Sophomore Hayley Fuller fields a ball at third base during the Bulldogs' practice at Margie Wright Diamond on Jan. 30, 2018. (Alejandro Soto/ The Collegian)

Diamond ‘Dogs are back

You would think after losing half of its starting positional players and its best pitcher from last season, a team would be worried to start the new season.

But Fresno State’s softball team remains relaxed.

“Nobody is really too amped up. Nobody is angry. Everybody is out here having fun,” said first baseman and starting pitcher Savannah McHellon. “We enjoy every day because it’s the game we’ve been playing our whole lives, so why change up now?”

McHellon has a lot of weight on her shoulders. Head coach Linda Garza said she expects McHellon to lead both the pitching staff and the offense.

There is an especially large hole in the pitching staff this season, left behind by right-hander Kamalani Dung. Dung won 26 games with a 2.23 earned run average (ERA) for the ‘Dogs last season.

“We have work to do in the circle, but we definitely have kids that want to do that work, so that’s good to see,” Garza said.

McHellon, who was 5-7 with a 4.32 ERA last season, loves the challenge of honing her pitching skills.

“[Dung leaving] kind of left me to hold things down a little bit more and step my game up a little bit more,” McHellon said. “I am going to have to contribute a lot more than I did last year, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Garza said the team also sees promise in freshman left-hander Danielle East.

“[East] has done an amazing job as a freshman. She’s a lefty, so she allows us to throw it to a different side of the plate,” Garza said.

Garza added that as a left-hander, East can get away with not throwing as fast as some right-handers.

Without a true ace on the staff, the team will have to rely on all of its pitchers this season, Garza said.

The same could be said about its offense, where the team lost its top three hitters from last season.

Kierra Willis and Malia Rivers graduated, while Morgan Howe – the team’s leader in batting average and slugging percentage last season – transferred to Arizona State.

Those losses do not faze center fielder Vanessa Hernandez, who called this team “the same animal, but different beast.”

“We’re not trying to recreate the same players that left, we’re not trying to replace people. We’re just trying to create a team and create chemistry, and just do what it takes to win,” Hernandez said.

She said the key to succeeding offensively is remaining poised in the batter’s box. She said that pushing yourself too hard mentally can lead to chaos.

Garza said the team is filled with players like Hernandez, players who know their role within the batting order and how to approach it.

“When you understand your role in the [batter’s] box, and you can produce at the role that you have and not have to bite off too much more than what you can chew, you get in a place that you can manufacture runs,” Garza said.

The team is hoping those runs are enough to lead the ‘Dogs to a Mountain West championship, a goal the team fell just short of last season.

The ‘Dogs were 35-23 overall and 14-9 in the Mountain West Conference. They are using that shortcoming to motivate them this season.

“We want to dominate our conference,” Garza said. “Our eyes are definitely on the prize, and we’re going to do everything we can in those 24 games to put us in a position to win it.”

Conference play does not begin until March, but the ‘Dogs’ first taste of action will come against Oregon on Feb. 9 in Tempe, Arizona.