The idea had been out there for a while, floating around. Fresno State softball coach Linda Garza had talked with her staff about taking the depth out of the Bulldogs’ pitching staff and just putting the ball into the hands of sophomore Kamalani Dung; every pitch, every inning, every game. It gained steam after the season started to unravel a bit with nine losses in 11 games, six of those in Mountain West play, which is not a good look for a program that went into the season with back-to-back conference titles in tow.
But when Garza made the move, the coaching staff didn’t treat it as any big deal.
The Bulldogs arrived at the ball park on an April Sunday after taking the first two of a three-game series at UNLV, Garza and pitching coach Jodie Cox told Dung that she would go again after she had worked into extra innings to secure a win in the first game of that series and followed that with a two-hit shutout. Dung simply nodded, took the ball and the Bulldogs have only plowed forward since.
Fresno State sophomore Kamalani Dung enters the NCAA Tournament 8-1 with an ERA of 1.92 over the past nine games.
“It almost unlocked something that I didn’t really know,” said Dung, who on Wednesday was selected as the pitcher of the year in the conference. “I’ve always been a fighter, but in college, that was something that I hadn’t been able to experience yet, just going out on the mound and pitching every ball for my team.”
The switch, extending Dung, was a key piece in solidifying a team that closed the regular season with eight wins in nine games and secured an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, the Bulldogs open play in the Seattle Regional against Michigan, a game that will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
But it might not have happened if they had not rallied around and behind Dung, or if the young right-hander had struggled with a step that former Fresno State ace Jill Compton said was tricky, difficult, draining; all of the above. In that third game of a series, opponents are getting a seventh, eighth, ninth look at your pitches. There is a toll physically as the pitch counts mount, but more mental in making each pitch count.
“It’s hard,” said Compton, who was an undergraduate student assistant this season and will pitch this summer for the Texas Charge in the National Pro Fastpitch League. “Kama had me and Taylor Langdon and Hannah (Harris) to look to last year and now she doesn’t have that so she has to be in that moment and learn from her own mistakes. She wasn’t given that last year. But now, being in that moment, she has learned and developed so much and I’m really proud of her because it’s definitely really difficult to feel like you don’t have your ‘A’ game and still have to pitch.
“That’s where your mental game and your knowledge of each hitter comes into play ... it’s cool to see because you see that next step with her.”
Fresno State had not leaned that heavily on a sophomore pitcher since 2009 when Morgan Melloh pitched 319.1 innings, and of the top 150 pitchers in NCAA Division I ranked by earned run average this season there are 14 that have worked 220 or more innings and only two are sophomores - Dung (238.1) and Mandy Jordan from Lipscomb (230.0).
When Kama is in the mound, the team has a totally different energy. They want to do it for her because she’s working her butt off to do anything she can for the team and she knows if she pitches a good game then they have a chance to win. The team knows that and they support it. They’re all on board with it and that’s so cool.
Former Fresno State ace Jill Compton on Kamalani Dung
But Dung attacked it, going 8-1 over the final nine games with an ERA of 1.92. And in the third game of those conference series at UNLV, against New Mexico and at Colorado State, she was 3-0 and her ERA improved; it was 2.05 in the first two games of those series and 1.67 in the third games.
“That’s maturity,” Garza said. “Usually you see juniors and seniors that are ready for that, however, Kama has grown throughout the year in terms of when something doesn’t go well, she is at a position that she can flush it and then reset and get to the next pitch.”
“She was ready,” said Cox, the Bulldogs’ pitching coach, who earned All-American honors as a pitcher in 2003 at Cal State Fullerton.
“I think mentally she was ready. She wanted it. It was physical and then that mental game, kind of not knowing what to expect - she made a comment early in the season, ‘Man, this is hard. Last year, I only had to be on every once in a while ...’ That has been the biggest thing for her - she’s in it, every pitch, every inning.”
Dung, working with senior catcher Lindsey Willmon, didn’t change the game plan much from one game of a series to the next. Any adjustments, she said, were minor, culled from a running catalog of mental notes from each match up against an opposing hitter.
I feel like her biggest strength right now, the area that she has grown the most, is her mental game. She is now to the point that she wants the ball every game, She thrives in those tougher moments. That has been a huge change for her.
Fresno State pitching coach Jodie Cox on Kamalani Dung
“You can win almost every pitch, but it’s a few pitches that can kill you,” Dung said. “That’s one of the things I learned from (Compton) - to not takes pitches off and keep working hard. Jill was able to talk to me about how the more innings you get to pitch the less you run on adrenalin and the more you have to think about what you’re doing.”
The key was continually executing pitches, letting the defense make plays and keeping the Bulldogs in games until the offense put together an inning. Done, done and done.
“It’s something that we’re used to,” said Willmon, one of only four seniors on the roster, along with Christina Rodriguez, Kierra Willis and Malia Rivers.
“We had Jill Compton, who pitched almost every single game last year, and sometimes it has nothing to do with the other pitchers it has to do with the team and how we play behind certain people. For some reason, and there’s never a specific reason why, but for some reason our team plays way better when Kama is on the mound. Her energy feeds into the rest of the team. Her competitiveness. Everything. It feeds into everyone and it just brings the best out in everyone’s play.”
Kamalani Dung led the Mountain West in wins (13), ERA (2.04), innings pitched (120.0), strikeouts (99), opponent’s batting average (.217) and starts (17) and was selected MW pitcher of the year.
With that one move, the pieces just fell into place and the Bulldogs were able to work their way into the NCAA Tournament; they were 26-20 and 6-8 in conference play when Dung took the ball full time and finished 34-21 and 14-9.
“We didn’t do anything else different, other than we told our seniors and told everyone that was a returned, ‘Make a memory today,’ Garza said. “We can’t control what the (NCAA Tournament selection) committee is going to do and we’ve already had our chance, we’re not winning the conference. However, we’ve all been playing since we were 5 or 6 years old, you get a chance to play the game, the game hasn’t changed. Go out and make a memory, go out and make a moment. I feel like we were able to do that.”
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.