The Fresno State softball team has faced this scenario before: In the driver’s seat with the Mountain West championship in its grasp.
A year ago, the Bulldogs buckled in their final weekend series and had to settle for runners-up.
How will the Bulldogs respond this time?
Fresno State (37-14, 17-4) enters its final series of the regular season needing to win two of three at UNLV (25-27, 11-10) to capture the Mountain West title.
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The Bulldogs own a half-game lead against San Diego State (35-18, 18-6), which has completed conference play, and are up two games on San Jose State (35-18, 15-6), which concludes its season at New Mexico (28-23, 12-9).
“We didn’t run from the situation, but we definitely hid from the situation last year,” said third-year Bulldogs coach Trisha Ford. “I think for us this year going into this weekend, it’s for us to enjoy it, embrace it, be excited about it.
“What other place would you want to be in?”
Fresno State is seeking its first conference championship since 2009 and its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Ford. The Bulldogs had participated in every NCAA Tournament until that streak ended during former coach Margie Wright’s final season in 2012. Conference champions receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
With a Rating Percentage Index (used to determined quality of wins, losses and strength of schedule) that ranks 46th in the nation entering the weekend, Fresno State would unlikely make the NCAA field as an at-large, especially if the Bulldogs lost at least two games against UNLV, which has an RPI of 98.
“We’re a dark bubble,” Ford said of receiving an at-large bid. “It would be tough.”
Fresno State has started to play some of its best down the stretch, winning eight straight and 13 of its last 14. UNLV (25-27, 11-10) has been up and down all season and has gone 8-7 the past four weeks.
Ford often has gotten on her team for lack of energy this season when facing inferior opponents. And she often reminds players about last season’s debacle: In first place and up one game going into the final series, Fresno State lost two of three on the road against a Nevada team that finished seventh in the nine-team conference.
The slip was just enough for San Diego State to win the Mountain West by one game.
“We want our energy to be great,” Bulldogs pitcher Jill Compton said. “That’s something we can control. We want to close it out and win a conference championship and make it to the postseason.
“That’s been our goal. And we’ve worked really hard for that. We aren’t taking the game for granted.”
Fresno State sports the best pitching in the Mountain West, owning a team ERA of 2.26 and four shutouts in its past five games. The next closest is San Jose State with a 3.69 ERA. The Bulldogs also have struck out the most batters at 273, 61 more than San Jose State, which again ranks second.
Compton has been the workhorse, going 26-10 with a 1.84 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 2202/3 innings.
But the Bulldogs offense has been churning runs regularly all season, ranking third in the conference in scoring with 281 runs and second in batting average at .317.
“It feels good to be in this position,” outfielder Michelle Solomon said. “But we’ve been in the same situation. We’ve learned from our mistakes. We’re going to go out and do things differently.”