Fresno State’s softball team knows it is has a giant target on its back, literally.
Players’ practice shirts feature a red bull’s-eye plastered on the back – a reminder of the pressure that comes with being the team to beat after last season’s Mountain West title run.
The Bulldogs finished 40-16 overall and 20-4 in conference to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012. Earlier this week, they were named the preseason conference favorite for the second year in a row, only raising the stakes.
It is exactly the expectations that fourth-year coach Trisha Ford wants for her program, even while acknowledging that not much weight is put into preseason rankings.
“It’s February. That doesn’t really mean anything, but for our program, I think this is the direction we’re going in,” she said. “This is what we want to do. We want to be that preseason favorite. We want to play with that pressure, that intensity. We want those expectations.
“You come to Fresno State because you want to be a champion. That’s the direction of this program and we’re excited about it,” she added.
The Bulldogs ended last year on a sour note, losing to North Dakota State 4-0 and Brigham Young 8-7 while being swept aside at the NCAA Eugene Regional.
Senior Jill Compton, last season’s Mountain West Pitcher of the Year, remembers those two losses, and they have fueled her fire to write a better closing chapter in her final season at Fresno State.
Last year was last year. Each year you’re either getting better or worse. There’s no gray area with me. So everyday to come out and get better, we have to get a little bit better.
Fresno State softball coach Trisha Ford
Ford feels those flames.
“The best thing that could have happened to her was what happened in the postseason because it’s driven her beyond words for this year,” Ford said. “She really has that hunger, that desire, that tenacity to finish her senior year how she wants to finish it.”
The Bulldogs get straight to business at Arizona State’s Kajikawa Classic, playing five games in three days in Tempe.
Fresno State starts with a Friday doubleheader against Indiana at 1:30 p.m. and nationally No. 8-ranked Tennessee at 4 p.m.
It’s the perfect entrance for the Bulldogs, who want to be considered among the nation’s elite.
“It’s good for our program,” Ford added. “There’s expectations for this program and the expectation is for us to be a Top 25 program. And for us, if we’re going to be a Top 25 program, we’ve got to be ready to go from Day One.”
The Bulldogs return seven players who started more than 40 games. Five are seniors including Compton; catcher Paige Gumz, last season’s conference defensive Player of the Year; outfielder Bria Kennedy; and infielders Alyssa Villalpando and Whitney Smith. The others are juniors – infielder Malia Rivers and outfielder Kierra Willis.
Newcomers include five freshmen and two transfers, who will jump right into the fold, Ford said. The latter group features ex-Bullard High standout Claire Stucker, a sophomore infielder who returns to Fresno after playing sparingly as a freshman at Mississippi State. Freshman Kamalani Dung (Kamehameha Schools-Honolulu) is expected to help the rotation, Ford said.
The Bulldogs play their home opener next weekend when they host the Fresno State Kick-off Classic from Feb. 19-21 at Margie Wright Diamond.
FRESNO STATE AT ARIZONA STATE KAJIKAWA CLASSIC
- Friday: 1:30 p.m. vs. Indiana; 4 p.m. vs. No. 8 Tennesee
- Saturday: 6 p.m. vs. Seattle; 8:30 p.m. vs. Boston College
- Sunday: 12:30 p.m. vs. Utah