Team that will surprise: Colorado State
I really like the look of the Rams this year. Though 2014 leading home run hitter Chelsea O'Connor has graduated, three of the four top hitters on the team return, including sophomore Haley Hutton & senior Danielle Wikre. In the circle, Holly Reinke returns, as well. Her walk/strikeout ratio could use some work, and bringing down her batting average against wouldn't hurt, but with a sub-2.50 ERA and flashes of brilliance last season, she should handle most of the pitching duties; two freshmen will also join the party in the circle this year, giving the Rams a bit of depth at the position.
Team that will disappoint: San Diego State
The Aztecs took home the division crown in 2014, but after losing three of their top four hitters from a year ago, as well as staff ace Danielle O'Toole, they must rebuild this year. Slugger Patrice Jackson, whose seventeen home runs made up nearly 50% of the squad's roundtrippers last season, has graduated, leaving quite a hole in the power department. O'Toole took home Mountain West Pitcher of the Year honors last season thanks to a 1.91 ERA and thirty-one victories, but transferred to Arizona in the offseason. She posted 257 innings of work last season; the other two pitches that saw action combined to throw 139 innings.
Player of the Year: Devon Bridges, Boise State
Pitcher of the Year: Jill Compton, Fresno State
Coach of the Year: Jen Fisher, Colorado State
Conference Champs: Fresno State Bulldogs
Top WCWS Contender: Fresno State
(SDSU is going to have to regroup and finding a replacement for O'Toole is a tall order; Fresno State only finished one game back in the conference race last year, and with the losses in Aztec land, I think the Bulldogs get the nod for both the conference title and a berth in the NCAA tournament.)
Players to Watch:
- Jill Compton, Fresno State - Compton has earned all-conference first-team honors in each of her first two seasons; last year, she was my pick for Pitcher of the Year behind the aforementioned O'Toole, and I think she has a clear path to that award this season. Her career 2.60 ERA in 380 even career innings is an excellent number, and with a BB/SO ratio of more than 1/2, she's got solid control of the ball, as well. Opponents hit just .218 against her last season, and she allowed thirty fewer runs in 2014 than in her freshman campaign.
- Devon Bridges, Boise State - Bridges' 2014 season was cut short due to an injured back, but she should be ready to go for this season. Posting double-digit home run numbers in each of her first three seasons before her injury, her production in the long ball department had dropped a bit each year, but her overall impact stayed steadily high. If she's back to full health, she will be a big part of the the Broncos offense & would be a strong contender for the Player of the Year crown.
- Haley Hutton, Colorado State - Haley is one of two Hutton sisters on the CSU roster this season; big sister Taylor is a senior. Haley earned all-region and all-conference honors as a true freshman last season, and, I believe, will only improve this season. She led her squad in five categories in 2014, including batting average (her .413 number placed 2nd in the conference as a whole). With three years, including 2015, left on her already-excellent career, I expect Hutton to become a premier player in the conference before all is said and done.
P - Megan Dortch, Nevada
C - Ashley Butera, Nevada
IF - Devon Bridges, Boise State; Danielle Wikre, Colorado State
OF - Lindsey Nicholson, Boise State; Hailey Froton, Utah State; Brenna Moss, Fresno State; Michelle Cox, San Jose State
UT - Hayley Miles, San Diego State
Conference projection (2014 finish in parentheses):
1. Fresno State (2)
2. UNLV (3)
3. San Jose State (5)
4. San Diego State (1)
5. Colorado State (6)
6. Boise State (4)
7. Utah State (9)
8. Nevada (8)