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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Big Sky Conference Forecast

Made up primarily of West-coast teams and completely of programs that sit west of the Mississippi River, eight of the Big Sky's twelve teams sponsor softball. Eastern Washington; Idaho; Montana State; and Northern Arizona do not sponsor softball.

Montana HC Jamie Pinkerton

The top six teams in the regular-season standings earn berths to the conference tournament. The top two seeds earn first-round byes. The tournament operates on a double-elimination format, with the tournament champion earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four. 


Team that could improve and surprise: Montana Grizzlies
     (Now in just the third year since his program was added to the Griz' slate of varsity sports, Jamie Pinkerton aims to continue a meteoric rise that saw a thirteen-win improvement last season and one that looks to keep rising in 2017 with some promising young talent. Sophomore Sydney Stites tops that list, and with the Griz having already shown that they can compete in conference play (14-7 Big Sky record in 2016), I believe we'll see an even better showing in conference and a hot streak at the right time that will guide Pinkerton's squad to the title.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Idaho State Bengals
     (The Bengals, once promising contenders, slid severely in 2016, dropping to third in the conference and beginning the season on a six-game losing streak, including three to the very same team. Victories over Cal State Fullerton, two over Omaha, and a sweep of Montana were highlights of the Bengals season, but I feel we'll see even a bit more regression from the Bengals in 2017. They lost a quartet of important nucleus-style players, including pitcher Sophie Slagle and first baseman Maddy Hickman, leaving Candi Letts a lot of holes to fill before a competitive conference season begins. That Alex Portesi and Kacie Burnett return to buoy the offense is a strong positive in the Bengals' favor.)

Player of the Year: Sydney Stites, Montana
Pitcher of the Year: Celina Matthias, Sacramento State
Coach of the Year: Jamie Pinkerton, Montana

Conference Champs: Montana Grizzlies
Top WCWS Contender: Montana Grizzlies

Players to Watch:
--> Sydney Stites, Montana – Stites was named the conference's Freshman of the Year in 2016, but by the end of the day, her name was in the conversation for Player of the Year, as well, thanks to her .383/12/47 slash line. Her seventy-seven base hits paced her squad and she placed second in the conference in slugging percentage (.672); hits; and at-bats (221). She's a budding superstar in Missoula.

--> Celina Matthias, Sacramento State – Coming off of a season that saw her named Big Sky Pitcher of the Year and earn all-region honors, Matthias aims to continue dominating in what is still just her junior season. She posted a 2.94 ERA last season with 131 strikeouts and twenty wins in more than 214 innings of work. Despite her solid, opponent-stifling numbers, there is some room for even-betterment of her performances and you can expect to see some continued growth from the young pitcher, perhaps even some that garners her recognition on a national scale.

Biggest Questions:
* How will the coaches who are "on the hot seat" fare in what may be a last audition for their jobs?
* Can Montana reach the NCAA postseason in just the third year of the program's existence?

Top Seniors:
IF – Bethany Olea, Montana; Jessica Ravetti, Sacramento State; Alex Portesi, Idaho State; Erica Dick, Northern Colorado; Shae Nelson, Portland State
OF – Sara Hingsberger, Weber State; Kacie Burnett, Idaho State
UT/DP – Mackenzi Corta, Weber State

Conference Projection:
1. Montana Grizzlies
2. Weber State Wildcats
3. Sacramento State Hornets
4. Idaho State Bengals
5. Portland State Vikings
6. North Dakota Fighting Hawks
7. Southern Utah Thunderbirds
8. Northern Colorado Bears

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