Fresno State’s rise to the top was unexpectedly cut short, turning a season of what was to what could have been. The Bulldogs finished ranked 24th in a USA Today/NFCA Division I coaches poll, but what heights could have been reached if the season continued?
The final game of Fresno State’s 2020 season pitted the visiting UC Davis Aggies against the Bulldogs. A highly respected Aggies softball team versus a Bulldog team that was looking to sweep yet another home tournament and remain undefeated at home.
A then 9-1 junior starting pitcher Hailey Dolcini took the circle once more at the Bulldog Classic. Dolcini had been dominant all season long, earning her two Mountain West (MW) pitcher of the week honors with a season ERA of 1.51 and 77 strikeouts. She would allow one run to cross home plate in a well-battled affair against the Aggies.
The Bulldogs were being no-hit up until the senior Schuylar Broussard came up to bat. With senior Miranda Rohleder and Kaitlyn Jennings on base, Broussard would take Aggies senior pitcher Katie Kibby over the fence with a three-run home run. Dolcini then went back to work, earning her 10th win of the season, 3-2.
Fresno State swept the final home tournament of the season and improved to 15-0 at home. Next was the beginning of MW conference play at Boise State.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic led to an abrupt end to what would have been a promising 2020 season.
Looking back, they went out to compete in the South Florida Tournament to start the season and Fresno State was slated against the then-ranked No. 7 Florida Gators and No. 17 Michigan Wolverines in the tournament.
This was a huge test for them.
I kept an eye on the tournament, and I had a good feeling that Fresno State was going to at least knock off one of these ranked teams. They had already won three straight so momentum was swinging in Fresno State’s favor.
Sadly, they fell short in both games but not in a devastating fashion. They held their own against Florida, all the way to loading the bases in the bottom of the seventh but lost 6-4. Then they took Michigan all the way to extra innings and lost on an unlucky walk off, 1-0.
When I got to watch the Bulldogs for the first time in person at the Fresno State Kickoff Classic, something was clicking. The Bulldogs overpowered their opponents with the bats. The pitching staff only allowed nine runs the entire weekend, and on the final day against the St. Mary’s Gaels, Dolcini and junior Danielle East threw a combined no-hitter.
Even when Fresno State was down, they found a way to bounce back.
Take the first game of the Fresno State Invitational against UC Santa Barbara. UCSB scored seven runs in the top of the third, then the Bulldogs answered right back and scored four runs in the bottom half of the third. The next time up, Fresno State scored five more runs and won the game 10-9.
I would talk to a few members of Fresno State Athletics before, during and after games and there was this feeling we all shared. It was the same feeling we had watching the Fresno State Women’s Basketball team all season long, this team was special.
This feeling became a reality for me when they won against No. 3 Texas 4-3 at the Judy Garman Classic. At this time, Fresno State was not ranked, and they had beaten the No. 3 team in the nation.
The proof for this feeling was also in the stats. The Bulldogs finished in the Top 25 for the first time since 2016 back when the program finished No. 22 in both polls (USA Today and ESPN.com).
“We improved every single week to finish with these rankings,” head coach Linda Garza said in a Fresno State Athletics release. “What we did over the course of 25 games was remarkable and a testimony to the hard work of our players and staff. We recruited talent, coached hard, the players were dialed in and executed the game plan every day to earn these rankings.”
They led the nation in triples with 23 triples on the season and was nearly averaging one triple per game (0.92). The Bulldogs also led the MW in the standings, scoring (5.92 runs per game), slugging percentage (.505) and steals (2.16 stolen bases per game).
They had everything it takes to be MW champions — hitting (specifically power hitting), pitching, team chemistry and a well-rounded coaching staff. They had it all.
You have to feel for all seven seniors in the softball program as well, even if the NCAA ruled that seniors in spring sports are gaining another year of eligibility. This was their season to prove to the nation that the best place to play was at Margie Wright Diamond, wearing the Bulldog colors boldly and pridefully.
Especially senior catcher Kelcey Carrasco. At the end of February, Carrasco’s father, Rudy, was fatally killed, the team announced in a heartfelt Tweet. Fresno State wouldn’t return to Margie Wright Diamond until a week after he passed away.
But when they did, the Red Wave and Carrasco’s teammates showed their love and support. Players dawned his initials on their hats and helmets, the Red Wave wore custom t-shirts that honored Rudy and the Margie Wright Diamond scoreboard dawned the hashtag “RudyStrong”.
“RudyStrong” was the mindset of the team heading into MW play. This season meant so much to both the players, Rudy and the Red Wave.
Alas, the MW and Fresno State softball record books will forever have a question mark in 2020. They were a nationally ranked team with a 21-4 record heading into MW play. One can only imagine what the rest of the season could have been like.