Team that could surprise: Utah State Aggies
(Former Auburn assistant Steve Johnson has done a good job since he took over at the helm of the Aggies. His squad has done increasingly better in conference play and some solid players have developed on his roster. Three of his top four offensive stars return from a year ago, including senior outfielder Sarah Chow; pitching/hitting dual threat Noelle Johnson; and junior Alleyah Armendariz. Former Memphis & Ole Miss head coach Windy Thees has joined the coaching staff and should have an immediate and noticeable impact on Johnson and the rest of the staff. I expect a record much closer to .500 for the Aggies this season, including a winning record in conference play and a top-four finish at year's end.)
Team that could disappoint: UNLV Rebels
(Lisa Dodd came to the Rebels with much fanfare, thought to be the next coaching star who could help her team rise to the conference's top sooner rather than later. Instead, after three straight seasons of sub-.500 records and disappointing results each season, she likely finds her seat growing substantially warmer and needing a good season to save her job. Leading hitter and home-run slugger Garie Blando returns for her senior campaign after batting .389 in 2015, as does Emily Haslinger, another senior that I really feel can be the x-factor for the Rebels. However, with a retooled and inexperienced coaching staff and some of their fellow conference mates on the rise, Dodd's squad could find themselves on the low side looking up at many teams higher on the totem pole at season's end.)
Player of the Year: Jenavee Peres, San Diego State
Pitcher of the Year: Jill Compton, Fresno State
Coach of the Year: Steve Johnson, Utah State
Conference Champs: Fresno State Bulldogs
Top WCWS Contender: Fresno State Bulldogs
(The Bulldogs won the Mountain West's automatic bid a season ago and if a Mountain West team is to make Oklahoma City, they will be it.)
Players to Watch:
--> Jill Compton, Fresno State - I picked Compton as the league's Pitcher of the Year last season, as well, a prediction that was fulfilled thanks to another stellar campaign from the the righty hurler. Despite a raise of more than fifty innings and more than two hundred opponent's at-bats against her from her sophomore campaign, Compton's ERA only ticked up 0.09 and her opponents still hit below .235 against her as a whole. Her strikeout/walk ratio was better than 3/1 and she was indeed named a first-team all-conference selection and the Mountain West Pitcher of the Year. For her career, in more than 627 innings, she holds a 2.45 career ERA and, on average, has given up an earned run in just over 1/3 of those innings.
--> Megan Sweet, Nevada - Sweet under all-conference honors for the second consecutive season in 2015 and made the first-team for the first time in her career. A career .363 hitter, she hit above .400 for the first time in her career in 2015 and also posted career-best numbers in home runs, RBI, slugging percentage, and total bases (besting her previous career best of 111 by... one base). She is a bright spot in an otherwise-mediocre Nevada squad and could put up a fight for Player of the Year honors.
--> Noelle Johnson, Utah State - Johnson is the Aggies' primary hurler in the circle, as well as an offensive threat. Her offensive capabilities are noted and are solid; she solidified herself on offense a season ago after hitting .352 and posting career-best numbers in home runs, RBI, and runs scored. She tallied twenty-three extra base hits in all, nearly doubling her career total in her first two seasons. In the circle, she will strongly benefit from Windy Thees' tutelage to help keep her ERA in check and throw more effective innings. Her career ERA of 5.17 is a slightly-inflated number thanks to an abysmal pitching slash line in her freshman campaign, but with Thees' help, I expect career-best numbers in the circle from Johnson, as well as at the plate.
* Can the conference show 2015 wasn't a fluke and again place multiple teams with an NCAA tournament berth?
P - Jill Compton, Fresno State; Hannah Harris, Fresno State; Noelle Johnson, Utah State
C - Paige Gumz, Fresno State; Emily Haslinger, UNLV
IF - Alyssa Villalpando, Fresno State; Jessie Huffstetler, San Jose State; Garie Blando, UNLV; Megan Sweet, Nevada
OF - Jessica Madrid, San Jose State; Mariah Rimmer, New Mexico
UT/DP - Amanda Weis, Nevada
1. Fresno State Bulldogs
2. San Diego State Aztecs
3. San Jose State Spartans
4. Utah State Aggies
5. New Mexico Lobos
6. Colorado State Rams
7. UNLV Rebels
8. Nevada Wolfpack
Others: Boise State Broncos