There are many ways for a season to end, but getting the call that it has been canceled while you’re traveling to Boise wasn’t on the list for the Fresno State softball team.
“We were pretty heartbroken about the way the season ended, especially because we were on our tear right there,” outfielder Kaitlyn Jennings said.
Fresno State finished the 2020 season with a 21-4 record, including a win over No. 3 Texas. The Bulldogs broke into the USA Today/NFCA coaches’ polls as the No. 23 team in the nation before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the season’s cancellation.
Now in 2021, head coach Linda Garza is ready to pick up right where her team left off last year.
“We still are in my mind the No. 23 ranked team in the country,” Garza said. “Our vision is still there.”
Fresno State did not crack the preseason softball Top 25, despite ending last season ranked and returning almost all of last year’s starters. The Bulldogs finished just outside the rankings with 62 votes received. For comparison, No. 25 Duke got 64 votes.
“We felt a little bit slighted about not being in the Top 25,” Jennings said. “Honestly, I feel that works in our favor because, hey, nobody is going to be expecting what we’re about to do this season.”
The senior left fielder is one of eight returners from the 2020 starting lineup, the only absence being outgoing third baseman Haley Fuller. Jennings is joined by junior center fielder McKenzie Wilson in the outfield, who led the Mountain West in hits and stolen bases a year ago. Wilson batted a .538 on-base percentage (OBP) last season, and she promises to be the table setter at the leadoff spot in 2021.
Schuylar Broussard started every game at shortstop last season and backed up her glove with serious power numbers. The senior led the Bulldogs with six home runs, and she had a team and conference-best 33 runs batted in (RBI).
Miranda Rohleder, tallied three homers and 21 RBIs in 2020, both good for second-best on the team. Garza is hopeful that the second baseman will have an even better 2021 season.
“Miranda Rohleder has been tearing it up right now in preseason,” Garza said. “I’m really hoping that her being a senior with 200 at-bats in her career, that she can have one of those blow-out seasons, it’d be amazing for us to have that.”
During Fresno State’s opening homestand, then-freshman first baseman Alesia Denby knocked in 13 RBIs and hit a walk-off grand slam against St. Mary’s to start her Fresno State career.
Denby’s bat cooled off, driving in only five more RBIs over the next 20 games, but Garza expects the sophomore to step up this season.
“I think just those nerves of not having to be a freshman anymore might be what is helpful for us, and why I think we were preseason ranked No. 1 in the Mountain West,” Garza said. “We just have experience and when you have experience, it can win ball games.”
Fresno State’s returning experience convinced opposing Mountain West coaches to vote them as favorites to win the Mountain West. The Bulldogs received eight of nine first-place votes.
The lone dissenting vote — Linda Garza, who was not allowed to vote for her own team and voted for second-place UNLV instead.
“[UNLV] is going to give us a run for our money,” Garza said. “Like every year, now that we have the No. 1 on our back… as long as Fresno State doesn’t win, every Mountain West school is happy.”
Mountain West opponents will get their first cracks at Fresno State when conference play opens on March 20. But COVID-19 has altered how a conference series will look compared to previous years — there will be a doubleheader on Saturdays, with the series finale on Sundays. Playing two games in one day, Garza said, “is taxing on the body.”
“We’re going to have to work our tails off to be in position to win a series on day one, which means to win both of the doubleheader and then go into a Sunday to try to get sweeps,” Garza said.
The Bulldogs return last year’s starting pitching staff, Haley Dolcini, Danielle Lung and Dariana Orme.
“I’m glad that we have the [pitching] staff that we have going into this,” Garza said. “I definitely believe there are some conference teams that wish they had our tools to deal with how it’s set up.”
Dolcini was dominant in the circle last year with a 10-1 record, 1.36 ERA and 92 strikeouts. The senior had a top 5 ERA in the Mountain West, and her strikeout totals were second-best in the conference.
Lung started the 2020 season right next to Dolcini as the team’s ace, surrendering a single earned run over 19 innings at the South Florida tournament. The Clovis High product struggled in a few outings at home, but managed to finish top 10 in the conference in punchouts (52) and posted a 3.41 ERA. She enters her junior year as second in the staff, with the ability to eat up innings and deliver quality starts.
Orme returns as the third starter of the staff after posting a 3.00 ERA and 4-0 record in 2020. Danielle East rounds out the returning pitching staff; the southpaw was used exclusively out of the bullpen last season.
A new addition to the pitching staff is freshman Cassidy West, who led Mission Bay High School to a state championship and pitched a sub-1.00 ERA for her high school career. Freshman infielder Mackenna Steele has impressed during the preseason and was described by Jennings as having “a great, great glove” that is comparable to Broussard’s.
“I’m just impressed with the fact that they came in here and haven’t been messing up honestly,” Jennings said. “They didn’t have the fall to get acclimated, but they came in here and they’re getting in here. This is my sixth year and I can’t tell the difference between me and them.”
Fresno State welcomes six freshmen, but it’s the returning experience and talent that has the Bulldogs picked to win the Mountain West. Fresno State will test how that talent stacks up right away, when they face No.1 ranked UCLA in the season opener on Feb. 12.
“When you come to Fresno State, you come to be a champion and you come to compete against people that you’ve always dreamed of competing against,” Garza said. “We have to get through UCLA at some point and you know, we also get sent there for [NCAA] regionals, so the more times we have some opportunities to be in those environments, maybe the one time we chip it away from them is in the postseason or maybe it’s early, but that pulls us through the rest of the season.”
Fresno State not only opens at UCLA, but they’ll play the Bruins again at the Judi Garman Classic and welcome No. 10 Oregon at home on Feb. 20.
“We’re not scared of anybody, we’re not going to back down and we’re going to play our schedule,” Garza said. “I just think it’s the Bulldog way — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”