The big date for Fresno State softball is the one dead ahead, Friday, May 19, and a game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament Seattle Regional. First pitch is 6 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN2, which comes with its own benefits for recruiting, for the brand and the university.
But after landing an at-large bid to the tournament, Bulldogs coach Linda Garza took a quick look back to another date, not that long ago. That was April 23. The Bulldogs had just dropped a series at home to San Jose State, were 6-8 in the Mountain West Conference and foundering a bit, short of expectation for a program that had advanced to the NCAA Tournament 32 times. The Bulldogs weren’t likely to catch any of the teams ahead of them in the standings, not likely to win the conference title.
The Bulldogs, winners of eight of nine to end the regular season and tied for third in the Mountain West Conference, will be making their 33rd appearance in the NCAA Tournament and third in a row.
But Garza right then put the bright yellow ball in the hand of sophomore pitcher Kamalani Dung, the Bulldogs hit a bit of a growth spurt and after six wins in a row (their longest streak to that point was four) and eight in nine games they secured that at-large bid over San Diego State and Utah State, which had finished second and tied for third with the Bulldogs in the MW.
“Our goal obviously was to win the conference title,” Garza said. “That was the goal. That’s the Bulldog mentality. That’s what the tradition is.
“To see that slip away fairly early, in the middle of conference, we had to restructure what our intention was and what our purpose was. We need to still play Bulldog softball. We still need to represent the Red Wave and realize that we owed it to the people who stood before us and the people who played before us. We owe it to them to play all the games out the way you’re supposed to play them.”
The Bulldogs (34-21) match up first with Michigan (41-11-1) in a double-elimination regional that includes Washington (43-11) and Montana (35-22).
Michigan finished second in the Big Ten and has won nine of its last 10 games.
It just came down to having pride in our program and our history. Fresno State softball has been a place that tradition truly lives. ... We needed to find ways to win. There were a few times early in the year that we didn't want to completely push through that uncomfortable line and now we are.
Fresno State coach Linda Garza
“Our backs got put up against the wall,” Garza said. “We graduated a lot of people last year. You graduate a 25-game winner and you graduate offense, you graduate stability and seniors and people who have been there and done that … we put ourselves in position where we have a good recruiting class; however, experience means something.
“Though we scheduled tough and that allowed us to sneak in as that second seed in terms of conference, our kids still had to go through the growing pains of what it’s like and what it feels like to just go through the ups and downs of a season. I’m just glad we’re hitting stride at the right time and we’re one of the hottest teams out there. If I were Michigan, Washington or Montana I would not want to play Fresno State because when we get things going I truly believe we can play with a lot of people in the country.”
Dung, 8-1 down the stretch and 25-13 this season, is a big reason why. The Bulldogs might not be in the tournament if she had not embraced what was in front of her after Fresno State lost two of three to San Jose State last month.
Garza said, “She gives us the best opportunity to win the game and understanding that part is critical for her because she needs to understand that her job is to keep us in the ball game and then our job is to put up enough runs to take care of business and I think we just had to get to that place where it was a trust.
“She didn’t have to overdo anything. She’s a 2.00 ERA kid. I love complete games and shutouts, however, my job and our job and your job is to keep the game within striking distance and trust that your offense is going to put together the inning that it’s going to take to win a ball game.”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
NCAA Seattle Regional
Double-elimination, winners advance to best-of-three Super Regionals
First-round games Friday
Michigan (41-11-1) vs. Fresno St. (34-21), 6 p.m., ESPN2
Montana (35-22) at Washington (43-11), 8:30 p.m.