Fresno State is back in the desert to launch its softball season, opening for the third straight year at the Kajikawa Classic in Tempe, Ariz.
Nineteen teams in all are involved, with the USA TODAY/National Fastpitch Coaches Association No. 24 Bulldogs set to face Indiana, ninth-ranked Oregon, Purdue, the University of San Diego and Stanford from Friday through Sunday.
Here is a look at some of the storylines:
The schedule – Friday vs. Indiana, 8 a.m., and Oregon, 10:45 a.m.; Saturday vs. Purdue, 11:15 a.m., and San Diego, 2 p.m.; Sunday vs. Stanford, 10:45 a.m.
Welcome home – Fresno native Linda Garza begins her first season as Bulldogs coach. The former Hoover High and UNLV standout went on to play at UNLV and coached at Cal Poly, Wright State, Purdue, Tulsa and Arkansas before being plucked from the top job at UC Riverside. Ex-coach Trisha Ford is now at Arizona State, the Kajikawa Classic host.
Who’s the ace – Jill Compton was lost to graduation, leaving sophomore Kamalani Dung (8-1, 4.41 ERA) and junior transfer Savannah McHellon (20-2, 1.50 ERA, 180 K, 149 IP at Northwest Florida State) as the likely early 1-2 options.
Will Willis pack a bigger wallop – It’s a lot to ask of senior outfielder Kierra Willis to improve off her 2016 season in which she posted career highs in homers (11) and on-base percentage (.478) while hitting .345, slugging .630 and earning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors. She has a veteran complement in returning All-Mountain West first-team selection Lindsey Willmon (.363/.415/.690), who led the team in homers (12) and was second in RBIs (48) to departed senior Alyssa Villalpando. But the Bulldogs may need more from Willis because …
How ’bout those kids – Catcher Maddi Hackbarth (Oakdale) and infielders Schuylar Broussard (Valley View-Moreno Valley) and Miranda Rohleder (Goddard-Kansas) are all penciled in to start as rookies. Hackbarth takes over for two-time all-conference Defensive Player of the Year Paige Gumz, who started all 214 games the past four seasons. Outfielder Kindra Hackbarth (Oakdale) and pitcher Samantha Mejia (Ridgeview) also are seen as potential impact players as freshmen. Two key returners in the lineup are sophomores in Vanessa Hernandez and Morgan Howe.
The conference and beyond – Fresno State was named the preseason favorite to three-peat as the Mountain West champs and return to the NCAA Tournament, but narrowly over San Diego State and San Jose State. And the big prize remains NCAA Tournament success, with the Bulldogs qualifying as conference champs each of the past two seasons after a three-year drought but winning only once in five regional games.
Making them wait – The first chance to impress the home fan base doesn’t come until Feb. 23, when Fresno State hosts Cal Poly to open the Bulldog Classic at Margie Wright Diamond. In between, there is a Feb. 16-19 trip to Mexico for the Puerto Vallarta College Challenge.