Monday, January 16, 2017

Big West Conference Forecast

A non-football, nine-member conference, the conference operates mainly in the state of California, with one team in the state of Hawaii. The Big West was, until 1988, known as the Pacific Coast Athletic Association. Eight of the conference's nine full-member team participate in softball, with UC-Irvine the lone holdout.

The Big West does not host a conference tournament, so the regular-season conference champion earns an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament's field of sixty-four.

Team that could improve and surprise: Cal Poly Mustangs
     (The Mustangs' pitching is a solid core and, under the tutelage of first-year pitching coach Ally Carda last season, got better. Sierra Hyland is a world-class pitcher and took on a lower innings count, which left her with a career-low ERA, nearing 1.00 even. Junior Lindsey Chalmers lowered and improved her previous career best by nearly a full 1.00 in her own right in an increased workload. The Mustangs return their top three offensive players from 2016, including Hyland whose three home runs paced the squad. Stephanie Heyward, who posted a .390 batting average in nearly 160 plate appearances, also returns. The time could be now for the Mustangs to vault to the conference top.)

Team that could decline and disappoint: Cal State Fullerton Titans
     (Traditionally one of the top annual contenders in the Big West race, and the conference champions a season ago, I foresee the Titans slipping a bit this season. Missy Taukeiaho, one of the finest players to wear a Titan uniform, has graduated, leaving Kelly Ford's club without a powerful piece of their lineup. Courtney Rodriguez also departs via graduation, while 2/3 of the pitching staff - including staff ace Desiree Ybarra - traded in their cleats for caps and gowns. Freshman Sydney Golden performed stellarly a season ago, but may flounder a bit without the added threat of Ybarra in front of or behind her in the rotation. )

Player of the Year: Taylor Glover, CSU-Northridge
Pitcher of the Year: Sierra Hyland, Cal Poly
Coach of the Year: Jenny Condon, Cal Poly

Conference Champs: CSU-Northridge Matadors
Top WCWS Contender: CSU-Northridge Matadors

Players to Watch:

--> Sierra Hyland, Cal Poly – I've already talked about Hyland a bit, and my classification of her as a world-class talent was no flattery. Hyland's career high in ERA is 2.31, posted in 2015 when she threw more than 257 innings from the circle. She averaged nearly a strikeout/inning in each of her first two seasons and came close to upping that number 1.25/inning in her junior campaign last season. Though being in the middle of a smaller conference on the West coast may have an impact on her national recognition, Hyland remains one of the top pitchers in the nation and earned all-region honors for the second season in a row following last season. Keep an eye on her, both in her final year as a Mustang and for playing opportunities after school, whether in the NPF or elsewhere.

--> Christina Clermont, Long Beach State – Second perhaps only to Hyland in the Big West, Clermont is an impressive hurler in her own right. A first-team all-conference and second-team all-region selection two years running, Clermont posted an impressive number of her own with a 2.37 ERA in more than 230 innings of work a season ago. Opponents hit just .222 against her, while she ranked in the nation's top thirty-five with 205 strikeouts. Clermont earned her program's only win in the postseason and, for the former Syracuse transfer, her own senior season should be particularly impressive as she goes out with a "bang".

--> Madeline Richard, UC-Riverside – Richard earned the conference's batting title with her .452 mark in 2016, adding a full slash line of .452/.508/.513 - her on-base percentage also paced the league. A sure-fire firecracker with a necessary penchant for getting on base, Richard is a spark plug for the Highlanders lineup. She may be a small bright spot in an otherwise melancholy season for the Highlanders, but how her team fares should not impact Richard's swan-song performance; I fully expect another all-conference and all-region trophy to come her way after the 2017 campaign is done.

Biggest Questions:
* How will UC-Riverside fare with new head coach Nikki Palmer?
* Will the Big West be able to place multiple teams in the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons?

Top Seniors:
P – Sierra Hyland, Cal Poly; Christina Clermont, Long Beach State; Daphne Pofek, CSU-Northridge
OF – Taylor Glover, CSU-Northridge; Delynn Rippy, Cal State Fullerton; Kristen Clark, UC-Santa Barbara
UT/DP – Alexis Gonzalez, Cal State Fullerton

Conference Projection:
1. CSU-Northridge Matadors
2. Long Beach State 49ers
3. Cal Poly Mustangs
4. Cal State Fullerton Titans
5. UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos
6. Hawaii Rainbow Wahine
7. UC-Davis Aggies
8. UC-Riverside Highlanders

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