking on elite teams last season with Ford developing freshman pitchers.
But with a year's experience and the loss of just one starter from last season's team, Fresno State appears ready to take the next step.
"We're excited about what's in store this season," said Ford, whose Bulldogs open the season Friday at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz., against No. 8 Oregon. "We're still fairly young. But the ladies know what to expect and how we're going to operate after a year in our system.
"I've been real pleased with how our offseason's gone. We had to learn through trial and error through most of last season. Now that we've learned some of those lessons, we're ready to show how much we've improved."
It's not going to be easy, though, at least early on.
The Bulldogs, who finished 30-24 overall and 11-7 in Mountain West play last season, play at 1:30 p.m. Friday against No. 8 Oregon (50-11 last season) then North Carolina State (35-20-1) at 4 p.m. On Saturday, Fresno State faces Appalachian State (31-22) and UC Riverside (20-35) before closing the tournament Sunday against No. 7 Arizona State (50-12).
Oregon is the defending Pac-12 champion and Arizona State reached the College World Series.
Fresno State skipped the Kajikawa Classic last season but appears better prepared to compete with such competition this year.
Among the Bulldogs' returning starters are three All-Mountain West second-team members in third baseman Vonnie Martin, catcher Paige Gumz and pitcher Jill Compton. Fresno State also should get a big boost with the return of middle infielder Brooke Ortiz.
A senior, Ortiz is a career .321 hitter who has started 131 games, but she missed all but the first 18 games last season after a knee injury. She's expected to move from second base to shortstop.
"She came to Fresno State as a shortstop and she still has the arm to play the position," Ford said. "Brooke worked hard on her feet and getting her footwork under control. She's one of the best hitters in the conference. Having her back helps us in a lot of ways."
Fresno State is expected to get continued power production from outfielder Michelle Solomon (six homers, team-high 38 RBIs) and first baseman Stesha Brazil (team-best 10 homers, 25 RBIs).
Compton, who as a freshman went 9-8 with a 2.37 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 1121/3 innings, is expected to anchor the pitching staff.
But fellow sophomores Hannah Harris and Taylor Langdon, as well as left-hander Kiley Shae Aldridge, a transfer from Arizona who sat out last season, are expected to receive time in the circle, too, with Ford still in the process of developing an ace pitcher.
"I think you'll see a lot of games where we use a committee of pitchers," Ford said. "Jill's done great in the fall. We're still very young there. They're still going to have to learn on the go."
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